I have lived in Paris for nearly three years, the home of my second language and my second family that first made me miss my own just a little bit less, and I am soon leaving. I am moving to New York with a French man and three suitcases and an incredibly heavy heart. It’s for the best, I know, but that has never been a sentiment which takes the sting off of a tough decision. I’ve been to New York a few times, never for very long, and even in its ubiquity, it feels incredibly unfamiliar and intimidating. Where Paris has always been a collection of neighborhoods, nearly completely unmarred by the distant loom of a skyscraper, New York is a real city. It is loud and tall and bursting with limitless energy. When I walk along the river at night here, alone except for the people singing in my headphones, I realize how the peace that I have come to love even in a city so large is something not granted to most metropolises.
When I look out of the big double windows of my perfect-for-me little St Michel apartment, I wonder if I will ever be able to carve out such an understandable slice of life for myself again. I have managed to tame and master one city, but it was a soft one. I don’t have many callouses from the process.
I very rarely write about Paris, even on my personal blog or with my friends from back in the States when we exchange long catch-up emails. And it’s mostly because I feel, quite simply, that there is enough written about Paris as it stands. There has never been a shortage of eager, curious, existentially hungry Americans who’ve gone to the City of Light to find themselves and ended up writing essays or books of all lengths to describe the way they feel looking into the reflection of a tiny cup of espresso on a bright, clear Paris fall morning.
And it’s always struck me that there is a narrative that exists about Paris, one where the people are haughty smokers and the cafés are busy and the parks are incredibly well-manicured. And part of this is true, to be sure. But it seems significant that so many of the people writing about this city — even those who live in it for years — write about it with the perspective of a particularly impressionable visitor touring some kind of theme park. They don’t speak much French, and even if part of their story is comprised of the hilarious foibles involved with learning to conjugate irregular verbs when confronted with an impatient pharmacist, their involvement is always conditional.
They speak to Parisians on English terms, a change in dynamic which is bound to render nearly interaction just a bit less natural than it would have been otherwise. And I love fish-out-of-water tales, but we have enough of them when it comes to Paris. I’d like to start hearing more from, say, Barcelona, if anyone has good recommendations for some travel reading.
But one of the things that has always made me love Paris so deeply is how much it transcends cliché, how little of it really falls into that perfectly charming narrative about existential ennui and cheap red wine. While there is nothing more sensually fulfilling than spending a day shopping in old Parisian speciality shops, filling up your basket with cheese and bread and reveling in the realization that some things are popular for a reason, it comprises such a small slice of life here that it’s as much a novelty to its inhabitants as it is to someone watching Amélie for the first time.
Most nights out change the bottle of wine for a couple of good mojitos or a pint of Belgian beer. Most shopping trips involve swinging by the Monoprix on the way home from work and hoping that you didn’t get there past the time when they stop selling alcohol. Most morning coffee happens either at your kitchen counter, passing briefly through a bakery, or stopping by a Starbucks. There isn’t a whole lot of time to just linger, unless you’re in one of those devastatingly fashionable neighborhoods whose lunch hours magically last all day.
When I first came here, I was working as an au pair. When you work in such a position, the entire culture of “French luxury” stays as foreign to you as it was before your plane landed. You take the metro early, you take the baby to the park and to school with the other nannies, you stay late helping to clean up after dinner. You live in a small room, and get paid a negligible stipend. You walk through the posh shopping districts, pining after a purse that would take four months’ worth of your salary to buy. You see the people in their smart blazers and Inès de la Fressange skinny jeans, and you recognize that they belong to another world. You are just one of the cogs that makes the machine turn, and makes it look so effortlessly good.
Paris is beautiful, but it’s always more beautiful for someone else.
And even as a writer, when my occupation and geographical location matched up for a mental image of the most superficially fulfilling life one could imagine, Paris is still just a normal city. The architectural backdrop and culinary underpinnings are thrilling to the senses, but even those get dulled after a while. Just as in any city, it is the locals who are least likely to take in the monuments, stroll through a museum, or seek out the most aesthetically pleasing parks. It’s almost cynical how numb we can become to the immense beauty that surrounds us. The daily grind of grocery stores and post offices and pharmacies and paperwork become as much of a distraction as they do anywhere.
And that is precisely why I always encourage people to come here when I can. Because it is important for us to realize, when we actually set foot and grow accustomed to a place about which we have dreamed for so long, that nothing can ever live up to our porcelain expectations. Nothing will ever be a one-dimensional narrative of espresso and baguettes and striped shirts. And that is what makes life most beautiful, most engaging, most surprising. To have your expectations wiped away from your eyes and be left with the reality of a city of 2.5 million people, and to understand that it is still something worth dreaming about, is all the confirmation we need to appreciate what we have when we have it. I will miss the simple trips to the grocer or to my friend’s apartment or to my favorite neighborhood bar the most, not Montmartre or the Jardin de Luxembourg (even though they are beautiful).
That is a life we can carve out anywhere, that is the simple beauty that rises to the top like cream, even in a city as rich in everything as Paris.
You should come to Paris because you will be, in some way, disappointed by it, as we are with any image we have built up in our heads for so long (as I was the very first time I came here, after so many years spent looking at my postcards and my books and my charming French movies). And in your disappointment, you will realize that there is something much more beautiful under the Haussmanian rooftops and the narrow, winding sidestreets. You will realize that there are real humans here, people whose lives carry on unbeknownst to us, who cannot translate themselves into a rough idiomatic equivalent in English, and whose world will always remain just a little bit of a mystery to us. And you will realize that this — not the monuments — is really what has kept us so in love with this city for so many years.