Paris. France. Paris! A city and country I've dreamed of visiting since I took my first French class in high school (more or less on a whim). Yet this is not merely a quick visit; I am studying and living here for a little over four months.
In some respects, that can be a short amount of time, but in others, quite lengthy indeed. I'm not one who deals well with goodbyes, and so parting from family and friends is always a great emotional ordeal.Add Paris to the mix, and four months, and living alone, and being over 3,000 miles away from home, and having Skype as the only means of tapping into my permanent life that I left behind—suffice it to say, it was not an easy transition.
And so, I deliberately chose not to post anything as soon as I got here, and I even felt the need to retire my camera on the shelf for a few days—not to gather dust, but to allow myself to absorb the first hours and days here, the preliminary moments of foreignness that hit me all at once as soon as the airplane landed in a snowy Charles De Gaulle airport.
I was met with sharp pangs of nostalgia and longing for my loved ones back home. My former dream to visit Paris had whittled down to a bygone, inaudible whisper in a matter of minutes.
This is why I chose not to post or take photographs or do anything of that sort, because I knew the first days would be academic, orientation-related activities that would fill my time up without leaving room for exploring the city I would be living in for the next several months and acquiring a proper sense of it. So I dared not fashion prejudgments of the sacred land of my dreams, dreams that had become (quite palpably) tenuous. But I knew that there was more to the city than the icy winds or the cold beds of the hostel that all students remained in until we were given our housing assignments.
I need not dwell on or recount those first few days, for they were comprised solely of arduous meetings and presentations and activities as part of our orientation, and they offered little taste of the true essence of Paris—especially since the hostel was in an area far removed from the heart of the city, devoid of any welcoming atmosphere. It felt like I was still in some part of New Jersey, and perhaps such a similarity would foster a kind of consolation, a comfort in familiarity. Yet the result was the opposite, and so I came to understand the nature of the initial malaise I encountered during the first few days of being in Paris—a complete lack of belongingness. Back home, both in New Jersey and in New York City, my existence is anchored; I have links, attachments, groundings. I know people, I know how to get to that café or that library or I know what highways to avoid during rush hour, I know the fastest way to get to the MET on the subway, I know how long it takes for an L train to arrive late at night. But I knew little of Paris, at least when it was real, right around me. Thus, I could not simply navigate my way out of the heavy and restless ennui that characterized the first few days. My presence served no purpose, and I didn't know the city well enough to wean some kind of purpose from it.
This is, of course, natural, and I noticed that this general feeling was not particular to me; many other students in the program echoed the same sense of disconnection from the world, a feeling of insignificance and ignorance of the surroundings, of not belonging here. That is the underlying discomfort and challenge in traveling to a new place—ridding yourself of the strings that fasten you to a particular location and thus create a relationship between you and "your place". This was not "my place", but I couldn't expect it to be. Not just yet.
Despite initial complications with housing/apartment assignments, I ended up in a chambre de bonne. Historically, a chambre de bonne was a small apartment for the domestic worker of a middle- or upper-class family living in the same building. Over the years, these small studios have been rebranded as studettes, for they are mostly rented out to students nowadays. The space is tight, but has all essentials. With each day, it gains more and more a kind of quaintness and charm in its modest possession of all that one needs without taking up much space. (I'll try and take some pictures of it some day soon.)
After settling down in my own dwelling, there was a new feeling of "my place". I could look at and explore the city anew, and I have to say, the city is beautiful. But the problem with saying "it is beautiful" is that such a phrase is overused and overheard to the point of rendering it completely banal and insubstantial. "Paris is beautiful" is both true and not true, because Paris is both beautiful and more than beautiful. The inherent difficulty in expressing Paris's appeal and wonder is that throughout my life and the lives of many others, Paris was a place only and always framed by a postcard or photograph or computer screen. To see Paris was to see an image of the Eiffel Tower, the most well-known icon in the world.
Icon. That is the point, here: Paris has always been beautiful from afar to the point where it has become an icon for everything—gastronomy, fashion, architecture, art. But when you walk into the courtyard of the Louvre, when you turn on a random street corner and suddenly the real Eiffel Tower is pasted against the sky (and it is lot bigger than I thought it would be), you realize that it isn't a postcard or photograph or computer screen, it is the real thing. The streets are often cobblestone-like, every building retains its old structure and beauty, there is a general charm laced with everything you see—and that is precisely what makes it so difficult to fathom at first. Everything is almost too beautiful to be real, too beautiful to exist outside of a postcard. But it is real, and when you are in the middle of it, when the buildings are real around you, when the intoxicating scent of bread wafts from the open doors of boulangeries that are sprinkled on every street, when an old man seated by the edge of a bridge starts playing an accordion as you look over the Seine, evoking the spirit of Paname (although Parisians will roll their eyes at the slightest sound of such accordion tunes)—this is when it becomes overwhelming, almost to the point of disbelief. I can't believe I'm here. But then after a while, you realize you are here, and that it is time to accept it and live it and breathe it and take it for everything its worth.
Late one evening, Jackie and I decided, on a whim, to go out to eat somewhere. I say "late" despite the fact that it was 10:30pm—early evening, by NYC's standards, but by the standards of Paris, where stores and restaurants close much earlier, it was late. When we opened the door outside, it was snowing softly, and the streetlights painted everything with a soft orange glow much unlike the sickly orange streetlights found in the U.S. that I find induce a vague, dizzying nausea. There is no such harshness here. The air was sharp and cold as snowflakes fell on our eyelashes. It was quiet, but not eerily so. The quietude that reigned was one characteristic of snowy nights, a quietude of tranquility. As we walked towards slightly more bustling parts of the 16th arrondissement, a group of teenagers were congregated at the corner of an intersection, laughing and throwing snowballs at each other. We couldn't help but smile at them, despite the fact that we were probably not much older than they were.
We ate at an Italian restaurant, then went to a McDonald's. Not very classically French, and yet at the same time, it felt so. I'm not a frequenter of McDonald's, but in Paris, they have frappés that come in a pistachio flavor—subtle, with a sweet aftertaste, akin to the scent of almond extract. I may sound silly for heightening the grandeur of McDonald's food and drink, but really, everything is heightened in Paris (including the prices, of course). It was quite strange to have something taste so good from a place that I would never normally visit back home, precisely for its characteristic subpar quality.
We walked back to the apartment as the snow continued to fall. The next day, the snow continued, and Jackie and I went to the marais to hang out with a fellow NYC friend, Logan. This time, Jackie and I agreed that we would pick up our cameras and finally take pictures of the city to which we were beginning to warm up (despite (or sometimes because of) the icy cold winter that surrounded us).
We ate at a falafel restaurant and afterwards, walked all around the narrow, winding streets of le Marais, then made our way to the Notre Dame, the Louvre, the pont des Arts. Snow, I learned, is quite rare in Paris, and yet my first week and a half constituted little else. It was an added fortune to see the city covered in it. Snowball fights became a common occurrence, and as I held my camera's viewfinder to my eye to capture a snowy street, a woman passed by and said "C'est très rare !" And that was exactly it: it was rare, and so everyone was taking advantage of it, not just us newcomers. A bunch of adults were having a snowball fight in the middle of a random street; on one of the bridges, a snowball fight erupted between passersby on the bridge and a bunch of tourists on a sightseeing boat on the Seine just underneath. I couldn't help but laugh. It was all unrealistically quaint, or—dare I say—cute? I'm not a terrible fan of that word, but when you see complete strangers having snowball fights between the top of a bridge and a boat underneath, smiling and laughing and acting like children, how can it be anything else?
Everything is calming in one way or another, as if the city wishes to ease your worries or concerns or anxieties in any way that it can. That is the true beauty of Paris—its subtleties, its feelings, its unexpected moments of smile-inducing delight and charm that simply cannot be channeled into words, in part due to their complexity and in part due to their complete novelty. Like when you realize the Eiffel Tower is not just a pretty monument seen in small photographs, but also an excellent directional compass when trying to find your way around the city. Or when restaurants stop serving food late at night but you have no where to eat or buy food, and so an elderly restaurant-owner lets you in anyway because he knows how hungry you are, and then proceeds to ask you about life and school and what you're studying. Or when you buy a pain au chocolat without the boulangère even recognizing that you aren't originally from here. Paris is daunting at first, but if you scratch at the surface, you uncover its richness, its layers, its intricacies. It is a city that does not merely present itself, rather a city that must be explored and experienced, for it is only through direct experience that one can understand the true, elusive wonder that has come to characterize the City of Light.
Lots of photos below.
From the plane
First photo of the Eiffel Tower (I had to take it, okay)
Le pont des Arts, where couples write their names on locks, attach them to the sides of the bridge, and throw the key in the river below
Random news reporter
The street I walk down to get to my chambre de bonne