By Dixie Dillon Lane
Would you let your 11-year-old daughter wander alone through a foreign city for hours at a time without a cell phone?
My mother let her daughter. And it was the best year of my life.
Our family lived in Paris for 15 months in the pre-iPhone years of 1995-1996, when I was 11 and 12 years old. My older brother and I attended an ordinary French public middle school, took music lessons at the famous Conservatoire, learned French, and ate our weight in pains au chocolat.
In fact, Jay and I had a nice little arrangement with the baker on the next street over. On the way home from school, we would often stop and buy a pastry. Our father would often stop at the same bakery on his way home and ask the baker’s wife, “Madame, have the children been by yet today?”
“Non, non, non, Monsieur, not today!”
Double pastries for us!!
More delicious than the croissants.
It was, of course, a wonderful gastronomical, cultural, linguistic, social, and familial experience. But that was not why it was the best year of my life.
It was the best year of my life because I was free, free in a way I had never been in suburban California. Back home, I wasn’t even allowed to walk to the corner store my brother walked to because, said my dad, “people are more interested in hurting little girls than boys.”
But in Paris I could go anywhere. My parents made sure I had a phone card and knew how to navigate the bus and subway system. They taught me how to shout for help in French. They enrolled me in French school so that I could gradually learn the language. They made sure I always had 50 francs in my pocket for emergencies.
And then, confident that I could keep myself safe, they set me free.
Paris vs. Southern California.
Paris in the ‘90s was not like Southern California. Two things were different. First, all the kids my age in Paris took public transportation to school and roamed freely. Second, most Parisian adults were willing to step in and help (or tell off) any kid who seemed to be in some kind of trouble. Woe unto me if I didn’t give up my seat on a bus for an elderly lady, or if I walked in the gutter instead of on the sidewalk – the grown-ups nearby were quick to tell me what they thought! Children were expected to behave and, in return, they were also allowed to be part of the city.
For many weeks, every Saturday I traveled to my favorite place, the stunning Saint-Chapelle, a medieval chapel in the heart of the city with soaring stained glass beyond anything you have ever seen. Since museums and other such sites were free to children, I could simply bypass the line, slip up the winding staircase, and enter paradise. I got in the habit of spending an hour each weekend in the back of the chapel, letting the colored light wash over me.
What trust and freedom can do to a girl.
My year in Paris gave me a life-long legacy of self-confidence, resourcefulness, resilience, self-discipline, and a sense of adventure. It is why I went to Tuscany to work for a jeweler for three months when I was 18. It is why I arranged conference panels with senior academics when I was not yet even in graduate school. I think it’s why I managed to complete my Ph.D in history, in spite of illness and injury. It’s also why I had the courage to break up with a bad boyfriend and marry a good one. It is why I try so hard, with varying degrees of success, never to run away from the hard things, nor the good ones.
For my mother, on the other hand, letting go was more complex. I know she was overjoyed to see me blossom. But I also know she had more than one frightened afternoon wondering where in this city of 2 million had her little girl gone — especially when I’d decide to walk home instead of taking the subway and forget to call and say I’d be late.
I’m sure my mom was scared for me.
My mother put my growth ahead of her comfort. What a blessing. She is no longer with us, but I often think of her as I raise my own four children. We live in small-town America, not Paris, but even here I have to balance what I believe is good for my children with my own fears. It can be difficult. But now, when my child wants to walk to the corner store, with her watch on her wrist and a smile on her face, I think of Paris, and my mother, and the glorious days of double helpings of French pastries, and I say to myself: Let her be free.
Au revoir, ma cherie!
Dixie Dillon Lane is a historian who homeschools her four vibrant children.
Photo top left is of Dixie in 1996.