Earlier this year, the editors of the Paris Review, spurred by a tweet from poet Tricia Lockwood, actually took it upon themselves to review Paris. Their conclusion: yeah, it’s pretty good. It’s Paris. Of course it’s good.
I live in Paris, and honestly, it’s not that simple.
Paris has a certain reputation. Baguettes, croissants, the Eiffel Tower, ladies in flowing skirts on gorgeous bicycles. The stuff of postcards. Even when visiting the most romanticized of cities in the US — New York City, for example — tourists know better than to expect pure glamour. New York City comes with a little grit and that’s part of the appeal. But Paris? Paris is a city where the streets are flecked with gold dust and the buildings are constructed out of Ladurée macarons. Paris is what dreams are made of.
But then you move here, and things start to feel a little different. You’re annoyed at the number of pigeons. You wonder how any normal person affords a lifestyle here. You’re nervous about the rise of the right-wing political party. You’re pretty sick of seeing men urinate in public. And when people say, “you live in Paris, that must be amazing!” you catch yourself stuttering, not wanting to shatter their dreams.
A friend once referred to New York City as a place that on one day could give you everything you ever dreamed of, the world at your fingertips, and the next day would sucker punch you and leave you for dead in the gutter. I feel the same way about Paris. It’s a constant up and down.
In the beginning, you feel high just from being in Paris. At dusk, the light hits the buildings just so. You find a bakery that makes the best almond croissants in the world. Nothing can get you down. But then eventually the downs do come, and they hit you hard, like a bucket of cold water in the face. Your bank meeting that was supposed to take ten minutes takes two hours. A taxi almost hits you while you’re riding your bike in the bike lane and you’re the one who gets yelled at. It rains. It gets gray. You try to go for a run and get hit on — “courage mademoiselle.” You spend far too much time arguing in French to get something accomplished that you didn’t even want in the first place. A certain dreariness sets in that you can’t seem to shake.
Like Bogart in Casablanca, I try to tell myself “I’ll always have Paris” — not the real city, with its homicidal cars and persistent men, but the memory, the good stuff. Eventually the daily frustrations will fade, and in ten years it will be easy to gloss over the frustration and be one of those people that casually throws “that time I lived in Paris” into conversation. It wasn’t just a ten-day trip, or a month abroad, I’ll tell people. No, I actually went and lived there. Wrote there. Ran there. Drove there. Called it home for a while. Even in the darkest moments, there’s something comforting about that thought. I’ll always have Paris.
In the meantime, because of my adopted city’s magical reputation, I don’t get to complain. “The apartment is tiny, I’m starting to feel claustrophobic.” “Yeah, but Anna, you’re in PARIS.” As if, once enough poems are written about a city, it becomes impossible to be sad there.
I read recently that smart people flock to urban areas. Then eventually, they leave. The conclusion drawn by the researcher was that intelligent people are always on the move.
I think this is the mark of my generation. Grow up privileged enough to have your basic needs covered, and you start being concerned by other things. Your education, your meaning in life. You’re told the possibilities are endless, and they are. But at the same time that this is liberating, it’s also debilitating. If you can do anything, failure is all on you.
And so we leave before failure comes knocking on the door. We move on to the next thing in search of new horizons and challenges, be it a new city, a new country, a new relationship, a new job. We love challenges, we love overcoming them, and making a change allows us to jump into those waters. But we also move on because we’re afraid to get to know whatever it is that routine might bring.
I was in that place before I came here. I lived in Portland, a city that I loved, with friends that I loved even more. Then the opportunity to move to Paris presented itself. It was something new, a way out of my routine, so I jumped at the chance. It was amazing at first. It was wonderful. Now it just is.
I feel I am inching towards the end of the cycle, starting to feel that recognizable itch of the mundane upon me, the voice at the back of my head telling me it’s time for something different. But this time, I feel that I’m ready for routine — just not here. I could take mundane, if mundane loved me back a little more. Paris doesn’t love me back. It’s actually a pretty stuck-up, self-absorbed lover.
So I think about going home — but what would that even mean? Now that I’ve pulled up my roots in Portland, it’s welcoming, but doesn’t really beckon like it used to. But the trees and the water and the mountains of the Pacific Northwest do. I fantasize about lying in the hammock in my parents’ garden, walking barefoot to go and pick blueberries in the height of summer. The thought itself is grounding. I’m lucky enough to still have that place that I can call home, and that I still have a few roots left in a place, ready to be re-grafted if I ever decide to return.
But I’ve also learned that home isn’t just about having roots already in place — it’s about establishing new ones. Home is all your own doing.
Which means that despite Paris and its flaws, even this big city has started to feel like home in a way. The woman at the bakery knows I’ll come in on Sunday after a long run and get an almond croissant. No Parisian person would enter a bakery in their sweaty running clothes, but I do it and I don’t care. The man from Aveyron who runs the corner store down the street knows that we’ll come in and want strong roquefort. The woman at the Saturday organic market knows that I want wild arugula if she has it. The crew at Holybelly knows that I will come in and drink at least two filter coffees while catching up with friends. I have people to call and invite to dinner. I even have an odd sense of place, even if that place is less than 300 square feet and overlooking a rather drab courtyard. I have a basil and a lemon verbena plant that I am happy to water every morning.
It doesn’t matter if it’s Paris or Berlin or Kansas City; moving out of your comfort zone and into something different takes work and involves very little magic. No place, no matter how wonderful, is home unless you make it so. Those amazing places that you always dream of? There’s a routine there too, and a host of annoyances. There’s just more to distract you from it at the beginning.
Is Paris any good or not? There’s certainly something magical about it. There’s also a lot of pee. You have to take Paris for the good and the bad, and for the time that you’re here, find your sense of place and your home.
Ultimately, you’ll leave. You’ll find something else. Something else more interesting, more adapted to your needs. Or maybe you’ll stay, accepting Paris for its faults, and loving the city more because of them. You’ll let your roots grow deeper, grounding you.
Either way, you’ll always have Paris.
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