What’s beneath the golden crust

In Going Places, Paris, The Art of Travel Fall 2014 by AnnieLeave a Comment

Il fait LOURD

I think there’s always a thick pressure on people to love Paris. We learn to love Paris early in our lives because of its reputation as the city of romance, food, fashion, and everything beautiful. And though there’s a lot of truth in that reputation, it’s hard for people to come here and discover the real, sometimes mundane life that people live underneath that golden crust.

It’s normal, but kind of funny that foreigners think about things like baguettes as the central axis of French everyday life, completely ignoring that French people are just normal people too. I, for one, was still in vacation mode when I met with my landlord and forgot to ask about where I take my trash and recycling. For the first week, I just walked around my apartment building opening every door that looked like a closet, hoping to find a garbage room. I eventually found it in the basement.

The Japanese embassy in Paris runs a 24-hour hotline for Japanese tourists suffering from Paris Syndrome, which many of them are susceptible to fall into after dreaming of Paris their whole lives and then finding themselves unable to handle the realities of Paris. It keeps me sane to know that I’m not the only one who isn’t completely fooled by Paris’ charm. There are a lot of things I love about Paris (the markets! the parks! the architecture! the yogurt!), a lot of normal, everyday stuff, and a lot of things I don’t like so much, but at least I always know what to expect when I return.

Returning to Paris this time didn’t require much special attention or preparation—I travel overseas probably more than I should, so my mother is used to me coming and going, and I could probably pack my bags, get myself through the airport, and avoid jetlag all in my sleep. I see travel not as an escape from everyday life, but something that enriches it, so I try to go somewhere at every opportunity.

But when I board an overseas flight, I always think back nostalgically to when I left my tiny hometown to go to an even tinier town in Sweden for an entire year when I had just hardly turned 16. It seemed I had waited my entire life for that experience, dreaming of fjords, moose, and idyllic fishing villages. I spent that entire summer waiting impatiently to hear word about my host family and new community. I spent months connecting with other exchange students online, weeks packing and repacking, days at orientation camps in New York and in Stockholm. I had a going-away party, my mom cried at the airport, I kept a blog, I made new Swedish friends more than I kept up with my old friends, and in the end, I knew that that was not the end of that experience.

Though as much as I think back on that experience longingly, I have to remind myself it was far from easy. At that time, I was still grieving over my father’s death, I had to learn a new language from scratch, and I had to try to fit in to a completely new community without knowing any of the language or how to relate to the people there. It was isolating. Eventually I found my way and ended up speaking Swedish so well that a distant member of my host family asked me at a Christmas celebration who the American exchange student was that she had heard about. I told her it was me and she almost spit out her Swedish meatball and said “Åh herregud! I thought you were Swedish!”

The 16-year old in me wants something like that in Paris. The 20-year old in me sits on her balcony and eats croissants while listening to Arabic love songs. I’m not really sure what I should realistically anticipate.

In a lot of ways, I feel so comfortable in Paris that it scares me. Coming back to Paris just felt like something so normal, it was the same old back-to-school kind of feeling. I happened to come back at the same time that all of the Parisians are coming back from their month-long vacation so I felt just like any other Parisian settling back into the daily grind. Sometimes I’m afraid that I’m too settled down in Paris already that I won’t be motivated to go beyond the boundaries of my quotidien life.

But when I came into the city in a taxi at approximately 6 in the morning, we passed by the Porte Saint-Denis, a big arch that, built in 1672, used to be a gate to the city before the city’s expansion. Now it’s nearly in the center of the city. I also live next to les Arènes de Lutèce, a giant Roman amphitheater that Parisians hang out at like they would at any other public park. They’re remnants of history that are so intertwined with regular Parisian life that people probably don’t even realize why they’re there.

There’s always something new to discover about Paris. Whether it’s something dull or something amusing, it’s always stimulating to make small discoveries in such a complex city.

I enjoy walking down Paris’s streets and smelling the smell of bread baking at the boulangerie, getting a pain au chocolat while its still warm from the oven, and the satisfaction of giving exact change. I like looking up at rooftops and treetops and balconies and wondering what kind of life lives there. I like sitting at a café staring at people and thinking about why all of these people are in the same city as I am, and if they do the same things that I do and hate all the same things that I hate.

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