This week Austen’s brother, Lee Gaizak, started graduate school in Paris at the Panthéon-Sorbonne, also known as ‘Paris 1’. This is a dream come true for Lee. In 2010-2011, Lee was living in Paris and taking French classes at the Sorbonne. Now he is taking philosophy classes in French and working on a Masters in modern European philosophy. While he was there in 2011, Austen and I traveled to Paris over Austen’s Spring break.
We arrived in Paris on an early morning in March and took a taxi to our hotel in Le Marais, a hip, historic part of Paris on the Right Bank. As Lee had a morning class, we headed out on foot towards the Sorbonne, in no particular hurry, stopping along the way to take in the breadth of the city.
The next few days we walked everywhere, Austen using my iPhone to navigate, seeing the sights, exploring the neighborhoods, eating wonderful meals, where Austen attempted to order in French, much to the delight of the waiters, marveling at the scenery, the history, the culture, the bigness of the world. Photo: A French Mexican restaurant where we celebrated Lee’s 23rd birthday and where we all agreed that the margaritas were very strong.
On this trip, Austen was 19 years old and in his sophomore year at Indiana University. During the previous summer of 2010, Austen had been in a rehab program in Chicago and was getting help for his depression and addiction. But, the ‘problems’ he faced continued to preoccupy him. In a journal entry made during our trip to Paris, which I found after he died, he wrote:
“It’s like an obsession, I’m absolutely preoccupied with my problems, they control and consume me, I can’t free myself from their hold and just be alive and feel freedom. I’ve tried a lot of things and I always end up in the same spot, even when I’m starting to feel good 10 minutes later I could be right back where I started, it’s hell, I live in hell, nobody could ever understand the frustration of just trying to take in the moment and life and not being able to separate myself from my problems. A lot of it is the inevitability that I’m going to be fucked up on drugs, that one hurts…it’s corrosive to my soul. See all I want is to forget all this, and I’m trying to do that, at least while I’m in france, but it is apart of me, it’s a tumor that cannot be removed, I want to do me, without the negativity….I have no choice but to ask for salvation, in this life or the next…”
This is what makes a situation like Austen’s complicated – on the outside things looked fine most of the time. In public and in family situations he presented himself well, was very polite, upbeat and thoughtful. I think he did enjoy himself in Paris, his natural curiosity finding refuge and perhaps distraction in a new place, a foreign adventure that gave him some sense of limitless possibilities and maybe hope – and maybe more than 10 minutes of feeling alive and free.
While Lee was in his classes, Austen and I explored Paris, the Left Bank, the Right Bank, mostly on foot, walking along the Seine. We saw the Eiffel Tower, we viewed the art collections at the Musée d’Orsay, where Austen wanted to see paintings by Vincent Van Gogh. We saw modern art at the Centre Georges Pompidou, we sat quietly in a pew at Notre-Dame, marveling at the majesty of the stained glass and intricate architectural details, we strolled through Luxembourg Gardens and the Tuileries by the Louvre and we walked by the American Embassy where my Aunt and Austen’s godmother, Anna Der-Vartanian, worked at some point. We talked, we shared observations and thoughts, we took breaks at little cafés and people-watched.
I have asked myself repeatedly why such a beautiful mind and soul should have been so tormented at such a young age. There is not and will never be a satisfactory answer, but I know he had more than a few moments where he felt good about himself, happy to be alive, free, and able to enjoy life, his family and his friends.