As I write this, rain streaks the window of my tiny, cozy hotel room and I just ate the last of my Ladurée macarons- framboise and vanille– cold and crisp from the fridge.
They’re something to savor, as is life here. That’s what I love, the fact that meals are often a two-hour affair, that my morning cup of chocolat chaud requires a spoon at the end to scrape out the layer of sweet, warm chocolate.
I love, too, that one is encouraged to stop and slow down and pore over art and history. It’s magical, how easy it is here to imagine a simpler time. Paris, I think, is a delicate balance between today’s sleek modernity and the gilded past, and unlike anything I’ve experienced in the States.
I get a thrill every time I turn a corner– passing magazine stands and graffitied walls– and am suddenly face-to-face with an ancient, towering cathedral or a park where Hemingway wrote or maybe a former palace; beautiful things appearing like magic at the end of cobbled streets.
But before I wax poetic about Paris too much longer, let me explain what I have really learned & accepted on this trip so far; the valuable thing, the real thing: it isn’t perfect. Or, more specifically, my experience isn’t, hasn’t been, and won’t be.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining. On the contrary, I have had a wonderful trip thus far and am better off for having realized this: that the Paris of the movies is just like any other film production or glossy photo: not quite real. Oh, it’s still beautiful, and would be with the most primitive of cameras, but there’s no real-life editing program.
You’ll mess up your order; lose your metro tickets. The waiter won’t understand your accent and you’ll turn red with embarrassment. Your favorite sandals will give you the worst blisters; people will be rude, occasionally; you’ll blow out your Chi straightener when you forget to use an adapter. Some sights will let you down and you’ll realize the metro smells really weird. You might get your pocket picked. You might want to give up on learning French.
See, I’ve been here before. It was several years ago, with my family. I think I expected a lot of things, like that my two years of high school French would somehow allow me to converse, cool and confident, with handsome waiters.
I think I left with a lot of disappointment.
I’m grateful, of course, to have taken that vacation with my family. We had a lot of fun together, and it was amazing and beneficial to do something so different from the standard week at the beach. However, some things I was expecting didn’t come true and I think I held a bit of a grudge against Paris for letting me down.
Or maybe I was just disappointed in myself. Whatever it was, I was disheartened. Confused, I think, as to why the “perfect Paris experience” didn’t happen for me.
This time, though, I’m here with a different mindset. I aim to be a traveler, rather than a tourist seeking postcard-Paris.
It’s not like I’m going to object to getting my picture in front of the Eiffel tower or anything, but I’m more interested now in what it’s actually like to live in France, be French. I’m more interested in observing the people and gradually learning to do what they do than insisting an entire city meet my expectations.
And I kinda have a feeling that that might be the key to happiness while abroad.
Oh, and we leave for Lyon tomorrow and I’m gonna miss Paris, but I’m so. excited.
P.S. I just had a little happy moment, so let me share: it’s almost 1am here and I just ran downstairs to leave my key with the desk guy. I always prepare a little something to say for moments like that so I can get some practice in, so I said something like: “bonsoir, puis-je laisser ça ici?” (good evening, could I leave this here?) And instead of just a “bien sûr; bonne nuit,” the man–whose name is Mike–asked me my name, what I’m doing in Paris, what I’ll be doing in Lyon, what I’m studying, et cetera, and we had a pretty decent 10 minute conversation entirely en français. Not a word of English was used. I really appreciate him being patient with me and willingly helping me get some French practice in, because moments like this are so helpful, but can be hard to come by in such a busy city, because people don’t have necessarily have the time to take it slow with you. Anyway, it made me feel like doing a cartwheel, especially when he said “vous parlez bien français et vous comprenez bien aussi.” What. Merci beaucoup, Mike!