Beautiful Between

living fully in the now & not yet

How I Found Surprising Grace in Paris – Part 1

Dear friends, I want to tell you a story that’s sweet to my soul. Eight years ago, I was in Paris, having my heart and soul rearranged under the gracious hand of my Father. I had no idea what those ten weeks would do to me then, but now I know the lessons learned and surprising grace given deeply shaped who I am today.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting bits of that story, letting you into a chamber of my heart where I store my hope. My prayer is that it will refresh your soul and remind you of surprising grace in your own life.

I saw the tower from the sky, coming in with the horizon just blushing around the edges. 

I hadn’t slept in two days – a rush of moving out of the apartment with the leaking roof and 1960’s carpet, throwing everything into a storage unit and repacking at 3 am before the 4:00 departure. I felt the fuzzy, shifting edges of exhaustion and wondered was this even real?

I knew disappointment and broken promises; I didn’t believe good things would happen til I was in their midst. I had grown up poor and was working my way through college. The scholarship application had been on a whim; I was shocked to hear that I’d won it and would be living in a foreign land. It was too good to be true. Surely, someone would pull the scholarship, find a perfectly good reason I couldn’t go. But no reason came, and I was watching Paris come awake from the sky, a beautiful surprise.

I navigated the streets in a taxi and found myself at an old apartment building. My suitcase barely fit alongside me in the cramped elevator. Blood rushed in my ears and my breathing grew shallow. I was about to meet my host, see my home for the next 10 weeks.

Madame Peronet was kind and short with rich dark skin; a lively Buddhist with little statues and brightly colored tapestries all over the apartment. I must have looked dumbfounded at the bowl of hot chocolate, the piece of baguette with Nutella, the pot of tea: petit dejeuner, my breakfast each morning for the next 10 weeks. She brought the tray into my new room, set it on the table, said something I couldn’t make out.

They said my host family would speak English. No French was required for this trip, I’d been told. Still, I’d spent weeks with CDs in my car, learning colors and numbers and basic vocabulary. It was a good thing I did. My single host mom knew a single word: three.

Her voice was a musical river, a smooth stream of rhythm and song. I couldn’t make out the borders of words, the sense of sentences. It was all lovely gibberish to me with the occasional hint of recognition.

But our inability to communicate made me feel even more alone.

I slept through the first day, woke for dinner and Madame Peronet’s tour around the neighborhood, showing me the Metro stop and pharmacy. Back to bed until time to get ready for school, and thankfully I escaped the clutches of jet lag. Again, the bowl of hot chocolate, the baguette to dip into it, the hot tea, this time an orange. I walked out alone into the streets of Paris.

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Trash and human waste littered the sidewalk and its stench crept up into my nostrils.

It was occasionally cut with a fresh, sweet breeze. There was violence around me, in the riots that spring and in the battered face of the Muslim woman begging in the Metro. I remember her eyes locked to the concrete, the bruises and abrasions, her black hijab sweeping down to the ground.

Eye contact eluded me; nobody smiled. It wasn’t like Oregon, where we chatted and laughed, where the skies were wide open and the air was icy-clear. There was decorum and etiquette I didn’t know. Greetings were air kisses but my body craved touch: a brush of the arm, a warm hug, a hand on the shoulder.

Paris was hard, lonely, tinted gray with the first of spring’s chilling rains and the backside of the depression I was just climbing from. Those early weeks, I wept day after day over the brokenness of the city, over sadness and loneliness. Nobody knew me; I connected with no one. Pale gray skies covered the city and didn’t dissipate for three weeks. I’d never gone that long without seeing the sun and feeling it warm my soul.

Three weeks in, I wandered down the Champs-Elysées, half-heartedly browsing through shops. The loneliness was profound and I felt the remains of depression’s fog. I’d had no one to speak to for weeks, no conversation, no voices except the lilting music of French. The day was still gray.

Suddenly, the sun burst through the clouds. I was awash in the warmth and light I’d been missing. Cherry blossoms fluttered in the breeze as I looked down the long, straight avenue toward the Arc de Triomphe.

I had found the Paris of the romantics in one burst of light, what Hemingway called “a moveable feast.”

The old city wedged its way into my soul that day, reaching in and starting to heal my heart with beauty. It occurred to me perhaps it was no small thing to have no one to talk to, and this was the beginning of the shift. I began to savor solitary moments, tuck them away like treasures that glittered and gleamed.

And I began to talk, but not to any person. Half a world away from all I knew and loved, all my security, I began to slowly unfurl to a different light, under the gentle glow of surprising grace. Things inside began to melt in the warmth of this sun that started to rise inside. I found myself getting to know One I’d claimed to know all along.

The wonder was that He met me there, sweetly and unexpectedly.

Have you ever been surprised by grace, or met unexpectedly in a lonely season? Tell me about it in the comments!

Stay tuned for more of this story next week! If you think someone else may enjoy this, would you be kind enough to pass it along? 

About Sarah

Hi, I'm Sarah. I love coffee, pancakes and street tacos. I'm a learner, a traveler and a creative mess. I've got a thing for redemption and seeing broken people living beautiful lives. That's the story I've lived, and the one I want for you. Let's be friends!

2 Replies

  1. Just love this, Sarah.

  2. This might be just what I need right now. Having periods of deep lonliness…and I think I might try to find the Father’s voice in there. Thank you for sharing this Sarah.

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