I was a starry-eyed nineteen-year-old when I began dreaming of living in Paris. Backed with an elementary understanding of French and fevered obsession with the movie Amelie, it seemed like a no-brainer. I would move to the city of lights, find myself and my Nino (perhaps not in that order), and live my best life maintenant. Even if it was just for a half-year university program.
It was a plan endorsed by my parents, who were relieved that their good-girl daughter was up for the challenge. Pack me off for a semester in another country? How soon can we make this happen? I wasn’t going to come back addicted to drugs, pregnant or (worse yet) calling soccer “football.”
In a Gallic miracle, I actually learned to embrace the idyllic life of a student abroad despite my neurotic nature. Suddenly, I didn’t need deeper meaning — I had Montmartre sunsets and smoky jazz clubs and the moonlit Seine. I wore tracks around the Louvre. My hands became perpetually smeared with éclair cream, as I packed extra weight around my stomach as a souvenir. And I befriended two Swedish girls, who began introducing me to indie pop and compulsive concert attendance. Was any of this great for my French? Well, pas de tout. (Not at all.) Was it great for me as a person? Well — it did directly lead to me becoming a journalist. So…same.
I cried the day I left Paris to return home, dampening my plane seatmate with big sloppy tears that undoubtedly left him with his hand on the stewardess call button. I’ve never been one to jump into a cold body of water — which after bursting into tears in the grocery store ketchup aisle was exactly how I viewed America. To combat reverse culture shock I adopted the phrase: “Well, when I LIVED IN FRANCE that’s not how we did it…”
It was a line I applied to everything from food prep to French class. My student visa running out might have meant I was physically separated from my refuge, but I sure as hell wasn’t ready to leave it behind.
I might have carried on that way forever, the Francophile with a map tacked to her wall and an ever-fading parcel of memories from her beloved country. But thanks to a generous gift from my late grandmother, I was reunited with my beloved city shortly after graduation, family in tow.
Returning to Paris after a three-year absence, proved to be disarmingly easy. I didn’t so much interact with the culture as I did gaze at it from every angle, dragging my family to the top of Montparnasse Tower and into the depths of the Catacombs. When my brother David suggested the symphony I agreed. Having been to the Paris Opera house on a school field trip, it too was part of Laura’s nostalgia tour.
I anxiously stood on the Place de Concorde platform, tugging at the edges of my sweater to distract myself from the abating fear we would miss the opening of… of… OK, I didn’t have a clue. The train pulled into the station, and a wave of humanity crowded around us, pressing their way through the open doors. The door warning bell rung, and a wave of Pavlovian fear took over as I frantically jumped into the car.
It was a scene I was familiar with. One night late into my stay in Paris, I found myself scrambling for the last train, ticket booth already closed. Instead, I jumped the turnstile — a moment that ranks as one of my only authentic Parisian experiences. Panicking, I ran for it, my feet sliding on the slick wet floor, leaping through the open train doors…only to receive a painful smack on my upper shoulder as they closed around me. My friends assured me that the resulting oblong ink-colored bruise wasn’t actually that noticeable.
No such injuries this time. Our family made it onto the train with seconds to spare, David rolling his eyes at my melodramatic leap. I dug my fingers into his shoulder attempting to steady myself. But I neglected to check if he was steady.
He wasn’t. Which is why we fell forward directly into the lap of an elderly lady, knocking off her glasses.
Between the two of us, David recovered first, grabbing the woman’s glasses and apologizing profusely in a tone that indicated bold italics. When it became clear she couldn’t understand his English language mea culpa, I jumped in to help, desperately searching my memory banks dredging up the memory of when a man accidentally smashed my elbow with a beer bottle. What was it he said again? Ah yes, “Ca suffit.” I think.
I repeated the phrase over and over again. Worried that she hadn’t heard my nervous mumbling over the public transit roar, each pass increased in volume. A half dozen shouts later, my brain and mouth held congress, each informing each other of the reality of the situation. I gasped.
The train pulled into the station. The little old lady and the man with her stood up and stormed off the train. I watched them go, mouth gaping. It was only then when she had safely exited the train, that I turned to my family and admitted the truth. Instead of asking her if she was okay, I — like a common American thug — had demanded to know if it was sufficient.
There’s a lot of things I could say when people ask me about my time abroad. I treasure the perfect time capsule that my time in France has become, in all its frivolous, culture-sampling glory. In a few short months, I was given something most people never get: a chance to fully escape from myself and try something new.
But there’s also some sadness mixed in there as well. Rose-colored glasses may not be practical, but they do allow you to take in culture on your terms, assigning significance to any given situation as you see fit. Those cracked the day I left. I’ve moved on and for better or worse I’ve grown up — a state that offers little in the way of respite from self.
When I go back to visit, I can (and still do) eat from that one falafel stand right around the corner from my school. And stand at the top of Rue Lepic, tracing Amelie’s journey from Collignon’s fruit stand to Cafe Deux Moulins — where we’ll eat overpriced creme brulee… because tradition. But what I’m really looking for more than a collection of Instagram photos and tourist memories is a chance to regain that feeling, no matter how fleeting, that comes with being the center of your own universe. Of course, that’s the one thing the city can no longer offer me.
Yet, why should I show someone my emotional dirt when all they want is the wine and cheese overview? Paris is for lovers and dreamers — both camps which I fancy myself a part of. So usually when asked, I just shrug, smile, and mutter something along the lines of “I dunno. Ça suffit.”