I have just one week left in Paris. That’s hard to swallow.
The last three-and-a-half months have been a whirlwind of excitement, novelty, and tragedy. It is still difficult to retrospectively identify how I have changed, but the countless blows to my metaphorical protective shell have revealed the gruesome real world to me. Paris broke my heart in more ways than one. I discussed the details in previous posts, but I think all the personal tragedy I have faced here has made me a stronger person. Whatever that means.
When I say goodbye to Paris next week, I will be leaving behind parts of myself as well. Since I’ve come to college I could feel the gradual loss of my naivety; the remaining shreds of innocence. I think, once and for all, the last shred of it has gone with all that I’ve faced here in Paris. Loss will do that to you, whether you like it or not. I am struggling to understand the effects of all that has happened to me. Rather than becoming more closed off, I think I have instead braced myself for what the future holds. There’s a perverse comfort in thinking that life couldn’t get much worse at this point, so the future will only hold things to look forward to. I’ve had some time to think about things, and I’m feeling OK. I feel confident in my abilities to cope and I have learned the best techniques to distract myself when the emotional waves hit.
When I arrive home next week and will have to deal with the countless family members asking me how Paris was, I know I’ll have to suck it up and mention the good parts only. No one wants to hear about heartbreak, loss, or violence. But the most transformative parts of Paris for me were in the darkest moments I spent here. Maybe away from home was the wrong place to experience tragedy, but that’s just it: life doesn’t wait. Life happens.
I think I will always look on my semester abroad in Paris as a pivotal point in my life. But I hope that in a few years, I am able to recollect the countless good moments that are currently overshadowed by the bad ones. The loss I have dealt with here has made me realize a chapter in my life is closing. The classical loss of innocence theme I’ve read about in all my beloved books has finally become a reality for me. Who would have thought a literary device as overplayed as that could have bore some actual truth? The future seems ambiguous, as the unknown always does, but it can only go up from here. A new chapter begins.
So you want to move to Paris. Of course you do — it’s arguably the #1 most-romanticized city on the planet. People think of moving to Paris when they want to feel like a 60s cinema heroine, free-spirited and euphoric. There’s so much culture, they’ll say, and the French are culinary kings. What’s not to love? Like any big city, Paris has its arts, nightlife, gastronomy, shopping, and also its flaws. Hope you like lazy Sundays — most of Paris, apart from select neighborhoods, sleeps that day. Good luck getting groceries in a pinch! If there’s one piece of advice I can give you, it’s to leave your far-fetched fantasies at the door. Paris is beautiful, but get ready for all the crude markings of a big city — an abundance of horrible smells, filthy streets, rude people, and a myriad of other inconveniences. You probably won’t live near the Eiffel Tower and getting anywhere worthwhile requires at least 2 train changes on the malodorous metro. But whatever you do, don’t make the change at Châtelet. To put things in perspective, it’s the equivalent of the Times Square-42nd street subway stop. If you absolutely must change here, brace yourself for long walks through cavernous passageways and people with no concept of personal space. As a native New Yorker who’s been commuting for a large part of my life, I can tell you from experience that French commuters are far less considerate than what you’re probably used to. Excuse the temporary digression — that tip is very important.
When making the choice of where to live, I would suggest a homestay. I myself live in a student dorm, which is far more expensive and much less comfortable a space than my friends’ in homestays. One of my friends has a stunning view of the Eiffel Tower. Another one of my friends pays a fraction of what I do, for a room twice as big. It’s a great way to practice your French, and it’s a lot less lonely than a single apartment. I regret choosing the dorm experience, although in my defense I made the choice as a commuter student who has never dormed before. Not so great a choice in hindsight. I could rattle off all the problems with this apartment and that alone could fill the space of this entry.
If you’re an introvert like me, some of the best advice I can give is to put yourself out there. I love being at home — in French we call this a casanièr(e) — but it’s important to make your mark on the city while you’re still here. Three-and-a-half months goes by a lot more quickly than you’d think. Before you know it, you’ll have half a dozen museums left to check out and lists upon lists of bars and restaurants you wanted to try but never got the chance. Push yourself to make plans, doll yourself up, and have your dose of adventures. The truth is, the difficulty level of classes is a lot more relaxed than in New York and you’ll probably have a lot more free time here. Teachers just get it. Definitely focus on your studies, and confidently enjoy your free time knowing you’re on top of academics. Let this semester feel like a vacation — take classes you actually enjoy, immerse yourself in the readings, and enjoy independent excursions to further edify your studies about Paris.
If there’s two things you should take away from this, it’s:
- Paris is not like the movies.
- Don’t let lost time get away from you.
When I made the decision to spend a semester in Paris, I imagined myself journaling in cafés and spending late nights along the Seine sharing a bottle of wine with a stable group of friends. I saw myself spending time in picturesque bookshops and traversing bountiful outdoor produce markets on the weekends. In retrospect, I highly romanticized the idea of living in Paris, ultimately forgetting that every large city has its share of undesirable aspects and gritty realism that tourists often overlook during their short stays abroad. In the past 3 months, I have mourned the death of my childhood pet, been dumped by my boyfriend of 3 years, and had my safety compromised by the terrorist attacks of November 13th. I believed that I would be able to escape the real world by venturing away from home, but instead I have learned that no place on this Earth is magical enough to uproot me from real-world problems. In order to save face, I have been insisting to myself that despite everything I’ve been through this semester, that I still enjoyed my time in Paris. These days I’ve been questioning whether I really believe that. Perhaps it’s too early to reflect, but I certainly feel transformed as a result of all that has happened.
In my time here, my language skills have drastically improved and I do believe I have somewhat immersed myself in French culture. I have spent a lot of time in museums, been to an incredible ballet, and enjoyed Parisian nightlife as a whole. I’ve been to nearly all the arrondissements and ridden almost all the metro lines. I’ve walked nearly the entire length of the Seine. There is still much left in Paris to explore but I think I’ve done a good job of getting a clear picture of what this city has to offer me. My social skills have improved — I’ve never been in a dorm environment (as a commuter) so living alone for the first time has pushed me to make more friends and plan more group gatherings. I want to believe that I have bettered myself as a person through the numerous cultural experiences and social interactions I’ve had here, but most of my memories of Paris are marked by somber undertones as a result of everything that I’ve had to deal with emotionally. Have these negative experiences also helped me grow? Definitely. Though I’m not sure Paris was the best place to experience them. Before I arrived, I saw myself living hedonistically, ignoring problems I had left behind back home and immersing myself in French culture to the best of my ability, living with little to no inhibitions. I feel like the universe was proving a point by throwing all these obstacles in my way — you can’t escape real life by moving to Paris, no matter how much film and literature tells you otherwise.
I think it will take me a long time to fully assess my transformation as a result of my time in Paris. Right now I am faced daily with a slew of ambivalent emotions, clouding judgement of my daily life. Some days I love Paris and never want to leave, but most days I find myself counting down the days until I can return home. It seems a shame, because an experience like this is once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. At this point I’m not sure how to justify my visceral desire to hop on the next plane to New York out of Charles de Gaulle airport. My time in Paris has rocked me to my core. But I guess if there’s one good thing to end on, at least I didn’t become a smoker.
I am neither a citizen of France nor a permanent resident of Paris. For half of the academic year, however, I have been living in the stylishly bohemian 11th arrondissement, whose overall essence emblematizes utter youth. Everywhere you turn, 20-somethings laugh and smoke on the narrow curbs outside the bustling bars, and chic boutiques and concept shops are abound. The warm atmosphere has been instrumental in helping me feel somewhat “at home” here in Paris. I know the narrow streets, the main points of interest, and the notorious blink-and-you’ll-miss-them bars. As a result, the events of November 13th were a ruthless attack on what has evolved into my very own neighborhood. It meant the compromise of my personal security and now, the subsequent perpetual questioning of what locales would remain safe in my daily life.
In the moments of panic at first news of the attacks, I envisioned a slippery slope of imaginary what-ifs regarding the whereabouts of my friends. Preliminary shock turned into brute fear which turned into prolonged paranoia for some time, in regards to my personal safety and of those around me. In retrospect, however, no matter how helpless and acutely fearful I felt, my identity as a foreigner in Paris would dramatically alter my experience of this tragedy. In the end, I had a home to return to, and in a month I would be there. I would not have to deal with the aftermath of the attacks to the same extent as a veritable French person. I would be able to heave a sigh of relief upon stepping off the plane and beginning my procession through JFK, knowing then that I am safely and truly home. I cannot begin to fathom the anguish of someone who may have frequented Le Petit Cambodge or enjoyed attending concerts at the Bataclan, perhaps torn from survivor’s guilt or uprooted by sudden feelings of insecurity.
Despite the understandable grief being experienced by the French, I have noticed that they are a remarkably resilient people: the streets bore no lack of laughing adolescents outside bars and groups of cheerful schoolchildren. There seemed to be no evidence that just a few days prior, terror reigned over the city. Perhaps that is a classically French way to cope — to continue living as if nothing happened and to relish in the fact that they remained lucky and breathing in spite of the chaos. Perhaps what ousts me as the Other is my shock at these responses. The French seemed to cast off fear and remain strong from the get-go, perhaps a form of rebellion against the fear that the terrorists undoubtedly expect us to have.
The staggering amount of French people that joined forces in protest of the deplorable terrorist attacks is inspiring. I visited the memorial to the victims at the Place de la République and was overwhelmed by the mass of flowers and candles adorning the iconic statue. But beyond that, perhaps the most moving element of the memorial, were dozens of messages of empowerment: a grand banner featuring the phrase ‘même pas peur’; a myriad of ‘je suis Paris’; and various bits of hand-written prose pasted to the stone slabs of pavement surrounding the statue, urging people to remain strong and determined against the face of evil. People cried on strangers’ shoulders and took turns lighting candles and kneeling before the statue in mourning prayer. Paris seemed uncannily united in those moments, and yet I somehow felt separated from it and a part of it all at once — undoubtedly a result of my transitory state of being. Not quite Parisienne, but immersed in the culture enough to be utterly shocked and rendered helpless by the attacks of November 13th. Whatever my state may be, American, Parisienne, perhaps American-Parisienne… I am deeply moved by Paris’ response to the heartbreaking bloodshed.
About two months ago, while my mom was paying me a visit in Paris, she suggested that we go to the original Paris branch of one of my favorite restaurants in New York — Le Relais de L’Entrecote. The place is famous for serving steak-frites — and nothing else. Seeing as it was one of her last days visiting me in Paris, I saw the adventure as one last hurrah, as well as to finally appease my perpetual nagging to visit this restaurant. We were also joined by a longtime family friend. As imagined, dinner was excellent.
On our way back to the apartment, a live-in dog from a restaurant poked his head out in my direction and I couldn’t resist but pet the adorable creature. “I miss Chico,” I remarked to my mom and her friend as I pet the dog, thinking about my lifelong companion back home, being babysat by my dad until we returned to New York. That’s when my mom’s friend pulled an expression of what I can only describe as poignant, sorrowful knowingness towards my mom. An expression I had seen before. It was always followed by bad news. They didn’t need to tell me that Chico had passed. I understood. He died in my dad’s arms. No suffering, they said. It was quick. Painless.
Have you ever felt that distinct pang in your chest when you hear exceptionally bad news? Where it physically hurts and you find yourself unable to speak for a few moments, simply because the pain is too great? You feel your vision waver to black and back to clear again, if only for a moment. It’s too much of a shock even to cry yet. It’s that first moment of concentrated despair, proving too much to even elicit a conventional human response towards the news you’d just heard. That’s how I felt. I was 8 years old when we got Chico. I can’t even begin to explain the bond we shared, but I’ll leave it at this: we grew up together. His health was deteriorating at his ripe old age of 12, but I had to admit I thought we had more time left with him. It’s funny, when I said goodbye to him as I left for my flight here to Paris, I eerily remarked to myself whether this might be the last time.
The wound has not healed yet. I think about my dog every day. Having to comfort yourself in a city where you hardly know anyone well enough to cry on their shoulder… it’s not easy. Being home would undoubtedly help this wound heal a lot faster. But here, I know no one wants to hear about my dead dog, or how quirky he was, or how intelligent he was, or how human he was, or how much he meant to me. I went to class the very next day, completely emotionally drained from the total shock, because I didn’t think that the death of a pet was a viable excuse to combat the strict no-absences-period policy with. It is. I didn’t think people would understand. They should.
I am the type of person who gets unreasonably happy every time I see a cute dog being walked on the street. I’ll shamelessly admit I often turn my head as they walk past, simply because I am so fond of dogs in general. Now when I turn to look, there’s an unmistakable pang of sadness that comes along with it. Each time it is a smaller pang than the initial shock I once felt at the news that my best friend had passed away. I know that only time will heal this wound. I believe I am improving each day, if ever so slightly. It is an uphill battle but I am doing my best to trudge through the storm.
I realize my post this week was a rather heavy, sentimental one. It was important to me that I finally talk about it, to help the healing process. I hope you will all understand.
After reading Hemingway’s early memoir, A Moveable Feast, for my first book assignment, I decided to read the book which served as the end product of these experiences of growth as a budding writer in Paris: The Sun Also Rises. This novel is not so much a quintessential “travel book” either, but rather a commentary on the “lost generation” which is made reference to in A Moveable Feast by Gertrude Stein. The lost generation in Hemingway’s novel here refers explicitly to the expatriate crowd of young adults in Europe just after WWI, often deeply affected by the war as well.
Our narrator is Jake Barnes. As a narrator he is often unreliable, toying with his fluency in the subtleties of language, as a writer himself. He is engaged in an unrequited love affair with a British socialite, Lady Brett Ashley. Their feelings for each other are deep and complicated, but as a result of Jake’s postwar injuries (subtly hinting at his impotence), Brett refuses to settle down with him. She herself engages in a slew of affairs with various men, completely forward and consequently empowered by her own sexuality.
The lost generation commentary comes into play when we analyze the alcoholism of nearly all the main characters in the novel. They seem like lost souls, wandering from bar to bar, escaping emotional troubles by partaking in gratuitous alcohol consumption. Their drunken escapades are coupled with adventures in the French and Spanish countrysides, culminating in the famous Pamplona fiesta, noted for its much-loved bullfighting culture. They never seem to be truly happy and their evenings are littered with fights, often over Brett, as several of the main characters have romantic relationships with her simultaneously. The novel is clearly symbolic of trouble in paradise, as a result of postwar wounds never truly being able to heal.
I must admit the novel does not edify my experience of Paris as I am neither a socialite nor a member of the lost generation, but it does provide an interesting look at expatriate life, with which I can identify. There is a recurring element of being the Other, as a non-European, often accompanied by language barriers. Their experiences are certainly transformed by their identities, garnering much attention and often getting them into various situations that likely would not have happened otherwise, if they were locals. The characters’ experiences as Others are amplified by their seemingly-aimless travel through European villages and cities. Although it is hard to identify with Jake’s very specific, very heartbreaking experiences of being a wounded veteran, it is somewhat facilitated by his mentions of landmarks in Paris that I know well, allowing me to put myself in his fictional shoes. These small details create a more realistic vision of Paris for me, despite many years separating Hemingway’s from mine.
I’ve always wanted to frequent one business so often that I’d be able to sit down confidently and order “the usual”. Better yet, the staff would know exactly what to start preparing the moment I stepped through the door. It’s a very whimsical, romantic sentiment in theory, but I’ve never seen it happen in real life. Even back home, I can only think of a few speciality restaurants that my family and I frequent. We’re all pretty adventurous when it comes to new dining experiences, so there’s no need to stick to any particular joint except when it comes to truly unique experiences. On my own in Paris, I’ve had an overwhelmingly amount of positive dining experiences. There have been some flops, but they haven’t deterred me from trying new things.
I’ve had incredible pizza at the fully Italian-run Ober Mamma, scrumptious udon worth waiting on line for at Sanukiya, deliciously world-renowned steak-frites at L’Entrecôte, and unique apple-themed dishes at original upscale concept restaurant, Pomze. Each of these experiences doesn’t make me want to return to the same restaurants as much as it drives me to explore what else is out there, because it must mean that there’s a world of unforgettable cuisine out there to try. In the culture of both my parents, a well-fed person is a happy person. Some may call us gluttons, but we believe that sharing great conversation over top of delicious food helps bring people together.
Despite my hunger for unique dining experiences, I often long to be like Hemingway in his memoirs (of A Moveable Feast) where he calls the waiters of his favorite establishment by name, and it feels like a friendly exchange instead of a business one. At one point, a rowdy friend of Hemingway even leads him to apologize to Jean the waiter for the friend’s behavior, clearly embarrassed — it seems personal and the reader is equally uncomfortable at the various clashing orders given by Ford Madox Ford (75). Coincidentally, Hemingway’s favorite joints are all nearby the NYU Paris campus, although needless to say that the neighborhood has changed leaps and bounds since his time here. Sadly, the picturesque cafés eloquently described by Hemingway have been replaced by dodgy souvenir shops and to-go crêperies.
I think the massive production of food in the modern world means we are eager to sample all that we can — quantity over quality. Concept restaurants with original ideas intrigue us; yet even homestyle comfort food has become commercial. Ambient cafés are hard to come by these days, especially in modern metropolises like Paris, which I believe is the reason that customers rarely bear attachments to the eateries they visit, like Hemingway always entrusting Jean to deliver a great experience each time. Whether or not this is the case for my lack of patronage to any particular business, I’m happy to be overwhelmed by the array of options Paris provides in the cuisine department. Reconsidering now, I’m not sure I’d really rather be the kind of person who can ask for “the usual”: there’s simply too much good food in Paris to stick to just one thing.
When asked to describe my neighborhood here in France, I mutter something along the lines of “the West Village of Paris”. Chic yet no-name boutiques, an abundance of eclectic bars, and dozens of ultra-modern ambiguous “design” shops all litter the streets of the 11th arrondissement. There’s always distant club music playing, and an unmistakable medley of Nutella crêpes mixed with cigarettes fills the air. I feel incredibly safe here. Even tonight, on a Sunday evening, young people crowd the sidewalks outside various bars. In this part of Paris, no one gives you a dirty look for talking too loudly, or what I lovingly refer to as “American volume”. That’s simply because no one can hear you over the cacophony of ambient noise that I can only describe as the sounds of youth.
This part of the city does feel slightly out of place — 10 minutes in any direction leads you to a drastically different-looking part of Paris. This up-and-coming youthful neighborhood seems to be infringing on the quieter quartiers of Paris. There is definitely a certain look to the inhabitants of the 11th — stylish 20-somethings dressed exclusively in monochrome, complete with an air of confident indifference that compliments their laid-back lifestyle. That description is oddly-reminiscent of young New Yorkers from downtown Manhattan. And yet it remains quintessentially Parisian. Here, Parisians wear this look to effectively blend in. I feel that in New York, the opposite is true. Regardless of the impetus behind the look, it has definitely grown on my personal fashion sense as well. I live by “Normcore chic” and Paris has even brought it out further from within me.
This weekend I visited Montmartre, a neighborhood whose tiny streets bear a strong resemblance to the 11th arrondissement. Parts of Montmartre nearer to the Sacre-Coeur are littered with tourists and equally-irritating street vendors. But if you venture just a little further, off the beaten path, there are wonders to be seen. Hand-painted signs and aged cobblestone streets give a magical air to this charming neighborhood. Tasteful graffiti can be seen on building facades. On a Sunday it is eerily empty — the only differentiator between here and the 11th. Adorable microboutiques and hole-in-the-wall cafés are dimmed and empty on France’s universal day of rest. I remarked to my friend earlier that the whole experience felt like a new addition to the Disney theme parks — “Montmartreland”.
Though many of the buildings have been affected by Paris’ “Haussmanization”, each Parisian arrondissement captures a certain flair — my favorite of which can be found in the Parmentier/Oberkampf area of the 11th and the lesser-known locales of Montmartre. I expect with increased gentrification, these in-demand, hip neighborhoods will continue to grow and expand their reach across Paris.
Frankly, I am sick of hearing my parents’ generation blather on about how dependent millennials are upon social media. It’s no secret that young adults trust the travel experiences of their likeminded peers; it just so happens to be that the platform by which this information is exchanged is online. The only generational difference here is the medium of communication, where word-of-mouth reviews are exchanged for digital ones. Although countless infographics and studies seem to illustrate this particular generation’s dependence on social media, I believe these statistics demonstrate a completely natural progression of our accessibility to technology.
According to authors Alizadeh and Isa in “The use of social media in destination marketing: An exploratory study“, 42% of Facebook users share information about their travel destinations. They go on to note that a whopping 83% of members trust the recommendations of their family and friends. Somewhere between these two statistics lies a powerful force to be utilized by the tourism industry to potentially further change the way we organize travel. This study illustrates that while social media influences the way we travel, the actual driving force behind this data is that above all, users best trust reviews from people they know. So rather than saying we trust some mysterious Internet force that beckons us to fuel the ever-growing tourism industry, in actuality the Internet has just provided a collective way for users to gather an array of reviews from people they trust.
I use the mobile app Yelp on a daily basis to assess the best local restaurants and cafés. Until I have narrowed down my personal favorites, using Yelp is a great way to ensure an excellent dining experience every time. Although it is not officially a travel app, I have galavanted across Europe using Yelp with only positive experiences. I can trust reviews from locals as well as other tourists, knowing that the impetus to review a business comes from either a fantastic or terrible experience. The more positive and detailed reviews, the more I expect from a business, and as of yet I still have not been disappointed. Personally, I am not a big Facebook user, and sharing travel experiences just feels like a ploy at ego-boosting to me. In documenting my Parisian adventures, I much prefer Instagram, a photo-based social app. Because the emphasis is on photography and not socializing, posting new photos does not garner the same attention that it would on Facebook, since it is more impersonal.
Alizadeh and Isa’s article goes on to suggest business tactics for the tourism industry in response to social media’s ever-growing influence. Understanding the purpose behind why people use particular forms of social media over others for their travel-related intentions is key to leverage their power (179). They clarify this statement by noting the omnipresence of various social media in all aspects of one’s trip — Yelp for dining, for example.
Note on image: I used Yelp to find this café, called “Thank You, My Deer”, which I now frequent. All the reviews were overwhelmingly positive and I too have had a great experience each time.
Hemingway’s posthumously-published A Moveable Feast is a collection of his experiences from his early years as a budding novelist in Paris. The book features several character sketches of his contemporaries, with the latter portion of the book focusing on F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda. Hemingway also provides chillingly vivid descriptions of lower-class Parisian life. Some major themes include café culture, weather, poverty, his family, and his personal artistic struggles.
Hemingway masterfully paints café tableaus as warm, cozy spaces to escape dreary Parisian “false springs”, or Spring seasons that had been “beat back” by reoccurring bouts of rain, providing no mid-season window of warmth before somber Fall inevitably settled in (38). For every café scene, Hemingway describes his artistic process and recounts any pivotal sensory experiences that affected his writing, such as a moment early on in the book where Hemingway recalls being stopped in his metaphorical tracks by a stunningly beautiful young girl, and poetically reflects on this experience:
“I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.” (18)
This particular passage resonated with me because French cafés have a certain way of feeling like their own microcosm, making the cafégoer effectively deaf and blind to the outside world. In spending time at a café, there is this unmistakable sense of belonging, like Hemingway recounts, towards complete strangers and your immediate surroundings. For those brief (or extended) moments of time you spend in a café, it’s easy to forget about the rest of the world entirely as you get lost among the clinking glasses, the warm ambience, and the lighthearted conversation that fills the space, creating an atmosphere like no other.
Hemingway is excellent at painting these European scenes, and in his brief escapades in Lyon and alpine regions of Austria, the book is really transformed into the quintessential travel book. By introducing a colorful cast of characters, many reoccurring, Hemingway offers the reader a sort of voyeuristic insight unto some of the more private relationship dynamics he comes across. For example, he reflects on Miss Gertrude Stein’s questionable affiliation with her contemporaries, as she only speaks highly of writers who have, in turn, publicly praised her own stories. A large portion of the book is focused on Stein’s hypocrisy. He also provides an insider’s look into the dysfunctional family dynamic of the Fitzgeralds, complete with Scott’s drunkenness, Zelda’s infidelity, and the mutual jealousy between them. Historical figures of any kind usually possess a certain distance from the reader which can be attributed to their near-legendary status, but Hemingway eliminates this disparity by demonstrating the good, the bad, and the ugly of these distinguished literary figures.
Hemingway’s experiences in Paris are distinguished from the typical recollection of early 20th century Paris in that they are all outlined by an unmistakable air of poverty. It is not until the end of the book that Hemingway achieves some kind of literary success, and as such, most of the experiences that the book entails are a poor man’s version of everyday life in Paris. Hemingway’s presence as a struggling writer is evident throughout the book, and his money troubles often seep into other aspects of his life, highlighting the realistic hardships that come with being an artist in a modern-day metropolis.
Note: The featured image depicts Hemingway among others in front of Paris’ Shakespeare & Co., a famous English-language bookstore.
Living in Paris has instilled an insatiable urge in me to create art — to paint, to photograph, to journal — a sort of “Paris fever”, if you will. I am constantly inspired by the details of the Parisian quotidian and led to create as a result. Though admittedly I am rarely satisfied with the end products of my creative self-expression, this cycle of inspiration and creation has effectively become part of my routine.
Paris has turned me into something of an early riser. Because I have deliberately scheduled all my classes after noon, I often wake leisurely with no alarm, and have ample time to perform my morning rituals. It’s a nice break from my life in New York, where the constant hustle and bustle seems to inform the way people go about their daily lives. In New York, leisure isn’t prioritized like it is in Paris, and I have been making efforts to modify my lifestyle based on those Parisian guidelines.
For me, a day in the life starts with a hot mug of tea, sipped slowly and relished. On most days, I leave the house by 11AM, and make my way to school at a relaxed pace. I will usually arrive with ample time to spare before class, at which point I catch up on class readings. On Mondays and Tuesdays, I am done with class by 2PM and I spend the rest of the day, frankly, however I choose. I often remark that this semester abroad feels like an extended vacation, because despite having to do the occasional dense reading for a class, I rarely feel the stresses of academic responsibility. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, I don’t leave the NYU Paris campus until 7PM, which does inevitably take its toll on me. Three-hour seminars are no small feat. Yet still, I wouldn’t categorize these responsibilities as stressful. This too, I think, is a result of the Paris fever I mentioned earlier. Class can sometimes be a bore, but once I leave the building and walk down the famous Boulevard Saint-Germain, my mood immediately improves. When you’re out and about in a city like Paris, it’s hard to stay upset. Having lived here for over a month already, I can understand why Paris itself served as a muse to great artists and writers throughout history.
One static symbol of my routine has become the stray cat that roams around the courtyard of the apartment building I live in. I see her daily, and the security guards often feed her in the evenings. I haven’t yet worked up the courage to ask who she belongs to, if anyone, but I feel like that would ruin the magic of our chance meetings. Back home, there is a large pack of stray cats that roam around my neighborhood in a small, off-the-beaten-path nook of Queens, New York. They’ve lived there for as long as I can remember. My Parisian feline friend reminds me of these cats back home, and serves as an anchor in my acclimation process to Paris. I can think of no better tangible symbol to my Parisian routine than her.
It’s no secret that Parisians are notoriously lackadaisical. Sunday, especially, is a day of relaxation, of spending time with family, and of botanizing the landscape on quaint strolls through the city. Today I spent my afternoon like a true Parisienne, picnicking in Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, a luxurious expanse of lush, rolling hills, babbling brooks, and scattered small lakes — all in the middle of Paris. The park scene in Paris is no different than from back home. Instead, it is the journey to the park on a lazy Sunday afternoon which best embodies the slow-paced Parisian lifestyle.
The only bustling aspects of Parisian commerce on a Sunday are the few boulangeries which remain open, as well as tourist traps. Other than that, Sundays in Paris are what the French might call mort, or dead. There are fewer cars than usual on the road, and people often take this opportunity to traverse the landscape via bicycle — an incredibly French pastime. My commute to the park required travel by metro as well as on foot, and several distinct aspects of each leg of the journey were evident. The metro smelled distinctly of Saturday night’s escapades; of alcohol and urine. Commutes felt less urgent; people didn’t rush for trains or push past others to the extent of normal discourse on a weekday morning. The type of crowds were different as well: families rode the metro together, taking advantage of the beautiful day, perhaps to visit a park or canal for some downtime. The overall level of urgency was at an all-time low for the week. What will inevitably incite drastic change from this afternoon into the hectic bustle of Monday morning remains a mystery.
The park itself was incredibly busy. Joggers took advantage of the fine weather to stay in shape, a few school groups sat in neat circles on the various lawns, and hordes of young people laughed and smoked together over some snacks and wine. Some tourists too, identifiable by their awe of the park’s gorgeous views of the rest of the city, snapped rapid-fire photos before sitting down to take in the atmosphere themselves. The sun-soaked lawns were packed on this warm, September afternoon — indeed, rare for Paris. Walking along the park’s sparkling lakes while admiring the pleasant harmony of layered conversation in the last few hours of daylight, one is overwhelmed by the feeling of this languorous, almost romantic setting. Perhaps it comes from the notion of forgetting that one remains in Paris, the surroundings instead feeling like some kind of distant sylvan paradise.
The best expression of the French joie de vivre, I think, is best achieved by strolling through Paris on a Sunday. Being the bustling metropolis that it is, one might find it difficult to establish some kind of stability in Paris; to push through all the urban noise in attempt to find solace. Yet a relaxing Sunday afternoon might be the best remedy for the weary Parisian, or in my case, a stranger aiming to be one.
I’ve come to find that the best compliment a Parisian can give my language skills is not defaulting to English.
Maybe it’s written on my face, or maybe it’s my poor attempt at a French accent, but I am immediately and clearly labeled as the Other when initiating casual conversation, especially in a commercial setting. Most service workers don’t noticeably change their mannerisms once they realize I’m a foreigner, but I’m sure I can sense a brief flicker in their eyes; a moment of realization. Is this moment an inherently negative response? Or, is it just my paranoia altogether? It’s hard to tell exactly what that moment means from a Parisian’s perspective. But I just can’t deny that it’s there.
I’m from New York — Queens to be exact — and there’s no shortage of multiculturalism. I myself fill in the “Race: Other” bubble in the identification section of standardized tests. I bring this up because there is no standard “New Yorker” identity. A New Yorker’s origins can lie anywhere, and I think that’s what sets my home apart from other metropolises. In Paris, the Other is much more defined. It’s no secret that the French are rather notoriously xenophobic. The inability to speak standard French immediately outs you as the Other.
I know enough French to get around the city. I prefer to have important conversations in English, like when I went to the pharmacy earlier today, or when I first got my Navigo (French MetroCard). The conversation with the pharmacist was a combination of broken English and French, because her own English was limited. Even so, everything went smoothly. I can’t say I’m finding it difficult to get around, even with only one year of NYU’s elementary-level French under my belt. A combination of gesture and broken French will get my point across in even the most desperate situations. Perhaps it is the lackadaisical French attitude growing on me, because I don’t really feel at a loss in the language department despite my rudimentary French skills.
To practice, I often listen to conversations in French happening around me. I don’t quite grasp everything, mostly because conversational speed is a lot faster than what I am accustomed to, but my understanding of scattered words is enough to satisfy me for now. I suppose I am privileged to have grown up speaking such a universal language as English, with all its linguistic inconsistencies that surely pose problems and hefty amounts of confusion for the budding young student. To think that all first-world countries instill the importance of learning English in its students in such a young age is stunning when viewed from an outsider’s perspective. Of course, American children have the option of learning a language in high school, but in my experience it’s not as rigorously taught as English seems to be in other countries, because it likely will not develop into a life skill for most students. In other words, there is no sense of urgency because of the prominence of English everywhere one goes. As a result, the average American high school student won’t take Spanish or French classes as seriously, simply because they won’t need it. English is the language of business, of commerce; and as a result it is universal.
Image caption: My favorite French language discovery so far: “éclair” is actually the French word for “lightning”. The story of this homonym is the fact that éclairs are so famously delicious that they are eaten at the speed of lightning.
Getting lost in Paris may seem romantic from an outsider’s perspective. But as someone who’s relied on the reliable grids of New York City for all her life, the winding alleyways and sidestreets of this new city have left me baffled. Some may call it stubbornness, but I consider my refusal to ask for directions as a sign of confidence — although my instinct has led me astray more than a few times already here in Paris. These experiences led me to some self-reflection: had I ever truly been lost while on my own? I don’t drive, and all my journeys à pied were easy enough, with New York City being as navigable as it is. Anytime I have gotten lost in a strange place, I was always with others, thereby eliminating urgencies informed by public threats, like strangers. But being alone in Paris may just be the first opportunity for me to truly get lost, which leaves me feeling uneasy. Like Solnit, some might argue that opting to venture towards “the door into the dark” is ultimately beneficial and serves to broaden one’s horizons (i). Whether I like it or not, all my anchors from back home are gone, and I am forced to craft a makeshift mental map featuring new ones until I truly start settling into my new life here.
Lynch discusses these aforementioned anchors in practice, highlighting their inherent temporality (1). An anchor in practice is one we do not recognize except in its absence. Much like infrastructure from an anthropological perspective, until the anchors are gone from our immediate surroundings, only then do we realize how heavily we once relied on them to navigate. The internal GPS we each create is a subconscious process, formed by our lived experiences. The smell of crêpes that wafts past, beckoning, as you make your way home signals just how much longer is left until your arrival. That bright-red painted door signals you should turn left on the following intersection. The passing witty conversation you had with a peer as you parted ways to enter the metro… All these sensory experiences help us pinpoint our locations until we can truly become versed with the ins and outs of our surroundings. One might refer to these as our “personal” landmarks.
Though I haven’t been helplessly lost thus far, I have had to embarrassingly make a few 180-degree turns while buried in the Maps application on my phone, upon realizing I had been going in the wrong direction for some time. And today, someone asked me for directions. In poor, panicked French, I did my best to direct them towards the Sorbonne, whose location I luckily already knew. The experience was likely more anxiety-inducing for me than anyone else, as if I were the one who was lost instead. As of yet, I haven’t felt so desperately disoriented that I needed to vocalize my dilemmas with a stranger. That could just be my pride complicating these simple interactions for me, playing them up as displays of weakness I would rather avoid. More than anything, I think I’m just trying to reassure myself of my own self-sufficiency and use any navigational mishaps as learning experiences. So far, so good.
Note: For some reason, my caption/explanation of my featured image is not being displayed. Here’s the caption copied below.
The only romantic form of getting disoriented that I have experienced so far is within the stacks of Shakespeare and Company, a very famous English-language bookshop.
My pulse races. My breaths quicken. Lightheadedness overcomes me. You might think I’m referring to the stunning views, the relaxed pace of life, or the inescapable bewilderment of starting over in a new city. But mostly I’m just fatigued from unpacking two near-50lb suitcases.
My name is Firozah, and I’m a New York City native. You don’t see too many of us at NYU, and that’s mostly because inner city kids look forward to a change of pace when it’s time to go away for college, opting instead for college towns, with courtyards and football teams and blinding levels of school pride. Simply put, that’s not my cup of tea. Gallatin immediately felt like a perfect fit, and I had a decent freshman year, but the oh-so-familiar surroundings just didn’t fulfill me like it did my peers. To kick off my sophomore year, I decided to try something new. So I moved to Paris. (For a semester, anyway.)
In many ways, Paris is the antithesis of New York City. New Yorkers can be curt, but are very aware of their surroundings when out in public. The MTA has inconvenienced us often enough, and in a bizarre karmic sort of way, I think New Yorkers have consensually decided it’s probably best not to stir the pot any further by inconveniencing anyone else. Nearly all the times I’ve been inconvenienced in public was the fault of a tourist, walking too slowly or failing to comprehend proper subway etiquette. Paris is also very… slow-paced. In New York, people walk to their destinations with dignified purpose. It’s off-putting to me that one is invited to take in all aspects of Parisian life sensorially, even on a casual stroll. I knew this about Paris, and I like it in theory. I am reminded of Botton’s retelling of des Esseintes’ grandiose visions of British life, from imagery in Dickens’ novels (10). In the same vein, I love what Paris has to offer, but in many respects the lifestyle seems less practical than what I am accustomed to. Perhaps it will grow on me.
I similarly resonate with Botton’s analysis of lived experience versus imagination. I was talking to some other students in the program earlier, and the overall consensus was that none of us really felt like we were actually in Paris yet. We were, of course. But we were not in our imagined version of Paris. We imagined the blue-gray dome-roofed luxurious apartments, the irresistible smell of baked goods as you walk past a patisserie, and the historically-rich landmarks that compose the cultural hub that is Paris. We didn’t imagine the horrifyingly malodorous Metro or the cramped living space we would be given, replete with unwashed dishes and rusted appliances in desperate need of a cleaning.
Whenever I travel, I look forward to the memories I will inevitably create; ones I can occasionally reflect back on. I find that I look on memories more fondly than the actual experience, since variants like weather and conversation can often leave a sour taste in the midst of an otherwise pleasant venture. But those factors are subtler in memory. You can recall a heated argument, or a sudden shock, but with each recollection, the degree of emotional response from a memory inevitably decreases. Memories of travel offer the sights and the sounds that beckoned me to the destination in the first place, often without the added emotional baggage experienced in-the-moment.
As Pico Iyer poignantly resolves, we travel to immerse ourselves in cultures different from our own; to acknowledge and embrace alternate lifestyles. Both texts have helped me to grasp a palpable understanding of why travel is always brighter in theory. For example, today’s arrival went well, until I dropped my key down the slit of the elevator shaft door. They had an extra, and the process to retrieve the lost key isn’t a big deal, but I felt absolutely overcome with embarrassment, shame, and frustration. It wasn’t just about the key. It was the idea that the universe (or just my own poor luck) forbade me to live out my first day in Paris without any mishaps, effectively shattering my imagined reality of Parisian bliss in one fell swoop. Ah, well. C’est la vie, I suppose.