Alone in Paris: The Beginning

I can’t stop reading books about Paris. Fiction, history, memoir. I will read (almost) anything about it, as long as it’s not terrible. I’m currently reading Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik, one of my favorite contributors to The New Yorker. The book is a collection of essays, many of which were originally published as “Paris Journals” in The New Yorker, and a few actual journal entries, that he wrote between 1995 and 2000, while he lived in Paris with his wife and young son.

In 2007, I spent a few months studying abroad there. Since then, I’ve tried to write about my experience, mostly through fiction, several times. I wound up with two or three half-stories or chapters of something, none of which I really intended on finishing, I guess, since I never got past the first drafts. Also, those pieces just didn’t feel true to the experience I had. I tried writing an essay about loneliness based on my time there, but I didn’t like how sentimental it sounded and I decided to sit on it for a while. But I still have so many very vivid memories from my time there. And since Paris has been so much on mind lately, I thought I’d start sharing them here, before six years becomes ten years and I’ve lost any more of them. There’s a lot to write, so I’m going to do this in parts. For this first part, I’ll start from the beginning.

Note: I’ve changed the names of those people who I am no longer in touch with, for fear that they’ll be offended by what I’m writing here, which might be silly, but you never know. If you are one of those people, please know that I don’t mean any offense. Most of the people I’m calling by any name here I remember very fondly.

 

a view from the apartment

 

The program that I attended, IES, encouraged us to read French newspapers, listen to French news and watch French movies over the summer, in order to prepare for French immersion. I did none of that. I was at home in New York for the summer. I rented one Truffaut film I’d seen a few times already – Argent de Poche – and watched it with English subtitles. I did all of the necessary logistical things, like go to the French embassy to get a student visa. I spent the rest of my time working for a neighbor, partying with my friends almost every night, sneaking around with my sort-of-boyfriend who I think I referred to as “my boyfriend” then, fighting with my parents because they hated my boyfriend, fighting with my boyfriend because we were on-again-off-again anyway and he wanted to be off-for-good after I left for Paris and I didn’t because I was twenty years-old and a huge idiot, and doing a good amount of sulking whenever I was alone. I remember the summer being “fun”, in general, probably because of the partying, but I remember a lot of specific moments of sadness, like this time in mid-August when I was looking around my neighbor’s garage for a client’s lamp and I had to sit down on a pile of cardboard boxes I had just broken down with a box cutter and cry for a few minutes.

My mom was encouraging me to get excited about Paris. Her reasons for me to look forward to my trip: 1) I had taken French for so long – since I was fourteen – and I would finally, finally get to use it, 2) I was so lucky to have the opportunity to go to PARIS for four months!, 3) PARIS!!!, 4) she and my dad were paying a lot of money for this.

My mom took me shopping at J.Crew a few days before I left. I was going to take a very pared down wardrobe with me and it would be important for me to have nice, plain, quality pieces that I could wear over and over again. That day we bought plain t-shirts and sweaters in a few colors, a white cable knit cardigan that I still have and will not throw out even though it has moth holes, a beautiful wool dress that I still have and wear on occasion, and brown riding boots that I kept for a long time for sentimental reasons – those boots walked all around Europe with me – and finally threw out a few months ago.

I also found  a pair of red suede flats that I wanted, but the store’s only pair in my size had a pen mark on them. So we had them call the Madison Avenue store and put the shoes on hold and my dad picked them up for me after work. When I opened the box when he got home, I found that this pair also had a tiny ink mark on the toe. But I kept the shoes and wore them to death, even if they did give me blisters so bad the first day I wore them I could barely make it to the Eiffel Tower. Little did I know, I would go back to the Eiffel Tower approximately six hundred more times. I should have just gone home and gotten some more band aids.

A few weeks before I left, I had received the news that I would live with Liz, a single woman from Lebanon, and her three cats, in an apartment in the 15th arrondisement. Then the housing coordinator from IES called several days before I was supposed to leave. It seemed that Liz had gotten stuck in Lebanon and wouldn’t be back until two weeks into my stay. Her two male friends would stay at the apartment with me until she returned. Would that be OK? I thought about it and decided that I would rather live with strange men than get used to the idea of living with someone else, somewhere else. By that point, I’d already spent hours staring at the Google map of Liz’s apartment and the surrounding area.

Two days before I left, I said my last goodbye to my boyfriend in front of my house. I cried until snot poured out of my nose, which is a very special kind of crying. I also got mascara on his shirt, because I have never worn waterproof mascara, and didn’t say anything about it because I was embarrassed. I felt kind of good about it afterward, though. He wasn’t very sad about the whole thing, so it was like a very, very tiny, secret fuck you.

My mom nagged me for days and days to pack my suitcase. I packed the day before I left, in one hour.

It was early September and 80 degrees outside when I arrived at JFK for my flight. I was wearing jeans, a blazer, a cardigan and my new boots, because I didn’t want to take up too much room in my suitcase. But the time I had gotten through security, I had sweated through all of my clothing. I struggled to get my boots back on after having taken them off to put them through the x-ray machine, and this inspired a small bout of crying.

I read Deluxe by Dana Thomas at the gate. I had paid full price for the hardcover – it had just come out – but was pissed off because the book was full of typos.

I sat in a window seat on the plane. There was a young, German guy sitting next to me. The rest of his family sat across the aisle from him. They were all very, very tall. And blonde. Very blonde. I spent most of the flight with my head turned toward the window, the bottom half of my face quivering as I tried not to cry. The best part of the flight was having my boots off for seven hours. The other best part – really, the best part – was when we started our descent and the sun was rising over France and I saw this landscape and the patterns in the countryside from up above that was so unfamiliar and I thought, I’m going to be there for the next few months, and it was equal parts exhilarating and terrifying.

 

view of the eiffel tower from the apartment

view of the eiffel tower from the apartment

 

When I got off the plane, I was delirious. I hadn’t slept at all. I found my baggage carousel, which our flight was sharing with another international flight, from Madagascar. It was a pretty trippy entrance to France. People were speaking French all around me and pushing to grab full-to-bursting, rectangular suitcases held together with twine off of the carousel. And, like, big bags of bananas. I remember the bananas really distinctly, but now that I think about them, I’m not sure if they were real or a hallucination.

After I got my bag, I got some money – Euros! so colorful! – and headed outside to find the bus I would take into Paris, where Nick, Liz’s friend and coworker, would pick me up. I was nervous on the bus and couldn’t figure out how to work my international phone, which was one of those Nokia bricks and had a British number. We hurtled along the highway and I thought about how perfectly brutalist it looked, all asphalt and concrete. I got in touch with Nick and he responded in English. Upon meeting him at the station, I was immediately relieved and delighted to find that he was not French, but from Cyprus, and preferred speaking English as he had gone to college in the States.

When we got to Liz’s apartment, I had a similar, but more intense experience than I’d had at the baggage claim. I felt like I had fallen down the rabbit hole. The first thing I saw in the entryway was a Ghost Busters poster, which obviously had a list of emergency numbers next to it. I followed Nick into the living room, which was actually just one big combination living room-kitchen-dining room. There were a lot of notable things about the room, but what immediately stood out to me was the cat jungle gym – the Frankenstein of cat jungle gyms – in the back left corner of the room. 

And then there was the geometrical, sort-of-collapsable, shiny, pleather sectional couch. The iron-backed chair that looked impossible to sit in. The bar that doubled as a dining room table that had a top covered in beer caps, which was then covered in glass. A large glass bowl filled with even more beer caps. Personal pictures and postcards and a cut out of a Lebanese cedar that hung behind the bar. And the cats. One old with the pinkest nose I’d ever seen, one so fat that I wasn’t quite sure how it walked without assistance – or was alive even – and one slinky and black and quiet.

Nick had gotten bread and some jam and I ate a sandwich while he rolled a cigarette. The bread tasted like the best thing I’d ever had but I wasn’t sure if it was because it was Parisian bread or because I was jetlagged. We talked for a while and I walked out onto the balcony off the living room. It was a clear, sunny day and I could see north to what I guessed was Montparnasse.

Nick left for work and I settled into my new room. It was small, but cozy. The bed was two mattresses stacked on top of each other. There was a small dresser on top of which a television sat and a table next to the bed, on which I would keep my computer and books. I didn’t need most of the closet space but I spread my few items of clothing out on the shelves and hung up my coats and dresses I’d brought with me.

When I was through, I took a nap. I woke hours later, groggy, having dreamed of who-knows-what. I changed my clothes and went out into the living room, where I ate some more bread and jam and opened my computer to find that there was no wireless internet connection. I stole internet from some neighbors and pulled up a map. I was going to figure out how to get to school, where I had to be at 8 o’clock the next morning. I mapped my way there, wrote down directions and set out, into Paris.

What do I remember from that first walk outside? Being scared, mostly. I suppose it was how different everything was. I didn’t feel unsafe, but I didn’t feel safe, because I was by myself and didn’t know where I was. But, I figured, I’d have to do this walk every day and it was better to get used to it. At the end of my street – it was very small, called rue Georges Pitard, and I’d later discover that it was unknown to many a taxi driver – there were a lot of people around, men in dashikis selling fruit and women trailing carts full of groceries from Franprix and other people I don’t remember.

I walked under the bridge that separated the 15th from the 14th and proceeded along the rue Vercingetorix, where I saw my first boulangerie, advertising pain français in the window. I thought about the Gallic Wars – Vercingetorix was one of the leaders of the Gauls, ultimately defeated by Caesar – and how old the streets of the city were. I also thought about the cartoon Asterix, which I used to read in my high school library during free periods when I was a freshman and had no friends.

I saw a crèche, where parents were picking up their young children. I couldn’t yet imagine what it must be like to be a Parisian child. I saw cars that were too small to be real and heard sirens that I couldn’t tune out because they were foreign, but also because they reminded me of The Bourne Identity. I saw pharmacies with neon green crosses, which I recalled from a high school text book, and uneven cobbled streets.

The walk was short and I arrived at the street where my school was located – rue Daguerre – in no time. The street is not very long, but there was a lot going on; it’s filled with specialty stores and bakeries and restaurants. I walked down the street until I found the address, across the street from an accordion shop. The building was depressing and concrete, set apart from everything else on the street by its ugliness. This was my school.

I returned to the apartment, where I found Nick with his partner, John, a friendly American who worked for another study abroad program. They made a dinner that was Liz’s specialty, roasted chicken with potatoes and onions. I don’t remember what we talked about – I think we probably spoke mostly about the things I needed in order to get settled and getting-to-know you type things – but I clicked with both of them that evening and was relieved.

There was a balcony with a view of the Eiffel Tower off of my small room. That first night, I looked up from my bed, exhausted but too nervous about school to sleep, and saw it lit up. Unbelievable, I thought. Who did this happen to? It felt like a dream, but someone else’s dream. I was in awe of Paris already, just because I anticipated all of the sights I would see and history I would learn and culture I would discover. But the fact was that I had never been one of those silly American girls who’d dreamed of going to Paris and having a romantic, life-changing experience, doing all of the things that Americans identify with the French, like wearing scarves and smoking elegantly and eating croissants without getting crumbs all over their faces. I have always been too self aware to think that I could be anyone but myself. I wanted to experience all of Paris, but I didn’t want to be an imitator. And, as that feeling has informed how I’ve always acted, it informed how I acted during most of the time I spent in France.  An outsider intent on remaining an outsider in a city I would come to love, though it would never be mine. I would only be there for a semester.

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