Le Refuge

Today I stared into a cabin where it rained inside.

It was at the Palais de Tokyo designed by Stéphane Thidet. A wooden cabin, called Le Refuge, sits in the middle of an otherwise empty cement room. The cabin looks ordinary, the kind that hikers use in the forest for shelter. The door to the cabin is open and has a table, chairs, some newspapers and a lamp inside. The trouble is there is rain pouring from the ceiling, covering every surface in the cabin. When you look inside, something in you feels instantly uncomfortable. A little voice tells you “don’t go in!” You recoil, seeing the rain.

The description of the exhibition says, “Watching the rainfall through the window doesn’t produce a feeling of pleasure or security. Rather, the viewer is faced here with a reversal of outside and inside, of a refuge turned into a hostile place. The refuge is therefore to be found outside, perhaps within us.”

The cabin designed by Stéphane Thidet
The cabin designed by Stéphane Thidet

It’s hard to feel at ease lately. I feel time moving too fast and I know I’m going to lose something precious in just days. I am waiting for my heart to be broken, anticipating the pain. I am excited to see my family and my friends and to come home to a house that is not one hundred years old, like my apartment is. I am excited for the culture I come home to in America (sometimes Americans think that they do not have a culture—come to Europe and you’ll see American culture everywhere you go). I am angry at the country I am coming home to. I am scared of coming home and not knowing what I’ll meet there.

How do you enjoy yourself when everything is going away? So many people I know in Paris are ready to go home, and I am so drastically not ready that the thought of leaving makes my chest close up. I have not been able to write because the thought of spending time in front of a computer is excruciating (though now that I have to study for finals it seems better to write than work).

Two nights ago, I stood on a bridge with someone I loved and cried. It was pouring rain and we were freezing but we wrapped our arms around each other. I looked around me at the rain making the cobblestones glow in the yellow gas lamps. The surface of the Seine below us was rough with raindrops and the Notre Dame loomed in the distance, decorated for Christmas. I couldn’t feel my feet.

For the first time I told him what I was most afraid of.

“What if these months are the best thing to ever happen to me?” I asked. “What if this is the happiest I’ll ever be?”

As soon as the words were out of my mouth my fear swelled. Looking at the city around me, I thought of the way I felt here—I had so much more strength than ever before, I loved myself and I loved others more.

“I don’t mean I need to be happier in the future,” I said. “This is all I’d ever want. But what if I’m never this happy again?”

It was ridiculous to say with tears pouring out of my eyes, but I’ve always been someone who was afraid of saying goodbye.

“This is not the best time of your life,” he said. “You’ll be this happy again.”

It was hard to believe him when the yellow lights and the rain made the city more beautiful than the sun. I knew if I wanted to believe him, I would have to fight to make it true. I could not go back into the same life I left.

Painting by Alexandra Levasseur, and exactly how I felt at this moment
Painting by Alexandra Levasseur, and exactly how I felt at this moment

The following night, I sat with four girls and we talked about what we were afraid of, in returning home. All of these girls are smart, independent and accomplished. We were all scared of the same things. Each of us expressed how we were afraid that we were missing things, doing them at the wrong times, or with the wrong people.

If I’ve realized anything this semester, it’s that everyone is afraid. Being young is terrifying because you have so many choices and you’re petrified you’ll choose wrong. But life isn’t only linear; there are months of my life that were lived in despair and months of my life spent going through the motions. And then there were these months, when I lived deeply and widely.

I put roots down in this city and in people knowing I would have to wrench them up in a few months. I feel the fissure in my chest when I breathe in deeply and think about saying goodbye. I cannot tell you how many times I have said the words, “I can’t think about it without crying.” Yet now I know that life so much more worth living when you risk breaking your own heart.

Eventually I noticed that I was thinking of time as a commodity, and my happiness was linked to the ever-decreasing amount. “I’ll never be this happy again,” I had said, as if what I had experienced in Paris would leave me the moment I moved back to the United States.

Perhaps the only way to feel better is to carry happiness with you. You can’t be afraid of the outside attacking you if, like Stéphane Thidet suggests, refuge is within yourself. I am not leaving Paris if my life is not linear: I had four months here, but I carry those four months with me always. You have to make your own security, not wish for it. Dreaming of a perfect future is like sleeping in a cabin with holes in the roof; there is no guarantee that it won’t rain.

Sunrise over Lake Michigan, taken outside my grandmother's cabin in Door County.
Sunrise over Lake Michigan, taken outside my grandmother’s cabin in Door County.
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