The Girl and the Eiffel Tower

I’ve never written an article about Paris before, even though I spent my early and mid-twenties living there. To me, the city is really hard to define and capture as a snap shot moment, it likes to shirk off any label or viewpoint someone gives it. A city that constantly burns through shapes and smirks at anyone that assumes it’s something it ultimately is not.

It was also such an all-encompassing experience that I had to process it or step back from it for a while to understand how to write about it. A bit like walking close to, and then back from a picture to see all the brush strokes.

My own complicated story with the city of lights didn’t start in a clichéd or even an expected way. I firstly didn’t choose to move there, or I didn’t purposely seek it out. I applied for a last-minute teaching position, and they gave me a school in the capital’s sketchy suburbs.

I didn’t, like a lot of expats, dream of living near the Moulin Rouge, walking along the Seine, debating in the old Salons or even of falling in love with a Parisian.

I’d spent a torturous French summer being a receptionist in a hotel resort somewhere between Nantes and my nightmares. In the middle of the back of nowhere, 2 hour walk to the sea/civilisation and with cows as my only drinking buddies. My manager at the time was also, and still is, the worst boss I’ve ever had.

So, when I finally got onto the SNCF train that shot me up to Paris, I walked out of the station feeling elated and ready to live in a bustling and fantastically interesting metropolis. What happened instead, was that I hated Paris for a full year.

Hate you too, Paris.

Ironically, I was actually living what seemed like the cliched Expat dream. I’d found a little cupboard box room in the 7th which looked like an old artist’s bedroom and had the most brilliant view of the Eiffel tower I have ever seen. I can only describe it as a living postcard of the city.

I was so close to the iconic monument that it used to wake me up at night when it twinkled, and I’d often get up and watch it do its thing. Looking back, those sorts of brilliant moments were the reason I stayed in the city for longer than I anticipated, and eventually had their hand in turning me into a full-blown Parisian.

So why did I hate it so much? I was living in a typically Parisian area and going out in the sort of cafés Hemingway wrote about. I was speaking French, drinking wine, eating great food and walking around one of the most beautiful cities in the world. But I think that was the problem. It felt like I was on a really stunning film set, an extravagant veil. It didn’t feel real or even meaningful to me.

The thing about Paris is that it can quickly chew up and spit people out. Paris is a bit like the opera, you either love it straight away, learn to love it or quickly leave. Paris has a harsh underbelly underpinning its striking facade. The city makes you soon learn that you can see the most beautiful things in the world and live an amazing moment, to then have the most horrendous afternoon of your life where you want to tell anyone in your general vicinity the most expletive French words you know — this happens often, and it makes you constantly hate and love the city for it.

Paris also breathes out extremes. When you are alone you feel lonely, when you feel happy you feel elated and when someone annoys you can experience unbridled rage.

Tout droit

I also hadn’t found my Paris yet. Where I lived in the 7th, although idyllic for tourists and the Parisian bourgeoisie, was far outside of my financial budget and not the type of place I normally enjoy living in. I like a bit more grunge and spirit.

Something I always remember when I think of that area is walking to the shop to buy a baguette for a cheap lunch, and seeing a woman in a fur coat drinking a 20-euro glass of champagne and smoking a cigar, the same money I spent on my weekly shopping. The difference between our lives was striking, and I couldn’t get over it.

I was also living huge paradoxes in my working life. I’d go from cupboard to metro and would walk past gleaming bistros teaming with people drinking café cremes and looking at the colossally beautiful Ecole Militaire. I’d then come back out of the metro to social housing estates where the grey buildings were crumbling, and the people were struggling to get by. The 30 minutes commute to a different world didn’t sit right with me. The beauty of where I lived seemed almost sinister or like it was mocking real life.

I guess another question is, why did I stay? The first is practical and had to do with my work contract, the second not so much. Something always intrigued me with Paris, it always interested me even when I didn’t like it, and I stubbornly didn’t want to leave the city while hating it. Paris also had those fleeting, perfect moments where you remember why you lived there, a bit like smoking a cigarette and remembering why you haven’t quit yet.

The city of flowers

After 9 months scraping by in the 7th, I finally moved to the border of the 17th and 18th. It was exactly what I liked — bustling, a bit shabby, away from the tourist dream world and I no longer winced at coffee prices or happy hour pints. I had a busy, shouty market place 5-minute walk away, a calm and tranquil street with a friendly neighbourhood bistro and a pretty walkway called ‘la cité des fleurs’.

When I think of that walkway I always think of it in summer, sunflowers lazily bobbing and swaying in pots on the crumbling verandas of previously grand parlour houses. I always loved those houses, they looked out of place, like they’d been plucked from a provincial town and brought their calmness with them.

My area and the north of Paris slowly thawed my cold feelings towards the neighbouring districts and eventually the whole city. I started to find the right places to socialise, the right people to socialise with, a job I didn’t hate, a happier relationship and started to unlock what the city was really about.

Hocus Pocus

When I think back on when that click happened, I think of walking along the market smelling fresh herbs, laughing with friends over cold glasses of wine, passionately debating in the local hearty cafés, sitting in the park on my own to read a book in the sun and constantly running to get the metro. I think about moaning a lot, but ultimately being quite happy.

I now know, that the people who hate Paris or don’t like it, often don’t really understand it. It takes a long time to crack its exterior and see the underneath. Even people that like it on their first visit, don’t like the city for what it really is.

That’s why people who have lived there defend it when others, who don’t know the city enough, criticise it. On the flip side, those same people will probably agree with a similar criticism from those who know Paris inside out or lived there with them. You know why people could hate it, and probably still secretly hate it too, but you won’t listen to people who haven’t given the old dame a proper chance.

I also understand why so many artists flocked there, the city forces something out of you, which isn’t necessarily always a positive thing, but I think motivates art. I also understand why it was the city of the green fairy, it must have brought a much-needed lightness to the many.

Paris, in my own experience, cast a very long spell on me. The city is like a messed up first love. Achingly brilliant, unforgettable but impossible in the long term. That is how I have come to terms with a city that will always be a part of me, that I still don’t properly understand, sometimes hate and am always mesmerised by. The way I speak French, write, dress, cook, debate and who I listen to will always be intermingled with those wonderfully annoying city streets.

Those streets that I only really remember at night or in spring and summer.

Sara Benaissa

Freelance writer and owner of content company Fraicheink

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