Parlez-Vous 12-Step?

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Paris in springtime. I think of cherry blossoms in the parks, café au lait at sidewalk cafés, strolls along the Champs-Elysées and 12-step meetings. Yes, 12-step meetings.

None of my visits to Paris before getting sober conjured these images. Those trips were full of midday Champagne, flowing wine through long dinners, late-night cocktails without enough ice and, of course, brutal hangovers.

But early in my sobriety, I took a trip to Paris with a friend. We had planned it over the phone months before I got sober. Because I was in a black-out the night we spoke, I woke up the next morning to an email from the airline filling me in on my itinerary. I toasted to the trip with a glass of red wine before 8:00 that morning. After all, it was lunchtime in Paris and no doubt people there were drinking.

By the time the vacation rolled around, though, I was sober and terrified of traveling, let alone to a city that I associated with being smashed. How was I supposed to stay sober in Paris? For that matter, how was I going to stay sober in the airport or on the plane? To me, airport terminals were basically bars with a hallway down the middle and booze was free on overseas flights.

I took this question to the same people to whom I took every question about sobriety: my 12-step friends. One of them said, “Hit a meeting while you’re away.”

“A meeting? In Paris?” I asked, as if she had suggested bringing a parka to the Caribbean. I hadn’t considered that 12-step meetings might be like McDonald’s, serving it up around the world.

Sure enough, I got online and there it was: a list of English-speaking 12-step meetings in Paris. I mapped out the Metro ride from where we were staying and left myself extra time to get there. Sobriety had helped me become honest about many things, including the fact that I had no sense of direction.

When I emerged from the Invalides Metro station in search of the meeting on the Quai d’Orsay, it was a picture perfect morning. The air was cool, but not cold and the streets were still quiet along the Seine. I promptly walked in the wrong direction and realized I was lost. Not only lost, but also unable to sort out where I was on my fold-up map. A familiar feeling of frustration and self-defeat rose up in my chest and my head.

I don’t have to do this, I thought, as I spotted an open café that had a familiar line-up of liquor bottles behind the coffee machines. I could go sit on a stool, order a coffee with a side of Sambuca and skip the meeting. No one would know. And I wouldn’t even have to be embarrassed because I’d never see the man behind the bar again.

Then my head flooded with the words I’d been hearing since I landed in detox. One of the phrases that stuck was, “Remember where your feet are.” I looked down and they were right under me, on a side street on the Left Bank where the sun was winking at me off the water. Yes, I was lost, but I was sober in the middle of Paris — something not worth giving up for a temporary fix to my frustration in the form of a cocktail.

I regrouped, traced my steps back to the Metro station and started over. This time, I found the meeting. Everyone greeted each other warmly and when we said the Serenity Prayer, I felt like I was at home. These people were from cities around the globe, but just like me, they were there to stay sober for one more day. I was grateful to be among them.