Writer Nikki Moustaki had many things to love about her life. She had grandparents who adored her, parents who supported her, and her birds. By the time she was in college, her feathered family had grown and her life revolved around their needs. However, as she grew older and life became more difficult, it was her love of alcohol that superseded the rest of her life’s priorities.
In “The Bird Market of Paris,” Moustaki explores her struggle with alcoholism and the pain of losing what she held most dear.
Moustaki was raised in Miami as an only child and doted upon by her grandparents while her parents worked long hours. She was especially enamored of her grandfather, Poppy, an Egyptian couture dressmaker who had been expelled from Cairo with his wife and son in the 1950s.
Poppy had spent many of his younger years building a life for his family in Miami and missed the opportunity to connect with his son, so when Moustaki was born her grandfather took advantage of their time together. He made her beautiful dresses, gave her white “doves” (pigeons) to release on her birthday and implored her never to drink alcohol.
As Moustaki grew from a teenage girl to a young woman, she felt that she needed to drink in order to handle traumatic life events such as the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew and her grandfather’s illness and death. Unfortunately, as her addiction progressed, she lost the ability to negotiate day-to-day life and hit rock bottom more than once before a new friend encouraged her to go to an unnamed support group for alcoholics.
During her recovery, and after winning a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to pursue her work in poetry, Moustaki decided to visit the bird market of Paris that her late grandfather had so lovingly described. The trip was not exactly as she imagined, and she lapsed again, highlighting her ongoing fight to stay sober in the face of adversity.
While details are plentiful throughout this memoir, there seems to be a piece of the puzzle missing from the pages, as if Moustaki is holding something back from the reader.
But this much is made clear: Her boundless love for her grandfather and the loss of his presence in his life left an indelible mark that alcohol could not erase, and the comfort of friends — even feathered ones — can keep one moving forward during the darkest times.
Meganne Fabrega is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.