American Girl: A Personal History with Historical Fiction

I’ve always been a bookworm. From the time I could read, I read incessantly. That’s probably an overstatement. Let’s just say that I read a lot. I’ve also always been kind of smug about reading. One of my few memories from first grade is getting upset when my teacher – a yellow-haired and yellow-toothed woman with a face full of visible capillaries who I heard later might have been an alcoholic, though I’ve never bothered to confirm that – told me I was not yet allowed to take chapter books out of our Catholic school’s small library, even though I was reading them on my own. I wanted badly to be the first person in my class to take out chapter books from the library. I ended up being second, or maybe third. At age six, this was my great shame. Not being allowed to publicly check out chapter books in front of the rest of my class. Didn’t they know I was so advanced that I was already deep into reading the very important American Girl series? Eventually, every girl in my class would read these books. But I was the first. Or, more likely, one of the first. And, I knew, I loved these books the very best. They were mine.

Actually, Kirsten was mine. Meet Kirsten was the first American Girl book I read and I knew after the first two chapters that we would be friends. Kirsten Larson is a young Swedish immigrant who, along with her family, journeys across the Atlantic to New York and then on to Minnesota, which we know is the place where all of the Scandinavian immigrants settled. On the top bunk of the bunk beds I shared with my younger sister, by the light of one of those lamps that clips on to your headboard but is always kind of lopsided, I hungrily read Kirsten’s story. It felt like I was there with her. As she sat on a Manhattan stoop, tired and separated from her family, she thanked a stranger who gives her water in a tin cup. “Tak,” I said to no one, except possibly my tiny, sleeping sister with her blonde bowl cut and feety pajamas, who probably heard me reading to myself and thinking aloud more than I realized. I grieved with Kirsten after her best friend, Marta, died of something called cholera – a new word! – while on a steamboat on the Mississippi River. I rejoiced when she and her family reached Minnesota and she finally becomes a true American girl.

I read all of the Kirsten books. (And of course, got the doll, which I cherished and dressed and talked to, and eventually ruined by unbraiding its hair and trying to brush it.) Thanks to my eventual unfettered library access and my parents’ ability to keep me supplied with all of those paperbacks that I had to own and not borrow, I read most of the other American Girl books available at the time. Of course I loved them. They were popular, relatable stories about girls who were just like me. But it was the difference between us that really drew me in. These girls lived in another time. And when I read along with them, so did I.

Because of Kirsten, I developed an obsession with immigration. Specifically Ellis Island era, though I would read almost anything as long as it was about foreign people coming to America and set well in the past. It was because of this that a librarian recommended Journey to America by Sonia Levitin, which led to my very major obsession with the Holocaust.

A seven-year-old girl in Catholic school with an insatiable thirst for YA novels about the Holocaust. That was me. I couldn’t get enough. (There are a lot of reasons for this and, just to be clear, none of them are that I agreed with those who perpetrated the Holocaust.) I read Journey to America, about a young German Jewish girl who escapes to the U.S. with her family, probably twenty times. As the years passed, I read any book I could get my hands on. From the acclaimed Number the Stars to a memoir written by a Hungarian survivor called Upon the Head of the Goat. Even though my friend and fellow Holocaust novel devotee, Caitlin, would give me good tips on what to read next, there are only so many books. Eventually, I had to branch out and read about other times and places, though I would totally still read any new book I found about Europe during World War II, as long as it wasn’t primarily about soldiers or fighting.

I was good at reading lots of books, but I was really good at reading historical fiction. So I set out to read any novel about any period that interested me. I was still young when Scholastic started publishing the Dear America series, which blew my mind. Essentially American Girl books for an older set, they were fictional diaries of girls living during important American times, like my girl Remember Patience Whipple, who traveled on the Mayflower and lived in Plymouth Colony. I liked this book mainly because I knew that I have Puritan ancestry and I used to imagine that Remember Patience Whipple was my ancestor. Which is I guess the sort of thing a fourth grader spends her time thinking about.

I advanced. In a few years, I started reading Ann Rinaldi, who it seemed wrote roughly one million books, also all about girls living during important times in American history. (She actually wrote at least one Dear America book.) I read every book this woman published up until probably 2001. There was a darkness, an edge, in her stories that I liked. They seemed real to me. I suppose that’s why I was drawn to historical fiction in the first place. These made-up stories could have really happened.

Once I entered high school, I didn’t have as much time to read. I still read as much as possible outside of my classes, but something drew me away from historical series and toward literature I deemed more serious. Of course, some of those books were set in the past. (Like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay which I loved because, when I read it at age sixteen, it consumed me like no other book had in years. And also because I was a nerd who attended high school in the early 2000s.) They just weren’t genre, which is how I’d come to see “historical fiction”. Similar to science fiction or fantasy, set apart from regular fiction in the bookstore like a bunch of squat, often terribly titled stepchildren. (Except anything historical is just included with regular fiction. I know that.)

Historical fiction – genre historical fiction – became a guilty pleasure. How many romantic and suspenseful Philippa Gregory novels did I burn through in all of my hours pedaling away on a recumbent bike in my university’s gym? Probably too many. I was a history major, so in my mind I was balancing out all of my required actual reading, much of which made me sleepy and hurt my brain. JK, even when they hurt my brain, I fucking loved reading most of my actual history books. And I know that my childhood devotion to historical fiction had so much to do with my academic interest in history.

Once I graduated from college and started working, reading for pleasure became a huge part of my life again. One of the books that had the biggest impact on me as a writer, reader and person that year – also, in life –  was Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Her novel’s imagining of the rise of Thomas Cromwell bowled me over. The book is literature in the highest sense of the word, but I got the same pleasure from it that I’d felt while reading historical series as a girl. Wolf Hall made me rethink historical fiction: it could be something that I actively liked, rather than something I liked in the past when I didn’t know any better.

Since then, I wouldn’t say I’ve read too many books that could absolutely be classified as historical fiction. The sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, is another excellent representation of the genre and of fiction writing in general. And I just finished Nicola Griffith’s Hild, which is the fictional story of St. Hilda of Whitby, a seventh century figure we know little about apart from her role in the conversion of England to Christianity. The book is extremely well-researched, with beautiful prose. It felt like reading a fantasy novel without any magic or mythical creatures. But it was very solidly historical fiction.

In the process of writing this, I’ve come to realize what an impact this not very genre-y genre has had on me. Historical fiction, from the beginning, has inspired me to be curious, which I think is one of the best ways to be. Not being curious is a waste of humanity’s best natural asset. My curiosity has shaped who I am: a person who loves history and literature and, more broadly, absorbing facts, sharing and hearing opinions, reading too much, and a whole lot of other things. And I hope that person is a better one than if, two decades ago, I didn’t read Meet Kirsten in my top bunk all on my own.

Advertisements

Alone in Paris: Settling

This is the third part in a series about studying abroad in Paris in the fall of 2007. You can read the first part here and the second part here.

Settling in had to happen eventually. Once I accepted that I was in Paris for a semester and that nothing could change that, I began to build a (temporary) life. It was both difficult and not. Everyday things fell into place: friends, regular activities, classes. But I still remained anxious enough that I was always looking forward to what was coming next: outings, visitors, trips to other countries.

I had five professors. Art history was taught by a small, patient woman named Anne-Catherine. The History of Paris was taught by a 70-something year-old man who I think was named Claude. He walked with a cane, had poor health and took the train in from Versailles. I took Architecture of Paris with a frizzy-haired woman whose name I don’t remember, though I called her The Owl because she wore round glasses. French, of course, I took with Sabrina, who I mentioned previously. She was young and her class was not as boring as the others, probably because it required a bit of participation.

The fifth professor was a priest. He was middle-aged guy with tousled hair and prominent teeth. He taught a Buddhism class that I signed up for at the Institut Catholique de Paris. I don’t think I ever paid attention in his class, not that I went very often. At most, I went every other week. Our only requirement for the semester was a paper, due just before we left. I figured I would catch up on all of the reading eventually.

I had originally signed up to take six classes. I dropped the French Cinema class because the professor required us to go to some film library every week to watch a movie. Also, everyone taking it seemed like a huge asshole.

Our program organized outings for us. We had to choose two out of a possible four: Giverny, Versailles, Fontainebleau or Normandy. The Normandy trip was an overnight and required writing an essay, so obviously I didn’t put that on my list. I chose Giverny and Versailles because I wanted to see both of those things anyway. I figured that I’d get to Normandy eventually, though I didn’t care if it happened during this time in Europe or not.

giverny1

giverny

The day we went to Giverny was cold and rainy. I walked around with my friend Lindsay. It was beautiful but, like many things in France, full of tourists. I was one of them. I thought about Linnea in Monet’s Garden, which I had loved when I was a little girl. I took a lot of pictures. Pictures of the pond. Pictures of a little rowboat. Pictures of weeping willows. I was happy when we went back to the gift shop, where it was warmer.

katie, molly & me taking a picture in the reflection of some modern art in the gardens of versailles

katie, molly & me taking a picture in the reflection of some modern art in the gardens of versailles

The day we went to Versailles was warm. We took the tour of the palace in a large group. Again, I took a lot of pictures. This time, they were mostly of chandeliers. I walked around the grounds with Katie and Molly. They were both talking about how much they had loved the film Marie Antoinette. I hadn’t seen it because I had read some bad reviews. It was the first time I really, really felt like I had friends in my program. I remember I was wearing a blue velvet blazer and jeans over my tall brown boots and I was sweating.

I walked to school every morning. I liked waking up every day, making some coffee in the French press and eating cereal, and then setting off for school with my headphones on. In the early days, I think I listened to one song on repeat, which was the RAC remix of “Each Year”.

Then, in October, when I finally had internet, I was able to download some new music. All at once, I had three new albums that I was very into: Jens Lekman’s Night Falls Over the Kortedala, The Fiery Furnaces’ Widow City and Beirut’s The Flying Club Cup. I still think of these albums as my Parisian soundtrack. The French-themed The Flying Club Cup was particularly perfect.

I walked as much as I possibly could. After school, with nothing to do, I would walk from school or the apartment to the center of Montparnasse, up the Rue de Rennes, until I got to the Boulevard Saint-Germain, just where the Cafe de Flore, Brasserie Lipp and Les Deux Magots are located. The route was busy and very commercial. I would stop in stores along the way. Zara was of particular interest, where I would wander through the racks of clothing. Out on the street, I liked feeling lost in the crowds of people, pushing my way through packs of tough teenage girls, walking alongside young mothers, who guided baby carriages with plastic coverings with one hand, smoking with the other. It was easier to be anonymous among so many people I would never know.

I planned to meet up with Katie, Molly and Jill one night at a bar they had discovered in the fifteenth, called Le Cristal. While I was waiting for all of them outside the bar, Jill texted to say she couldn’t make it because of dinner with her host family. Eventually, Katie, who I knew less well than the other two, appeared without Molly, who also wasn’t able to make it for some reason. So, Katie and I proceeded to drink three 11 euro pitchers of 1664 by ourselves. And we have been good friends ever since.

Liz set me up with a babysitting job. Her friend needed someone to take care of her children – a nine year-old boy and a two year-old girl – occasionally in the afternoons. I said yes, even though I was terrified. But, I figured, speaking French with children would probably be good for me. The friend – we’ll call her Marie – was very warm. She wore a black motorcycle jacket and had that kind of artfully messy, thick, dark hair that American women just can’t ever have.

She took me to pick up her daughter, Viviane, at her nursery school. She told the teacher I would be picking her up on the weekdays, which was not something I thought I had agreed to. Anyway, I went with it. We then picked up her son, Pierre, at his grade school. When we got back to their apartment, she showed me around and that was it. I would go back a few days later to watch them after school. The kids were cute and happy. It seemed like it would be easy enough.

Later that week, I stayed with them for about three hours while Marie went out, until her partner returned home from work. Those three hours turned out to be some of the longest in my life. First of all, Viviane was cranky. Pierre, who was as good a little helper as any I’d seen in all of my years of babysitting, helped me take her outside, where we were going to play some games. However, she immediately fell down on the concrete in the courtyard and scraped her knee. She cried for roughly an hour after that. We fixed up her knee and I tried calming her down while Pierre went to do his homework. I put on a video, which apparently was the worst thing to do, because she started crying louder and shouting something unintelligible. I got Pierre from his room and asked him what she was saying. It turned out that she had been waiting for her “Three Little Pigs” video, but she spoke with a lisp, so it sounded like “Les Thwois Pethits Cothons”. I had trouble enough understanding French in general, let alone Baby French.

Pierre put on the video. He asked me if we could practice English, which I was happy to do.

“I like Pierre,” he said.

“Me too,” I said.

He looked confused. “I like Pierre,” he said again, this time pointing to himself.

“Oh,” I said. “No, ‘I am Pierre.'”

He grinned and repeated after me. He had established that I did indeed know English, so then it was time for him to ask me – in French – all of his questions about America, of which there were many. First: “Tu connais Hollywood?” Yes, I was familiar with Hollywood. Oh, man. He loved action movies. Actually, he loved America! He wanted to go there because people liked to surf. He loved surfing! He and his father surfed on France’s western coast, but he wanted to go surfing in California. Also, he wanted to know, were les Converses popular in America? He had two pairs, gray and green. His mom also had two pairs. I told him that I had two pairs, in black and white, and he cheered. Also, was my belt made out of vrai cuir? Yes, it was real leather.

I made them grilled cheese for dinner, which he thought was hilarious. I couldn’t figure out how to work the stove, so Pierre helped me. He also soothed Viviane the whole time, who went between crying and acting silently afraid of me. Basically, Pierre was the babysitter and I was just there to make sure that neither of them died. When their father came home, we talked a bit – he also wanted to practice his English – and paid me. I hadn’t made plans with Marie for the next date.

When she eventually called me, I must have been in class, so she left a message. She wanted me to come on Thursday afternoons. I had just learned that that was when my Buddhism class was happening – the day had changed from Tuesdays – so I could no longer babysit for them. I left her a stuttering message. I never saw them again.

Even though I had become friends with Katie, Molly and Jill, I was still figuring out if I could become friends with anyone else. A group of three girls invited me to go out with them one Friday night and I said yes. They all lived in the student apartments, which were on the periphery of the fourteenth arrondissement. I went to their apartment to drink before we went out. Liz gave me some orange juice to bring with me for a mixer. I walked from her apartment, which took me much longer than I’d expected. The three of them were all very nice, though I liked one girl, who I thought was more sophisticated, the best.

We took the Metro somewhere, I forget where, and ended up at a crowded bar. Then two other crowded bars. Eventually one of the girls, the sophisticated one, saw some people from her college. She left us for them. The two other girls and I went to some crepe place and sat at a table, very drunk, dejectedly eating crepes. We got on the night bus, which people told me to never take home. I got so nervous that I was on the bus that I got off way before I should have. I ended up trying to walk home until I realized that I didn’t actually know where I was. I looked for a cab for a really long time, but eventually I found one. When I woke up in the morning, I was scared thinking about what could have happened. I never went out with those girls again.

My mom and grandma came to visit in the middle of October. My mom had been to Paris before, but only for weekends while she lived in London. My grandmother had never been and was excited to take her first trip to France at the age of 77. She even bought a new raincoat for the occasion. I had been looking forward to their arrival since the day that I got off the plane. I knew they would be my first visitors.

They stayed at a hotel in Saint-Germain. I had reserved the room for them and I was very pleased to see, when I got there, that it was basically the cutest, Frenchest place ever. The interior was decorated beautifully. The staff was actually delightful. It had what I think they call an “old world charm”. Anyway, I wish I could remember the name, but I can’t so my mom and I will have to look back in our records.

They came during the big transportation strike, which meant that we walked everywhere during the four days they were there. One day, I dragged them all the way from the Eiffel Tower to Notre Dame to my apartment in the fifteenth. When we got there, John, Nick and Liz had a lamb dinner waiting for us. “You let your grandmother walk from the Eiffel Tower to here?” John asked. I said that it had taken us all day and that we made plenty of stops along the way, She said she didn’t mind. I’m sure she was a little pissed though. She loves nothing more than taking her time, window-shopping her way along streets. I’m a New Yorker. A rusher. Every time she stopped to look at something, I would walk up alongside her and give her a little nudge, hurrying her along.

My grandmother only had one unusual thing that she wanted to see while she was in Paris. The Shrine of the Miraculous Medal on the Rue du Bac. It took us forever to find it, on the first morning they were there. The shrine was on the interior of this little courtyard. There was Catholic paraphernalia everywhere. Little things for sale. We went into the church and said a prayer. I don’t remember being particularly moved.

I only went to Mass once while I was in France and that was the week that my mom and grandma were there. We went to St-Germain-des-Prés, one of Paris’s oldest churches. It looked, indeed, super old. The Mass was in French. I understood…most of it. My mom and grandma, nothing.

Being in France, away from most of what was familiar to me, that was the first time that I really didn’t feel any guilt about not going to church.

My grandma and mom were on a mission to buy a gift for my cousin’s baby, who was a few months old at the time. I’d say that, in total, we probably went to ten different baby stores with the most beautiful clothing. We went to one store where the shopkeeper didn’t speak English and I had to translate for my mom. Both she and my grandma were very impressed.

Each night they were there, we had a different dinner plan. We ate with Peter and his roommate at a dark bistro, where my grandma was in awe of the little crèmes brûlées in a tall pastry case near our table. We had dinner with Liz, John and Nick after our trek across the city. We had a lovely evening with them and I was happy that they all got along.

On their second to last night, we had dinner with Stephanie at a little pizza restaurant near Odéon. We had a fun time, except I think my mom unintentionally insulted Stephanie when she said that she was surprised that she didn’t have an accent, because Steph’s parents are from Romania. (She was born and raised in LA). Then, after we left the restaurant, we were crossing the street and my grandma fell on her face. My mom and I immediately started hysterically laughing and could barely make it across the street ourselves. I think my mom might have peed her pants a little. My grandma can’t go anywhere without falling. Steph was horrified. My grandma was more worried about whether she had ripped her raincoat than any potential injuries sustained. Both she and the raincoat were fine.

By that point, in the middle of October, I’d exchanged a few emails with my ex-boyfriend. They were fine enough, though I wasn’t telling him much about how I really felt for fear that it would scare him away further. The night of his birthday, I got really drunk. I had debated all day whether or not to wish him a happy birthday. Finally, I dialed his number on my French cell phone. The reception was bad. It rang and rang and finally went to voicemail. I left a message. He never said anything about it.

The first trip that Jill and I planned with our Eurail passes was to Geneva. Neither of us had been to Switzerland before. We were only going for a night,

I was excited for my first European train journey. We settled in our seats, taking out our snacks and our books, chatting away.

“We don’t need our passports, right?” Jill asked.

“Uh, yeah,” I said.

“But we’re traveling within the European Union,” she said.

“Actually,” I said, “Switzerland isn’t part of the European Union. And you need your passport anyway to validate your Eurail pass.”

So, that’s how we ended up freaking out for five hours about what was going to happen once we got to the Swiss border. Jill, who is still one of the smartest, savviest people I have ever met, ended up getting sent back to France by the Swiss border police because she didn’t have her passport. Molly and I couldn’t contact her once we were in Switzerland. We changed our money, checked into our hostel, and set out to walk around the city.

Geneva was beautiful during the day. It was warm and sunny and I took lots of pictures, most of which were terrible.

geneva

geneva (i actually had to edit this because it was really, really terrible)

After a long day of sightseeing, we had dinner and looked for a bar where we could have a drink. We found nothing except a bunch of leering men and closed up shops. I guess we just didn’t know where to go. We ended up going back to the hostel. In the morning, I woke up and made my way to the train station alone. (Molly hadn’t been able to get a ticket on that train). I read my book the whole way back and returned to Paris in time to meet my friend Chris in the afternoon.

My friend Chris’s band was playing a show that Saturday I returned from Geneva. I met him in a Metro station. I was super late because I accidentally took the longest route possible and I felt really badly about that. We found a little cafe where we caught up. I told him about how homesick I’d been. He told me about how the tour had been going so far. We parted ways when it was time for him to get ready for the show.

I met up with Molly and Katie and we traveled together to the concert venue – La Maroquinerie – in the twentieth, where I had never been before. Jill met us at the venue and told us her horror story of getting back to Paris the day before while we waited for the band to go on. She’d waited at the first train station inside the border for hours and was in bad shape when she got to Paris, where Katie met her at Le Cristal for drinks.

at la maroquinerie (photo credit: katie)

at la maroquinerie (photo credit: katie)

The show was a lot of fun and the Parisian crowd eventually got into the band, which I was happy to see. Afterward, we all (minus Jill, who wanted to get home before the Metro stopped running) piled in the tour van with the band and this guy who worked for a – depending on what scene you’re in – pretty famous blog based in Paris. This dude was going to take us out around Paris. The band’s British tour manager was driving. Immediately, we got stuck in a bunch of traffic, on our way to wherever we were going. A bottle of Jack and some pizza were being passed around the van. Molly said she felt sick.

“I need to go home,” she said. She opened the door to the van and got out, in the middle of traffic, running into the Metro station across the street.

“Where is she going? Where is Molly?” asked our French tour guide.

Katie and I tried texting her, but she was already out of reach.

“Where is Molly?” became the theme of the night. Everywhere we went, someone would cry out, “Where is Molly?” I got very drunk. Drunker than I expected. We went to some sort of dance party at the bottom of what I thought was a museum. I actually have no idea if it was a museum. It could have been a hotel. Also, it wasn’t really a dance party. It was more like three Swedish-looking DJs and a couple of random people. One of the guys in the band started a dance circle. Everyone took turns dancing in the middle. Well, I didn’t. But that’s because I still am a little bit self-conscious even when I’m drunk.

We ended up at some cafe, where I had another beer that I didn’t need. We said goodbye to Chris across the street from Père Lachaise. Katie and I shared a cab back to her apartment. I slept on the floor with a coat for a blanket. In the morning, I let myself out of Katie and Molly’s room and walked home.

Something About London

Today I am taking a break from writing about Paris to write a tiny little bit about another city – London, which I have visited exactly one time, when I was twelve. Even at that age, I was an Anglophile. On the plane ride over, when I wasn’t watching Stuart Little or slapping away my mom, who sunk her nails into my arm every time we hit turbulence, I was happily reading Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII and literally freaking out inside my little brain because I was finally, finally going to London.

text from my dad: "view from restaurant where we are having lunch - looking down on leadenhall market"

text from my dad: “view from restaurant where we are having lunch – looking down on leadenhall market”

My parents lived in London for about a year after they got married and moved back to New York about two months before I was born. My dad still traveled to London a good deal when I was a kid. I don’t want to say a lot because I don’t want to make it sound like my dad wasn’t around when I was growing up, but in my memory it feels like he was there a lot, probably because his trips sometimes lasted for weeks. I remember when I was very young, about four or five, my dad brought me back a Siberian tiger stuffed animal from London. I loved it so much, because I loved stuffed animals and my dad gave it to me and I got to say that it was from London, which was very exciting. I bring this up because that was also probably one of the last times that I wasn’t absolutely terrified every time my dad flew to London for business. Before I flew overseas myself, I cried every time I knew my dad was leaving because I was convinced his plane would crash. My dad would console me by telling me that flying was safer than driving, which was also terrifying because then I would think about how I got in a car every day. Anyway.  By the time I was twelve, I had gotten over this fear of flying – but only sort of because I totally sat with rosary beads on my lap for the entire flight to London – and I was super excited to be seeing a city that had loomed so large in my imagination for my whole life.

The week was a dream come true. My parents and I stayed in a fancy hotel. My mom and I saw the sights during the day and I was in awe of every landmark. Every afternoon, we rested and had tea and scones in our hotel room. Then, at night, we would go out to dinner with my dad and friends. We took a ride on the brand new London Eye. We saw Mamma Mia before it came to Broadway. I remember a lot of middle aged women dancing in the aisles. I caught this renewed ABBA fever pretty hard. My parents bought me the soundtrack and I listened to it on my Walkman before I went to bed. We also saw The King and I with Elaine Paige, who was probably too old to be playing Anna, but she was still really, really awesome. My dad’s wallet got stolen on our last day, though the thief curiously took the cash and dumped it in a garbage can in a tube station and he got it back. By the end of the trip, I was sad to go home. Now, I am sad that I haven’t been back.

text from my dad: "they call this new building in the background "the shard", as in "shard of glass".

text from my dad: “they call this new building in the background “the shard”, as in “shard of glass”.

I was thinking about all of this for two reasons. First, I read Sarah Lyall’s piece in the New York Times last week, “Lessons From Living in London”. The city is much different from the London I visited in 2000 and worlds away from the London my parents experienced in the 1980s. I had always wanted to live there myself, though as an American with zero marketable skills, that will probably remain a difficult, if not impossible, thing to cross off my list.

Secondly, my dad just returned from a business trip to London. He doesn’t go as often any more. As a kid, his trips were mysterious to me. I didn’t know any more about what he did there than what he told me over the phone. But these days, thanks to technology, my siblings and I get updates via group text, my dad narrating his cab rides and lunches, sending photos of things he thinks are cool or has noticed have changed since the last time he visited. I know it’s kind of lame to be like “WHOA, technology!” but…this wasn’t a thing that could have happened a few years ago. (I mean, it could have, I guess, but my dad didn’t have an iPhone until this year and we all know how terrible Blackberrys were for this kind of thing.)

text from my dad: "say hello to the queen! that's buckingham palace in back of the queen victoria monument. wonder if anyone every called her tori? taken out window of cab on way to airport. be home soon!"

text from my dad: “say hello to the queen! that’s buckingham palace in back of the queen victoria monument. wonder if anyone every called her tori? taken out window of cab on way to airport. be home soon!”

I’d like to visit London very soon as good friends of mine just moved there for a definite, but substantial, amount of time. I’m trying to save up some money for this since, well, airfare and London, in general, are expensive. However, I think it will be worth it. I’m looking forward to reminiscing some more about my first trip, of course. But I’m also excited to have an altogether different experience, as an adult, seeing this city that has changed so much in the last thirteen years from another perspective.

Alone in Paris: Maladjustment

This is the second part in a series about studying abroad in Paris in the fall of 2007. You can read the first part here

I’ve never settled in anywhere easily. When I was fourteen, I was new to my town’s public school, where I should have fit in without much fuss. I’d lived in the area for most of life and already knew many of my classmates. I was excited about everything the school had to offer. I joined a sport, was in the musical, actively participated in classes. But I didn’t feel like I had real friends until almost the end of the school year. I missed the comfort of my old school and my old friends. I felt the same kind of loneliness when I started college, where I didn’t feel I fit in with the other college freshmen who were psyched about freedom and drinking and, curiously, being in the Midwest.

I’m not surprised I had the same unease during my first weeks in Paris. I knew by then that change was hard for me. But that knowledge didn’t make adjusting any easier.

Note: I was actually a terrible photographer when I started out in Paris. I have very few photos from this time and most of them are bad. However, I promise they will maybe get better.

me, in front of the eiffel tower, my first week in paris

in front of the eiffel tower, my first week in paris

I don’t remember much about my first day of school orientation. I sat with my friends from college, Laura and Lindsay, who are twins. I think we were off-site somewhere, in some kind of auditorium. The head of the program spoke to us. She might have been a blonde who wore scarves and long skirts, but that might have been someone else. A round woman with mussed hair who reminded me of a peasant laundress took the stage and delivered in hilariously accented English – the last time she would speak English to us she warned – a lecture on the differences between France and America, what we should and shouldn’t do so that we wouldn’t offend the French, and the parameters of our homestays. She was our dean of students, I guess. Specifically, I remember her telling us three things: not to look anyone in the eye on the Metro, that she was Portuguese, and that students from Northwestern had to take a class at one of the local universities in order to get credit for our semester abroad.

I immediately started panicking about having to take a class with actual French students. And then I panicked because they administered a language test, which I had been nervous about.

The twins and I had lunch afterward with a few girls from the program whom we’d picked up somewhere. I don’t remember who was there, except for one girl, who made an impression on me with her confidence in speaking French and her interesting first name.

That first week we were all placed in our French classes and a sort of week of immersion. We spent hours in class each day, but there was also a lot of free time. I’d fallen in with one group of people who the twins had been hanging around with. They were all nice and fine, but I hadn’t quite hit it off with any of them. I remember eating lunch with them and going the Eiffel Tower, the Luxembourg Gardens and the Latin Quarter.

There was another group, which a girl from college named Margaret was a part of. I was just getting to know Margaret – I liked her a lot – and the other girls struck me as fun and more sophisticated than most people in the program but, I dunno, really needy of being a part of a group of girls, which is not a way that I have ever been.

I was at lunch with these girls one of the first days – I remember everybody breaking out their basic French I skills to order their salades – and everyone was talking about their respective homestays. Of course, I had the most interesting situation: host mom trapped in Lebanon because she misplaced her photo ID, two temporary host dads, and a zany apartment filled with cats. One girl was complaining about her host mom, an elderly woman who had a small apartment. The night before, her host mom had fed her a piece of “sketchy sausage” for dinner. She was requesting to move into the student apartments that day.

Sometimes, I felt just as alone when I was with groups of people as I did when I was by myself.

Let’s not forget that I was in the early stages of recovering from heartbreak. I thought about my ex-boyfriend, frankly, all of the time. I wanted to talk to him, but I didn’t dare call him. I hoped he would email me, but I knew that he wouldn’t. This was a pattern already well-established.

One afternoon, when I was wandering around my neighborhood, which I did a lot in the afternoons, I stopped in an internet cafe, which were literally everywhere. I had been having trouble stealing Internet from other people in the apartment building. I paid the Arab man at the counter for fifteen minutes of internet and sat down at a computer and immediately realized that I hadn’t used a French keyboard before. It took me a few minutes to log into my email because I had to look at the keyboard and type with one finger and by the time I was finished, I was so frustrated and depressed that I got up and walked out of the cafe.

The next morning, I went to the computer lab at school and snagged a computer with an American keyboard. I wrote the email, sent it and waited for a response.

I was lucky enough that my best friend from college, Stephanie, was also in Paris. She was in a different program, but her homestay was within walking distance of mine. There were plenty of afternoons or evenings when we would meet up and talk about how we felt about our homestays and classmates, the homesickness and, of course, everything we wanted to see and accomplish while we were there. I remember her telling me about how she was hungry every night, because she never ate a big lunch at school, but her family always ate a big lunch and had a light dinner, like a salad or a quiche or something. Also, of course, she missed her boyfriend.

Stephanie was naturally more optimistic and seemed to me to be much more in control of her feelings than I. In comparison, I felt unhinged, constantly blathering about how out of place I felt in the Fiat-filled streets. But, as she had done many times before and has done many times since, Stephanie helped me put everything in perspective. We would only be there for a few months. Feeling like this was natural. We would get used to it all, eventually.

One night, Stephanie, Laura, Lindsay and I went to a pizzeria in the 15th, close to where three of us lived. We drank rosé and ordered a few pies. When our pizzas came, each one had a fried egg in the middle. We hadn’t ordered fried eggs on our pizzas. After that, I made sure to ask for pizza without eggs any time I ordered it.

I was placed in a decent French class; it was challenging and not too full of idiots, except for this one girl who came to class every day wearing a sweatshirt and flip flops – it was not warm out – and seemed to be unable to speak, read or write in French. Her presence was confounding to everyone, most of all our teacher, Sabrina, who was an adorable, magical, young Parisian with curly hair, twinkly eyes and a tendency to grade kind of harshly, in my honest opinion.

I felt like most of my classmates wanted to impress Sabrina. Two of them were particularly aggressive. This one girl, who had a variety of really terrible hats, like those knit ones that also happen to have a brim, and filmy scarves, talked constantly. I think she wanted to actually be French. She dated French guys, including a firefighter she referred to as “my pompier”. The other was this guy who wore stripes all the time, I assume because he thought that was French, and he made a big show of reading French newspapers in the morning and smoking in the courtyard with all of the other when-in-France smokers. He spoke French excitedly and with a lisp, and that is what I remember about him best.

walking around the luxembourg gardens alone was common those first few weeks

walking around the jardin du luxembourg alone was common those first few weeks

The school had set up a few mandatory activities around Paris in the first week or two and then a few more that we could choose between, outside of the city, that would come at points later in the semester. There was one, maybe during the second week, on a boat on the Seine. It must have been a dinner cruise, because I arrived in the early evening and I was wearing my wool coat, which I needed to wear at night when it got cold.

There were a few people waiting for the whole group to gather and I ended up talking to this girl from college, who had lived in my dorm freshman year and borrowed my Art History flashcards before tests our first quarter, but stopped acknowledging me after we joined different sororities. Since we weren’t at school, she was quite chummy with me, even almost remembering what town I was from. We were all looking for friends then, I guess.

On the boat cruise, one of the girls at the table I was sitting at – the girls from the lunch crowd who were already a group – told me she’d noticed I’d ditched them in the past few days. This was surprising to me. I’d assumed that they didn’t like me, because I’d assumed they’d noticed that I didn’t really fit in with them. So I had begun hanging out with other people. Looking back on it, I see that I should have thought about it as though I had noticed I didn’t fit in with them and had therefore decided to start hanging out with other people. Back then, I didn’t have the confidence to feel that I, and I alone, was in charge of myself and what happened to me.

Sometime during the second week, I got sick. Really sick. I still went to school every day though, because we only had to be there for a few hours and the program had some batshit insane absence policy. John told me that a lot of people got sick after a week or so because the germs were different, which I guess made sense enough to me.

After the first day of my illness, so congested that I could barely breathe or speak, I went to the pharmacy on my way home from school. When you go to a French pharmacy, you have to tell them your symptoms and they’ll give you something from behind the counter. The whole way there I practiced saying “j’ai une rhûme” in my head, which was a phrase I probably learned in ninth grade, but I wasn’t super confident speaking to actual French people and also, my voice sounded monstrous, like I was drowning in a vat of phlegm.

The pharmacist made me repeat myself a few times, but eventually he caught my drift and gave me some cold medicine. The medicine made school and any other necessary activities tolerable for the next few days. I spent most afternoons lethargic on the pleather couch in the living room playing The Sims 2 while watching the German version of Ugly Betty, which had been dubbed in French and was called Le destin de Lisa.

The real cure came when John made me chicken soup. It was delicious but like, half of it was black pepper. As I ate it, my sinuses cleared out. I sneezed for the rest of the evening and when I woke up the next morning, I was as good as new.

Every night, long after I had fallen asleep, my bedroom door would open, though I wouldn’t hear it. The intruder was silent. She would slink her way over to my bed, jump up on it and, without waking me, nestle herself in between my head and the wall. Eventually, I would wake up sweating and discover the little black cat on my pillow. Then I would shoo her out of the room, close the door and hope that she didn’t come back. I didn’t mind the cats, but I didn’t want to share my pillow with them either.

life with cats

life with cats

Nick and I got along really well for a lot of reasons. One reason was that we both loved Kate Bush. Another reason was that we both preferred speaking English to French.

Nick couldn’t believe that Liz didn’t have an internet. Neither could I. It was 2007! Everyone had internet. So, he emailed Liz, who was still stuck in Lebanon, asking if we could buy an internet connection for her apartment, and she agreed as long as I paid for it in the end. So, we set off to Darty, by the Montparnasse train station, which is kind of like Best Buy, but full of French people.

I let him negotiate with a saleswoman – he told me he had become mostly fluent in French after he started begrudgingly watching French news and other television programs in the evening when he had moved to Paris five years earlier – and we left Darty with internet! This changed my world, for I was then able to download new music, something I had missed terribly in the first ten days I’d been there. Also, I could now constantly check my email to see if anyone in America still cared about me.

Nick was also my savior when it came to my cellphone. The international phone my dad had gotten for me through work never had service and was just generally really shitty. So Nick took me to Orange, where I got a little white cellphone that looked like a toy, thanks to his dealing with the salesperson. I had to buy little cards with actual minutes every now and again, but other than that it was fine, and at least now I could keep in touch with the few friends I had.

About two weeks in, I started to make real friends at school. Jill and Molly were in my French class. Molly was from the Chicago suburbs, but went GW. She had a kind face and a surprisingly biting sense of humor. Most importantly, she had the same wary perception of our school and most our classmates that I did. Jill was a year older than us, a senior at Penn State. She struck me as confident, intelligent, and capable. During a break from class one day, she and I were both talking about how we didn’t yet have any weekend trips planned out. So, we bought Eurail passes later that day and, from there on out, were friends as well as future travel buddies.

Our burgeoning friendship as a group was hinged on our mutual discovery of our classmates, teachers and school staff as characters. Jill, Molly and Molly’s roommate Katie, who would later become a close friend, introduced me to “the Bulgarian”, a hearty, certainly Eastern European-looking girl, who wore a faux – I think – calf hair, leopard print coat to school every day. In my head, she had been “the Muppet”, because I thought her face looked like it was made out of felt. There was also “Horseface” – who I called “Skeletor” – a really skinny, blond airhead type who turned out to possibly have a serious eating disorder and also, to be kind of crazy.

There were tons of other people who had nicknames. There were tons of people who didn’t and were just as good at being characters. Like this one girl who was from Louisiana, had worked on a plantation over the summer giving tours to people in French, talked about her “Daddy” literally all of the time, and was fucking constantly getting followed out of the subway by men because she couldn’t figure out how to not make eye contact with or smile at anyone who looked her way on the Métro. And then there was the cheerleader, whose boyfriend proposed to her when he visited later in the semester, who had all of her cash and credit cards stolen twice within two weeks by Gypsies on the Métro who slit her Coach purses open along the bottom.

And so on. Is this the nicest way to bond with people? By taking the little that you know about others and using it to turn them into characters for your personal amusement? No, probably not. But it’s one of the only ways I know how.

One of the best parts about living in Liz’s apartment – I wasn’t living quite with her yet – was the unlimited international calling plan from her landline. This meant I could talk to my mom every day. It might not have been the best way to get over my homesickness, but it was a comfort I wasn’t going to turn away from.

I was scared to let my mom know just how sad and lonely I was. My mom, like many parents, wants everything to be the absolute best for her children and for nothing bad to ever happen and for us to be happy all the time. I knew she would be anxious if I told her how depressed I was still, after a few weeks in Paris. I’ve never been one to hide my feelings, even if I try, and mentions of my own social anxiety and sadness snuck into our conversations. Occasionally, I would start to cry as we said goodbye.

There was one day when I was in a particularly bad mood and I started to tell her about it. How I felt strange and friendless and alone all the time. She fought back. “How many people get to spend a semester in Paris? Do you know how lucky you are?” she asked me. I said I did.

But. But! Didn’t she know how terrible it was to be in a place where everything was unfamiliar? A place where, if you ever went outside, you’d struggle to express the tiniest thought or question? A place where you barely knew anyone? And I missed everyone, I told her. I just wanted to be home.

“Don’t waste your time over there pining,” she said. She was referring to the ex-boyfriend situation. I could tell by the tone of her voice. So many of our conversations that summer had been about him, though neither of us would mention him directly.

“I’m not pining,” I said. I told her that it was culture shock. They’d showed us a timeline at school. I swore that my feeling were normal.

After we hung up, I was sad and angry. Alone in the apartment, I walked around, sniffling at first, ending up in my bedroom where I started bawling face down on my bed of two mattresses. My mom wasn’t wrong about anything she said. But sometimes, you don’t want advice or reminders or solutions. You just want someone to tell you that it’s okay to be sad.

One night, I met my childhood friend Peter at the apartment where he was staying, in Paris’s Chinatown in the 13th arrondisement. I saw Stephanie often enough and Laura and Lindsay were at school every day, but I was desperate to see another familiar face. I got off the Métro close to Peter’s apartment, near a McDonald’s that had Chinese characters all over it.

His program had set him and a college classmate of his up in an NYU professor couple’s apartment for the semester. The only thing I remember about it was a sort of cubist nude painting of the wife – it could have been someone else, but I think it was the wife –  in the living room. After a bit, we went  downstairs to a Chinese restaurant for dinner with his roommate. I forget what I ordered. We had shitty wine. I talked about how homesick I was. Neither of them seemed to feel the same way I did. After dinner, I went home and worried that they thought I was crazy.

After two or almost three weeks, Liz returned from Lebanon. When I met her, in the living room of her apartment, I was nervous. I had been living there, like an impostor, I felt, for weeks now.

I don’t remember if I met her by myself or with John and Nick there. Getting to know her was one of the best parts of my entire experience in Paris. I couldn’t make her up if I tried. She was tall and thin, though fit, with steel grey hair that was darker in some places and lighter in others. She had perfect posture and spoke English with an accent that was sometimes British and sometimes Scottish – her mother had been part Scottish, though her father was Lebanese and she and her two sisters had been raised in Beirut – though she threw French words in as fillers very often. (She loved a good, transitional “bon…”.) She rolled cigarettes with a little metal cigarette roller and drank a beer every afternoon when she came home from work for lunch. She loved whiskey as much as she loved her cats. So, a lot. She was fun and funny and carefree and sometimes a little terrifying in her brazenness. I liked her.

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.