Nothing To Do All Day And All Historic Paris To Do It In
Six years ago, I left the publishing company where I’d been working since the age of 21, thinking I was taking early retirement. I was 44-years-old at the time, and we were living in Paris. Our 18-year-old daughter was in college in the States, and our 8-year-old son was attending the local French primary school.
I’d worked every day of the 23 years since I’d finished school, hard. I’d moved up the ladder from copy editor to publisher, from employee to partner. I’d done breakfast meetings, dinner meetings, board meetings, conference calls, and red-eye flights. I’d opened new offices in new countries, moved entire businesses across continents, launched new divisions, turned around failing ones, hired, fired, and managed growth. I was ready for a break.
If you’re going to do nothing, I figured, Paris is the place to do it, and I thought I was ready to do nothing for a while.
I developed a routine. I’d rise early, with young Jackson, ready him for his day, and then walk him the 10 blocks from our apartment to his school. I’d kiss Jackson on the cheek, wave good-bye as I backed out the door of his classroom, then continue out of the building and on down the street for another two blocks to the bistro on the corner.
One of the greatest delights of Paris is sitting at a bistro table streetside, sipping, reading, and watching. I’d choose a table with a view of the park across the way, and I’d order a pot of tea and a tartine with jam. I’d drink the tea, eat my breakfast, read my newspaper, and watch as this corner of Paris got about its day.
It was autumn. A walk through the heart of historic Paris is one of the best ways in the world to pass your time any time of year; however, exploring this part of this city on foot in autumn, the temperature crisp, leaves under foot, can be particularly pleasing. Although we’d been living in Paris nearly four years by this time and I’d been traveling to this city for more than two decades, I’d had little opportunity in all that time to be a tourist. This was my chance. I bought a guidebook, and, each morning, after I’d finished my breakfast, I’d flip through it to find a new destination. Some days, I’d walk all morning, stop for lunch, then continue on until 4 in the afternoon when it was time to collect Jackson from school.
Other days I’d choose a park or a courtyard or a bench alongside the river and settle in to contemplate—the city gardeners as they trimmed the hedges and collected the crunchy leaves from the sidewalks…the restaurant staff as they dumped the previous evening’s cases of empty wine bottles into oversized garbage bins, sending out reverberating clatters…the building guardiennes as they polished giant brass door knockers and scrubbed ancient courtyard cobblestones…
Central Paris is always tidying and sprucing itself up.
One afternoon, about 3 o’clock, I was sitting in the park behind Jackson’s school, face turned up and eyes closed to enjoy the afternoon sun while I waited for the 4 o’clock bell telling me it was time to walk around the corner to meet Jackson for the walk home. Toddlers ran all around me, calling out to each other and laughing, and I was in a half-asleep state with the warm sun full on my face, so I’m not sure how long my friend was there before I realized it, but, finally, I heard my named called out sharply and opened my eyes.
Emanuela’s face was just in front of mine, and she was looking at me as though I’d gone daft.
“Kathleen, what in the world are you doing here?” she asked.
“Waiting for Jackson to finish school,” I replied.
Emanuela’s daughter Emma was in Jackson’s class. That’s how we’d become friends.
“But it will be another hour before they’re out for the day,” Emanuela said. “You’re just going to sit here and wait for an hour? How long have you been sitting here? Why aren’t you at work?”
In the four years since we’d met, Emanuela had never known me to while away my time. I was the full-time working mother who missed school meetings and had a full-time au pair who collected my child from school at the end of each day because I never had time to do it myself. I wasn’t a pass-the-afternoon-in-the-park mom. I hadn’t spoken with Emanuela since I’d opted out of the working-mother role and transitioned, quickly, to become the hang-out-in-the-park one.
“But why?” she asked incredulously when I explained that I’d retired from my post. “Why would you quit? You loved your job. What have you been doing since you stopped working? You haven’t been sitting here in this park every day, have you?”
Sitting in a Left Bank park, just off Boulevard St. Germain, is one of the most enjoyable pastimes I can imagine. But Emanuela’s point was well-taken. How many afternoons was I going to pass this way?
I continued doing nothing in Paris for a few more months, five in total. I remember this as one of the sweetest phases of my life—nothing to do all day and all historic Paris to do it in. I traversed the heart of this city on foot, seeing every major and many minor monuments, indulging my interest in classic architecture by inspecting some of the best of it anywhere in the world up-close, and learning, finally, to speak French.
Then, one afternoon, I returned home with Jackson and walked straight into Lief’s little home office where he was working.
“I’d like to start a publishing group,” I informed my husband. “I think I’ve done nothing long enough…”
Editor’s Note: Today’s essay is excerpted from Kathleen’s next book, the story of her and Lief’s adventures overseas over the past 16 years.