In the typical American university study-abroad pamphlet, glossy words and pictures advertise a panoply of life-changing, whimsical and extraordinary adventures.
Armed with my 19-year-old optimism, I was eager to begin my prepackaged fairytale. Like a small child convinced of her utmost grown-upness and her ability to predict the near future with exactitude (“because I said so”), I calmly accepted and expected that studying abroad would give me a once-in-a-lifetime experience complete with French friends, a delectable culinary exploration, and an astounding increase in ability to speak another language.
And so I flew to the city of light, or the city of love, or, as I would come to discover, the city of anything I wanted it to be. In the nine months spent in this city of everything, I got much more than any pamphlet could have ever advertised (or cautioned)…
I found that Paris is many things to many people. It is equal parts supermodel, monster, grandmother, school-child, and tourist. The city is simultaneously ancient and squeaky new. Paris is so many things at once that, at the surface level, she is what all the haters hate about her. It is a city with impeccably dressed women who make rushing up the steps of the métro in stilettos look as effortless as a strut down the Chanel catwalk. Even the city’s tiniest residents (read: toddlers) will show you up with their outfits of perfection complete with scarf, slightly angled hat, a killer blazer, and blasé attitude. A breeding ground for le cool-finding expat Hipster, it has its share of raggedy, but edgy, vintage stores as well as its Marais boutiques full of up-and-coming designers that will steal your paycheck for a seemingly simple pair of shoes. The enticing pastries of the city can almost win over the Displeased Tourist, except for the price tag and the less-than-wunderbar service that comes with it (though this, of course, depends largely upon your own behavior).
The busy Parisians will blow clouds of cigarette smoke above you, below you, and everywhere-in-between you as you try to keep up while jaywalking across the street. Cars do not care whether you are using the crosswalk, or really if it’s even your turn to cross the street. In addition, the sidewalks and corners are still quite popular make-shift toilets for canine and man alike. Cleaning up after yourself is largely optional.
With strikes left and right, tourists all around, and stink in the air, I understand how the Paris haters are created.
But I was, and never will be, one of them.
This is because for me, the word “Paris” is stuffed with myriad marvelous memories. Paris means entering the kitchen every morning saying bonjour to madame et monsieur (my host parents), or, depending on my lateness, running past the kitchen and saying au revoir, à ce soir!! with monsieur still trying to convince me to eat something Madame scolding him and saying “she’s going to be late! Stop chatting and let her go!” in a way that only a wife can to a husband. Paris, for me, is synonymous with eating madame’s delightful tarte aux oignons, or her tarte tatin, or her carottes aux lardons et au curry.
Paris is also the city where, contrary to my rose-tinted fantasies of baguettes, fromage and vin prior to landing in CDG, I went on adventures hunting for … Asian food. This Japanese-American from the Bay could not go a week without craving rice and Asian flavors. I can guide you blind folded to the best Japanese ramen place (choice depending on your oilyness comfort level) , the best Vietnamese pho place (catered to the degree of non-service you can handle), and where to get you that boba fix (based on your arrondissement preference). I could also tell you about some great Japanese bento places, one dimsum place and several places to get bibimbap. I could also tell you where to go if you want a pitcher of water spilled on your lap by a waitress in the middle-of-a-below-freezing-January-night (oui, it happened, oui, I was angry, and non, she did not care or give me a discount on my dinner).
My time in the city was also a time for experiments and stubbornness. When les français couldn’t get past my Asian visage, they would often try English when addressing me because that was The Language of Tourists. Since no one would realize I was Americaine, I would give them a smile and an apologetic, “Sorry, I do not understand” look. The most persistent ones would continue with “Chinois? Chinese?” or “Konichiwa, Japanese?” and I would continue with a confused smile. Finally, they would exasperatedly switch to French, and I would finally reward them with a verbal answer. Was I a pain in the buttocks? Perhaps (since most of these people were simply trying to get business done in a quick fashion), but in the end it was the only way to practice my French in an increasingly English-speaking metropolis.
The perfecting of my little trick proved to be very useful, albeit in quite unexpected ways. First, you have to know that Paris is home to some young men who take it upon themselves to either make fun of tourists, or lead them into some kind of sketchy tourist trap (although rarely dangerous). One such seeming fellow came up to me around the Chinatown/Viettown district, and started with “Excusez-moi..” and I started by putting on my best “Je ne comprends pas” face. He then began: “Do you speak English”… Nope, not with you I don’t. I shook my head quickly, gave him a confused smile, and skipped off to complete my journée magnifique. He may have been a lost person looking for directions, but alas, I will never know.
I also learned that grammar mistakes can be extremely useful. Example: whilst waiting for a female friend near the Panthéon and the Jardin du Luxembourg, a middle-aged creeper of sorts approached me and asked “Who are you waiting for?” without even using vous. The nerve. Putting my best street face on, I said in the coolest, most parisienne voice I canmuster: “J’attends ma copine.” Oops. Ma copine can mean my girlfriend (as in dating friend), and une copine is for a friend who happens to be female. No matter, the creeper huffily went away saying “Oh, you’re lesbian!” Well, non, monsieur, but whatever keeps you away…
All jokes aside, Paris also showed me that the city is not only about fashion weeks, or pastries, or people who make for funny stories. In this city where the biggest designer names and movie stars walk about, inequality among people is painfully obvious. Perhaps due to the city’s magnificent greatness, I was struck by how for every drop of glamour that exists, there is also at least one drop of suffering and fighting for survival. For every model you might spot in the metro, there are many more metro romani playing accordion for a few centimes, families with small children panhandling in the streets, a man in front of Quick miserably standing bare foot in the freezing rain with little more than the blanket wrapped around his shoulders and a backpack to carry his belongings.
In Paris, I learned, realized, felt, and saw. I breathed in life and awakened to the beauty that a simple afternoon walk can carry. It’s far from perfect and is rife with imperfections. I was reminded of the bitter unfairness of life and chance. Unable (or unwilling?) to take any real action against the less fortunate things I saw, I resigned myself to observing, flâning about Paris, and absorbing everything around me. What makes this city so alluring? So menacing? So coarse and yet so loving at the same time? It’s hard to put a finger on it, so I always answer with “everything.” I love everything (almost) about Paris. What makes it special? Everything. But, what do I like most? Everything. A more specific answer, please? I like to walk around the city. Where? Everywhere.
Paris reminded me to dream again, to walk through life as if I were in a musical, a painting, a symphony. I didn’t even have to pretend – I naturally felt as though every step I took in the city was part of a coming-of-age film. Frolicking through Place des Victoires with a friend in the sort of drunkenness induced by good food and good conversation would have been the perfect scene in an indie film about American study-abroaders. We thought so anyway.
Paris showed me that no matter what my brain might say sometimes, my life is not about papers, about deadlines, or about worrying constantly about “what comes next” to the point that it suffocates and terrorizes you. It’s about breathing. About laughing. About meeting people, sharing stories, and investing your time in people and things you love. Life (at least the happy part of it, anyway) is about waltzing into a candy store and being stuck there for an hour because you are unable to decide which delicious chocolate you will buy from a charming grandma in pigtail braids (L’étoile d’or). It’s about trying your best not to laugh when your host mom scolds your host dad for wanting you to try a digestif even though he knows that you don’t drink very much. Life is about all of these lovely things, just as much as it is about carefully scanning the sidewalk for smeared dog poop and making the appropriate dance across said sidewalk to avoid ruining your newly bought boots to combat that dreaded European winter.
Edited from a previous version posted on ayaetlemonde.wordpress.com . Though I’ve spent time in Paris after this study abroad experience (I lived there for about 8 months in 2014-2015), this little piece reflects my sophomore experiences in the city of light.