It was 65 degrees and sunny in Paris, France. It was the first day that felt this close to spring and new life since I arrived here in mid January. I forced myself out of my host family’s apartment and into the Jardin du Luxembourg, which is a convenient fifteen-minute walk away. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been running in the park alone, trying to reach a reasonable five-mile mark. At the garden’s entrance, freshly laid flowers trickled down the side of a gravelled path. I put my headphones in, opened my running app, browsed through my music. I decided to listen to Angel Olsen’s album Burn Your Fire For No Witness instead of the usual Drake, Rihanna, and Charli XCX playlists I reserve for workouts.
Everyone was in the park that day. Dads, moms, toddlers, teenagers, elderly couples, miniature ponies, the occasional fellow jogger. At first it was super irritating to weave my way through clumps of tourists in order to keep running my course. But as I got into my groove after the first mile, they became people again instead of awkward obstacles. The sun was beaming and I was three songs into the album.
I don’t know why it took me so long to get into Angel Olsen. I instantly fell in love with “Unfucktheworld” and went on a rampage to find a free ZIP download of her album. After spending a futile five minutes, I couldn’t find a decent link so I actually bought the album on iTunes.
On my run I listened to track after track intently, trying to fit her lyrical storytelling and heartache into my own experiences. We had both gotten our hearts broken. We were both depressingly crooning about failed visions of the future with that someone we loved. We both pep talked ourselves into taking initiative of our lives and following our intuition, even if sometimes all you can muster is “One good thought strong in your mind” as Olsen sings.
Depression, grief, and anxiety can really burden your mobility. That’s why I was out today running, to gain some sort of inertia. After my third, slow mile, I broke down to a walk. I wiped the sweat off of my forehead and took deep, sticky breaths. I felt disgusting and tired, but endorphins and the slightest pride of doing something productive eased the throbbing of my lungs.
The past week had been really rough, I thought to myself. I’ve had papers due, oral presentations, long lectures all in French (which I’m not the greatest at…) I’ve recently been struggling more than usual with my dad passing away. I miss him a lot when things get unsettling and my self-competence feels low. I even start to miss unhealthy relationships and “toxic” behavior patterns I actively work against. I exhaled hard, as if my worries could condense into carbon dioxide and be expelled from my body.
I wandered towards the closest exit, letting the album play out its final bonus tracks. The sun filtered through the tall and knotted trees like it always does at this soft part of the day. The Jardin du Luxembourg can be really fucking peaceful. These little spaces are sacred when you’re living in a new city with new people in a foreign country. These spaces remind you that you’re a person that can create something of their own amidst whatever “chaos” is happening. Sometimes they’re government owned parks, other times they’re a journal and cup of instant coffee in a bed you do not own.
Near the main pool and palace is the Jardin’s nucleus, the highest concentration of visitors I have to trudge through to get to Boulevard Saint-Michel. I avoided direct eye contact with people passing by in close quarters. It’s a cultural thing in Paris not to look people in the eye unless you’re trying to be aggressive or provocative.
I skimmed the edge of the scene and saw a young couple, probably in their early 20s, propped up lazily against a stonewall. They smirked to themselves, observing the crowd comfortably from their own little world. His hand rested on her knee, her elbow balanced on his shoulder as she shielded her eyes from the sun. Olsen’s voice wept through my headphones: “All your life you’ve been looking/ Whatever it is you don’t find it in me.”
I scurried towards the exit, disillusioned by how easily my newfound reassurance could be dismantled. Seeing young people in love (honestly anyone in love) can feel like a slap in the face. Is there something wrong with me? Am I missing out? Why can’t I have a relationship that works?
Before I could linger on any of those questions, I looked back at the crowd. It was just a huge, frenzied cluster of strangers avoiding each other’s family pictures and vacation selfies. But at the same time, they were all individuals who wanted to enjoy a beautiful day in Paris. The thought “freedom” entered my mind, then a strange wave of relief. You know what? I’m glad I’m not in a relationship.
Since my last disastrous breakup, I’ve had so much pure energy to absorb into myself. It’s the biggest “single life” cliché because it’s so damn true. It’s been a while since I’ve been this emotionally free to travel, interact with new people, discover exciting art, and completely abandon my comfort zone. Studying abroad my junior year of college has been an invigorating and solitary experience.
Of course, abandoning my comfort zone entails facing my depression, anxiety, losses, and character flaws head on. There’s no “intimacy buffer” to distract myself from my academia-based existential crisis or incapacitating sadness. But as I left the Jardin, I silently thanked god for my loneliness because it has taught me the most. I’m learning how to trust myself even when it’s easier to fall back on others for the wrong reasons.
Some weeks are hard, some weeks are incredible. It’s okay to cry to Burn Your Fire For No Witness at 3:00AM and to write dumb poetry about love. Being independent and being emotional are not mutually exclusive. I’m beginning to trust when to make the call to stay in and write on a Friday night instead of going out with friends, or when to take a solo run in the park to force myself active. I feel comfortable taking time for myself, for being self-aware, for feeling vulnerable and lonely but being okay with that.