So, I live in the 5th arrondissement of Paris, on my own in a small former maid’s room (dit chambre de bonne en français). Naturally, I don’t have particularly close relationships with my neighbors on the lower floors of the apartment building, who are all much more francophone and much older than I am, so I was delighted to see a poster on my building welcoming all in the quartier to a small Christmas decorations celebration Friday night (with free snacks and hot drinks, of course. The 5th arrondissement is, as we would say in either language, très chic).
I got to the small get-together about 40 minutes late, and instantly noticed that everyone there was a minimum of probably 35 years old, and on average probably over 60. Not that that’s bad, but immediately I felt very timid, and could feel most of my usual extraversion fly out the window. I stayed anyways, waiting in line for some refreshments and peanuts, and marveling at the locale (it was at the Place Alphonse Laveran, which is right in front of Val-de-Grâce. No one is really familiar with Val-de-Grâce, but it’s a gorgeous church/military hospital/museum that is beautiful and surprisingly under-appreciated. Seriously, look it up. I’m going to mass there tomorrow).
Fortunately, after about 10 minutes of standing on my own and enjoying my nice winter evening, a very nice older woman struck up a conversation with me (in French! yes! And, she was a Parisian who liked foreigners! Even better!). We ended up talking for about an hour, as she waxed poetic about her experiences in Denver, DC, the West Coast, and her favorite place in the US, New Orleans. I talked about the normal conversation things too – Sciences Po, my studies/career plans, the complex answer to the question “Ca te plaît, la France?”. She got one last cup of warm mulled wine (before deciding she had already drank too much) and we walked to the métro together. We also got some delicious samples of prosciutto outside of a boucherie on our way there. Again, perks of the 5th arrondissement! It was a short experience, but it felt satisfying to have a simple, innocent conversation with a stranger who really did just want to talk to me as if I were another equal human. I really started to feel as if I lived here, in a way that I haven’t before.
Paris is a city of contradictions and representations; so much has been written, filmed, and spoken of the city, and so many come expecting to be marveled. So many are marveled, but equally, so many may be disappointed. In the past months, I’ve had to struggle with coming back to a city that I loved on my first visit, and feeling uneasy settling in.
And adjusting to life in Paris is difficult. Parisians are actually nice, but mostly to those with whom they can relate. (I.e., not you.) Furthermore, the bureaucratic struggles and even daily cost of living are severe: I’m currently typing out and signing a letter just to cancel my phone bill, laundry costs about 7 euros per load, and friends of mine have had to walk into banks to contest unforeseen 190 euro charges. And what’s more, there’s also a ton of dog poop in the streets. Ca m’agace.
But it’s a city that I’m also really starting to deeply love, again. As I mentioned, Paris is full of contradictions. It’s a world tourist destination, but also a national capital, but also a normal city with some quarters that are extraordinarily quiet and family-friendly. The Eiffel Tower is one of the world’s most beautiful monuments. The Tour Montparnasse…. certainly isn’t. There’s Asian areas, black areas, poor areas, rich-as-could-be areas, embassy-filled areas, and migrant-heavy areas. All in a city 1/10th the geographic size of London. At 3am on any given night, you might find 50 people hanging around the Châtelet bus area (the geographic center of Paris), some drunk, some sleeping, some heading to work in a warehouse, some returning home from a night out, some heading out to the airport at an ungodly early hour.
All of these contradictions make the city so rich, weird, and worth living in. And now that I’m finally comfortable enough to go a market by the Bastille to get some cheap gloves and scarves, or to go to a boulangerie and actually know what sweets I want to order, or to simply tell someone how adorable their dog is, I’m starting to love it again.
All that said, my experience of Paris has been but one pathetically small snapshot. By the time I leave, I’ll have spent 4 months here, and can really only say that I’ve barely scratched the surface. My experience has likely been vastly different from any other exchange student’s, and has been equally vastly different from that of a “true” Parisian. But I’m still delighted to have had it.