The week I was supposed to go to France, an article about my old favorite TV show, “Lost,” popped up in my Facebook feed. The article reflected on an episode that premiered a decade before and centered on time travel—a popular theme for “Lost” if you were a fan. In particular, the article mentioned the difficulty in writing the episode because time travel presents several paradoxes that either must be assumed impossible or else time travel must be assumed impossible.
The Grandfather Paradox stuck with me – essentially, you must believe there are certain truths that cannot be altered by time travel. For instance, you can’t kill your grandfather (before at least your parent is born), or else you forfeit your own existence, but you can’t not exist if you are the one changing your own future.
All this goes to say, perhaps there are certain truths even if time travel does not exist that also cannot be altered. Perhaps some things are not meant to be, at least in this moment.
I bought my ticket for France in November with the intention of spending my last spring break of graduate school in Paris and the south of France. I avoided telling my parents. They never take kindly to my travels, especially solo ones - but then I looped my best friend into my plans. Meredith lives in Belgium, and we would meet up in Paris like the best friends we are. I still bypassed telling my parents.
Other obstacles emerged - appointments and meetings and a conference that I ended up backing out of, all because of this trip to France that I was excited for, but also felt guilty about. I had become a cavalier wanderlust brat, I feared. Perhaps I should stay home and work on my dissertation. But would one extra week in America really get me any closer to graduation? Perhaps I shouldn’t travel so much. Only six weeks before I had returned from Portugal and Spain. But this is the time to travel - I am young with the least amount of responsibilities I will have until I retire. Perhaps I hadn’t planned enough for France. I booked my lodging and transit as last minute as I ever have - that is, I booked it four weeks before I was supposed to leave.
I kept joking - or I’m not sure if it was a joke - that I might not go, that I have this full trip planned, but I feel anxious about going not because I don’t want to go, but because of all the anchors holding me back. But as life lengthens, anchors only grow barnacles, my friends and I reasoned over coffees and/or cocktails, sometimes both. My friends all counseled that I had to go. Once there, the anchors would be inconsequential. And it’s true. I feel my happiest when relaxed in a train crossing Europe off to a city I’ve never seen and thumbing a travel guide jotting down sights to see.
Ten days before my scheduled departure, I developed a head cold. Unfortunately, I was also in Boston and had to fly back to Richmond. This turned out not so well: the altitude forced whatever fluid was in my head into my ear canals. I promptly lost hearing (and as I write this, three weeks later, I still don’t have complete hearing - but the doctor says it will return...eventually).
I presented at the doctor on Monday morning, who promptly recoiled when she peeked into my ear. She exclaimed, “Impressive!”
“Will I be able to fly again?” I asked. “I go to Paris in 10 days.”
“This will take a while to heal,” she said. “I’ll put you on antibiotics and Flonase. You can also try Sudafed twice a day. But you’ll need to come back so I can clear you to fly.”
“What about an exorcism too?” I said.
She tried to schedule me again in exactly ten days - the very morning I was supposed to leap across the Atlantic. Instead, I opted for nine days - the morning before I left. And she did clear me, though she said it would take over a month for my hearing to return to normal (hence, my current hearing deficit). But I was good to go - I could go to Paris! She told me she had been there two years before to visit her daughter and it was wonderful. I would love the food. The nurse practitioner also recommended I dip in the Mediterranean in Nice. I finally felt excited to go.
I also told my parents I was going. Over lunch, five days before my flight, I announced, “I’m going to see Meredith for spring break.” They blinked, accepting their/my fate.
They had to know this was coming. Weeks before, they visited me in Richmond. My dad noticed my book on France and asked aloud who was going. I didn’t answer. My roommate and Sara, who was also present, looked at each other, then at the floor with smirks.
Later in the day, my mom began to ask when my spring break was. I said, “I think I might go somewhere.”
“Of course you are,” she snapped. “Just remember you’ll be paying your part of the family vacation this year if you do.”
So my parents’ calm surrender to my travels was welcomed and unexpected. But I was in the clear.
I didn’t pack until the morning before. This is my habit. When I went to Qatar two years ago, I literally stuffed a suitcase 90 minutes before the bus rolled away.
My flight didn’t leave until 5:30 PM from DC. I planned to drive up at 12 from Richmond. At 8 am, I saw my flight was canceled on Google. I received no email. I called British Airways. They told me the flight wasn’t canceled, I should proceed as I would.
“But Google says it’s canceled,” I insisted.
I saw another flight with British Airways from DC to Paris for $4,000. I wanted to get on that flight.
“On our end, it’s not canceled,” Richard said.
We hung up.
I called back. This time Yosh answered. Yosh agreed my flight was canceled, but said the flight was actually through AerLingus so I needed to deal with them.
For the next two hours, I kept calling AerLingus. All I got was a busy tone. I didn’t feel like my trip was over at this point. My flight didn’t leave for eight hours. Maybe it was canceled, maybe it was delayed, but there were other flights to Paris. The problem was, my connection was through Dublin, which had a huge snowstorm sitting over it.
I decided to just show up at Dulles. I left Richmond an hour earlier than anticipated and kept phoning AerLingus while on I-95. Not twenty minutes outside of Richmond city limits, I connected with AerLingus and was put on hold. The recording said it was a 45-minute wait. I pulled into a rest stop.
Thirty-nine minutes later, Sue answered and asked me to be patient. I wasn’t mad at Sue or AerLingus. They don’t control the weather. But they confirmed my flight was canceled.
“What are my options?”
The next ten days of my life centered on seeing France. That abruptly hung in limbo. As guilty and torn as I felt on going, I also was set on going. A ship does not turn from a storm once it has put the shore out of sight.
One of the things that drives my travel is when I speak to my grandmother - or almost any older person - and I talk about the places I’ve seen. My grandma recently told me she wanted to see Lisbon. And what happened? I don’t ask that. I don’t need to. We humans tend to think opportunities abound. We put off things for a time that will never come and lie to ourselves that it will. Maybe some of us think it will come. I, however, am terrified of complacency and more prone to think even some things that will happen will not in fact happen. My decisions are not so much driven by spontaneity as they are by urgency.
More recently, I ran into a friend’s grandmother at the VMFA Terracotta Warriors exhibit. She sat on a bench staring at the statues. When I sat with her, she muttered that she had always hoped to see them in person, she had intended to go to China one day, but she just never had. I considered offering the false hope of a lie that there’s still time, she still could, but I also shirk supporting known fallacies. I actually don’t remember what I said, but it made me feel more resolved I would go to France in three weeks, I would see Paris and I would see Nice and I would feel what is French culture so even if I never made it back, I would have a memory that is more real than a Wikipedia article or a travel guide book.
Now on the phone I considered the possibility that I wouldn’t be going. Sure, I could go again. I’m 26. I have years ahead of me theoretically, but again, it’s all theoretical. A windstorm could wipe me out tomorrow with a falling tree. What if I didn’t see Paris before then?
Life isn’t about travel. It’s not even necessarily about memories or experiences. But those are things I value. Only in the last three years have I begun to seize opportunities as if they are spring water slipping through my cupped palms. But the water drained out of my palms now. Privileged or not, a sandcastle dream collapsed on itself on a Normandy beach and was swept out of sea, carrying each speck away so I only could dwell in what could have been and what would be no longer.
The soonest I could be in Paris was Tuesday. I would miss my friend. I would miss the trains I already booked. And I’d have three days left for both Paris and to get to Nice for my flight home.
Or I could get a refund. I could go again in the future.
My innate impulses are always practical. The latter won in those 30 seconds on the phone with Sue. I asked Sue what she would do and she said she couldn’t help me, it was all unfortunate.
I hung up and called my friend. I also canceled my Airbnbs. I filed an insurance claim (I told you, I’m a practical person).
I also had to stay on the line to process the refund. Elevator music played. It sounded like a dirge mourning the loss of what could be. Maybe I was never meant to go to Paris. Maybe the last few weeks had been the universe protesting, saying I shouldn’t go, trying to thwart me, my own mind trying to thwart me, and now, in this final act, a final conclusion: I would not go.
Did I mention it was raining? Just imagine the sound of windshield wipers as I drove back to Richmond, a 20-mile stretch of defeat.
And maybe I will still go to Paris. I think I will, one day — one day soon hopefully. But you never know. While I had felt reckless and privileged to go, I now felt vindicated and self-righteous. “Go when you can” had become my motto. While in recent weeks I had begun to doubt that rationale, the resolution returned—because even when you think you can go, it may vanish. Sure, there will be other times, better weather, maybe a friend can join you, or maybe a better flight deal - but maybe you’ll make all the plans and it will still go to hell. But at least you tried. That’s a better story than staring at terracotta warriors in 40 years lamenting that which was never attempted.
That is my Paris paradox. Maybe I wasn’t meant to go to Paris in March, but maybe it means I’m supposed to (try to) go everywhere else. Maybe everything is once-in-a-lifetime.
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