One of my favorite emotions is pre-emptive nostalgia – I like to miss something while I’m still living it. And yet when I left New York, I can see in my letters to my best friend Jess (now chronicled in our joint memoir) that, for the first time in my life, I was fully in the moment: fully ready to embrace the future, Paris, and everything that would come with it.
As a cinema student whose father once worked as a cinematographer, I pay a lot of attention to light. Paris, infamously, has unique light in its diffuse pastels, slanted afternoon sun, and even the kind of glowing overcast days you don’t find anywhere else. But after New York, the City of Lights seemed more muted and decidedly darker. Compared to Times Square, Paris didn’t have the harsh neon of New York, but it did have fairy lights on the boats floating down the Seine. The Metro didn’t stay harshly illuminated at all hours, but the gently glowing signs did appear out of the darkness like welcoming friends after a long night out.
If you stay in Paris long enough, some lights will become good friends, others will remind you of mistakes you’ve made; but every light will conjure up a particular kind of emotion. In fact, the City of Lights has exactly ten kinds of light.
1. Other people’s chandeliers
These are the chandeliers you see hanging inside rich people’s homes. You will usually be on the sidewalk outside, sneaking a peek into what feels like their inner lives. You will almost certainly be in either one of two moods: on top of the world, having sold your first painting or short story or, I don’t know, apartment, or whatever, and feeling like you’re so close to living in this kind of apartment yourself; or the depths of despair, in which you feel like the Little Match Girl, and you could (cough, cough) die out here in the cold and the rain, and nobody would ever know you had existed.
The rest of the time, you will not notice the chandeliers.
2. 19th-Century Streetlamps
Good for two things: pretending to be Eponine in Les Miserables when infatuated with some French boy who doesn’t know you are alive, and who will probably fall in love with some blonde girl he NEVER EVEN TALKED TO and leave you to get shot when you were just trying to be a pal and TAKE HIS NOTE TO THE STUPID BLONDE GIRL and then you will die under the streetlamp and he will regret it a little bit, but not enough not to marry the blonde girl in, like, THE NEXT SCENE.
I forget what the second thing is.
3. That one lamp from IKEA you’ve bought four times
After a little while in France, you’ll start to notice how gorgeous Asian-inspired French décor is. Much prettier than the strange, brightly colored 1980s décor that most French people will default to when left on their own. Once you notice the gorgeous Franco-Asian blend, you will look in the windows of a million antique shops, and realize that a) you’re too scared to go in and 2) you’re really glad they overtly display the prices of the objects in the window, because the prices have stopped you from making a fool of yourself by going in. You will then see this lamp at IKEA, and think, eh, good enough. It’s delicate, it’s airy, it in no way reminds you of Cindy Lauper. And then you reach for it in the middle of the night, catch yourself on the cord, and the lamp will shatter into 64,324 pieces. But it’s so cheap! So you buy another one. What the hell.
And then your American rock-climbing friend comes to visit, catches his foot on the cord that passes the length of your apartment, and the lamp will shatter into just two pieces this time. You will try to make this work, but eventually staring at the bare light bulb through shards of glass will make you feel like you are going blind.
This will happen two more times.
Doesn’t even matter if you live in Paris or not.
4. The Eiffel Tower when you’re in love
The reason you came to this city, a marvel of architecture. A reminder of the ingenuity of mankind, eras gone by, and the hub of the city’s lovers and those who love to love the lovers, and those who love to watch the lovers and those who love to not watch the lovers, and the love of the – (you got it? Good).
5. The Eiffel Tower when you’re not in love
6. The flame from your lighter
This fire will sometimes be the only source of light in the entire apartment at a house party. It will make you friends outside of university entrances, and make North American tourists glare at you. It will make the French think you are a different kind of American. This will make you, and a thousand girls just like you, feel unbelievably unique and special.
(Also, be warned: when asking for a light, a French person asks for feu, or “fire.” They are not just walking up to you and calling you fou, or “crazy.” If you’re a woman, they’d use the feminine foulle for that anyway, silly! Go back to French class.)
The true reason to be in Paris as a teenager, or a twenty-something, or an any-something. You have smoked a million cigarettes and drunk a quart of red wine (but not the same red wine – whatever was in the dregs of all of those bottles around 4am) and danced to ABBA. Kind of ironically, but no. Not really ironically. It is five now and the subway won’t be open for a while yet, and you live nearby anyway, so what the hell. You are wearing white go-go boots and all of a sudden the soles of your feet are burning like a motherfucker and you don’t care anymore, so you pull your sweaty hair off your face, because the night air is cool, and you take off your boots, and you walk home in your stocking feet over cobblestones, just as a neon blue, and then a lilac, begins to spread over the city.
You might get hepatitis, but what the hell. You’re in Paris. And that’s the whole point.
8. Streetlamps on rain-soaked cobblestone streets
These are only romantic in pictures, or from the comfort of your window. In real life, you will have forgotten your umbrella (or if you have one with you, it is not enough to ward off the deluge of rain), and you will try to use the dim light from the streetlight in order to read the directions to a party that you scribbled down on the back of your hand, but you will be unable to and you will have to hobble home over those cobblestones. You will put your soaked feet on the radiator and make a cup of tea and wonder how you turned into an old lady. But then you look out the window and the beauty of it all – at a distance – will strike you. “Ah, at least I’m in Paris,” you’ll say to yourself, your teeth clattering.
9. Fluorescent lights in the bathroom of French bars
You will look bad. You will not look as good as you thought you did while flirting with the bartender. And, unlike certain other mirrors, your reflection in this one will only deteriorate as you drink more. Do yourself a favor and avoid the mirror in the bathroom. It’s better to pretend you look as good as you do, rather than see the truth.
10. Disco lights
To be fair, they’re only called “discos” in our French textbooks, because these are written by people who learned French in the 1970s. Now, as far as I can tell, they’re referred to as “boîtes” – the only way to distinguish this from an office (same word) or a box (same word) or a can of food (same word) is contextual. So pay attention. These lights are immensely misleading. They are the French equivalent of beer goggles (which French people don’t get, because they either seem entirely sober, or they are so drunk they pass out in the street – no room for bad hook-ups in between). However, you will get what I’m going to call “boite goggles”, and you will feel so much more charming yourself, and so will that guy you’ve been dancing with for half the night. He will seem like the handsomest guy ever, and then when the lights come up at 4am, he will turn his head and you will realize that he only has teeth in half of his mouth. The only way to get out of this is to cling to your friends and pretend like you don’t know how to speak proper French. The use of the word “discotheque” is a good start.
11. Paris Metro Lights
These come in two varieties: the lights inside the Metro (see fluorescent bathroom lights, above); and the lights outside the Metro, signaling that there is a subway station here.
The lights inside subway cars, and even on the platform itself, will make you look like a crazy hag if it is past midnight. They’re like Cinderella’s fairy godmother that way, so either get home before midnight or refuse to look at yourself in a mirror during this time. Or just decide, fuck it, and look like a total badass: my friend Sasha once just started smoking like crazy inside a subway car, which is both illegal and the coolest thing you could possibly do on the metro, if you are 24 and trying to distract people from the fact that your eyeliner is now migrating both towards your forehead and your nose.
And then there are the lights outside the Metro – the lights that flicker on as it opens, as the gates that closed the doors to this strange underworld all night open. You will trot down the stairs gratefully, whether you’re going back home after a long night out or off to a super-early appointment, to catch a train, to groom yourself for a job. Okay, and once, you will get your mugged here, but you will escape unharmed and this is all that seems to really matter now.
As the years pass in Paris, you’ll change and so will the city. Fewer disco lights and more harsh metro light in the mornings as you begin waking up early, a routine that comes with age. Sometime, you’ll hate Paris and start wondering how you ever ended up there. And yet, the second you see the illuminated map a block away, and the 19th century lamps that hover like orbs above it, you’ll be reminded of how much every light illuminates all the expectations of your youth, all the fantasies you had about your life, and the ones you have and haven’t made come true. And you’ll feel like you’re home.