By Katie Mitchell
It was January, and the air was bitterly cold, stinging my face as I maneuvered Parisian sidewalks with my toddler son in the stroller in front of me. My then-husband’s business opportunity led us there, and even with a pregnant belly and a wiggly two-year-old, I couldn’t bring myself to say no to free travel. This wasn’t my first time traveling with a young child, and I saw the hurdles in front of me, but I leapt anyway.
The plane ride was long, and when we landed, it didn’t feel like the Paris I remembered from years earlier when I was childless and strolling the Left Bank in the July sun, sharing Champagne with friends and passing idle afternoon hours at a sidewalk cafe. This Paris felt cold and busy and methodical. We began the week in La Defense, the business district, and the view out my window looked decidedly not Parisian. Rectangular modern skyscrapers and businessmen scurrying the sidewalk like ants. A frenzied pace that could have been any modern city.
But when my spouse’s workweek was over, we moved to a hotel on Rue du Mont Thabor, steps from the Louvre and overlooking boutique-lined streets. I remember gazing out the window of the taxi as it took the three of us from the business district to the new hotel, and I spied the gorgeous shape of Tuileries Garden out the window with naked tree branches sprawled against the cold, blue sky. Finally, the city I remembered.
Paris in the winter is different somehow, though. And Paris with a toddler in tow and a growing pregnancy belly nearing the third trimester is even more foreign. A clash of pleasure and discomfort. The sense of freedom that comes with new sights and sounds and the bustle of a foreign city coupled with the tight constraints of life with little people clamoring for my attention, one outside and one inside. Both constantly reminding me that I don’t belong to only myself.
We boarded the Metro one afternoon to make our way to Centre Pompidou, and we were seated across from a homeless woman whose stench was sweltering, even through the sweaters and scarves she was layered in. I made eye contact with her for a moment, and she smiled to reveal dark gums and missing teeth. My body stiffened a bit in disgust though I hid it and shamefully proceeded to do what tourists do—ignore the real and find only the shiny and romantic parts of a city. No matter how I tried to guard my own sensibilities, she kindly refused to be ignored.
She began playing with my young son, whose grin responded to hers with no discomfort or assumption. His pacifier fell out as he smiled at her, and it dropped to the empty seat next to us. Before I could respond, she reached one wrinkled and weathered hand to retrieve it. My own privilege clouded my view, and my mind whirled in disgust at the thought of her dirt-caked hands touching something my young son held in his mouth, but I simply said, “Merci,” and placed it in my bag. And those eyes—cloudy and weathered—sparkled at me and reverted back to my son to continue playing with him, one earnest smile gazing at another.
The French have a term for a concept we don’t recognize in English, jolie laide. Ugly beautiful. It’s reserved for those people in life who manage to merge the ugly and the beautiful in a way that uniquely increases their beauty. The most exquisite things in life are actually ugly beautiful, I’m finding. You cannot have true beauty in its most piercing form without the ugly.
That week unfolded more jolie laide for me as the days wore on. Climbing the steps in Montmartre while lugging my pregnant belly. Gazing at the Sacre Coeur as street-dwellers tried to sell us trinkets and the steps smelled vaguely of piss. Watching my son’s uninhibited joy as he rode a carousel for the third time in one day, his smile ecstatic with the swirling colors while I shivered and gazed in nearby cafe windows at chic, thin women enjoying coffee quietly without bouncing a wiggly toddler or navigating the rough waters of a demanding marriage. Strolling the Left Bank in the frost and flipping through children’s books displayed on a small cart while feeling that kick from inside, reminding me how soon things were changing for us.
The discomfort of the chill, the glory of the bright blue winter sky. The overwhelming constant chatter of a language I understand so little, the holiday lights still twinkling on Notre Dame. Ugly, beautiful. Ugly, beautiful. Over and over and over.
Reflecting on my first time in Paris, all those years ago when I was childless and leisurely and consumed with my own dreams and my own identity, I can see now that I only ever saw half of anything. Ignoring the ugly to see the beautiful, not only in travel but in my own life as well. Facing the whole picture is a scary thing to do.
But now, almost a decade later, I’ve seen the ugly more times than I can count in my own life and in the lives of those I love. The unexpected tragedies. The desperation of motherhood in those seasons when the burden feels heavy and the reward light. The diagnosis that seems surreal in its unfairness. The dissolution of a marriage once expected to be eternal. The pain of watching those you love age and change. The most beautiful memories of my life are edged in heartbreak when I back up to see the whole picture.
I see now that life is trimmed in the unsightly if you are doing it right. Hearts break and are mended again, and you love bigger as a result. Anything worth doing is scary and ugly; fear and risk are everywhere. But on the other side, I’ve found jolie laide in all its glory. Seeing my own ugly alongside my own beautiful, loving it anyway, and embracing the ugly in those around me, too. It’s only then that I see their truest beauty.
Katie Mitchell lives in northern Georgia and is an English teacher and writer whose work has appeared on Role Reboot, Scary Mommy, and Huffington Post, among other places. A lifetime writer and book-lover, she reflects on parenting, books, and gratitude at her online home, www.mamathereader.com.