À bientôt, Paris

Phew! Crazy that I am typing this from the USA. I arrived home last Tuesday, and finally got around to writing a final blog post (about Paris, I’m thinking of keeping the blog around.) Here goes!

As my remaining time in Paris dwindled alarmingly quickly, the skies cleared and the temperatures soared. I made a personal goal to spend as much time as possible in the jardins.

Gardens in France are a bit different than those in the US. Like a majority of French men and women, they are well-groomed. There’s usually lush green grass just tempting you to slip off your shoes and pad around barefoot. But attention (ahh-ten-shee-on)! Grass is for admiring in most jardins, not for rolling around in. There are the colorful flowers, arranged in neat little rows. There are sometimes large stone fountains, the running water making a soothing tinkling sound. There’s an abundance of metal chairs placed around the Luxembourg and Tuileries Gardens, where people of all sorts sit alone, together, soaking up the sun, reading books, chatting, sipping beer, taking drags of cigarettes.

In the Bois de Boulogne, a few friends and I rented a row boat. The Bois de Boulogne is a park on the edge of the 16th arrodissement, so technically outside the city of Paris. Wikipedia says it’s 2.5 times the size of Central Park in NYC, and I’d believe it. The place is huge, with trees, grass, and a beautiful lake.

It was the type of day where nothing could go wrong because the sky was devoid of clouds, the sun shone brightly, and our bellies were full of camembert and madelines. All five of us crammed into the wooden vessel and pushed off from land, into the sparkling water. We heaved and hooed and paddled around.  My friends groaned as I corrected their rowing form, and we all screeched as the meandering boat lurched a little too close to the grassy banks. We had a close call when the boat almost ran over a bird’s nest that was camoflauged in a pile of driftwood.

The boat floated by a flock of swans, and of course, Cara mentioned the famous scene in The Notebook where Rachel McAdams’ character in a row boat with her first love, Ryan Gosling. It starts out as a picturesque scene with the two of them talking in the boat, surrounded by white swans. Soon, the skies open and the two are soaked with a torrential downpour. Gosling paddles back to land and McAdams gets mad because she thinks he never wrote her, but he says he did (everyday!), and the share a passionate kiss that is like, THE movie kiss of all time. Ok, ok, it’s the type of cheesy romance that makes you want to vomit and ball your eyes out at the same time.

Thankfully, it didn’t rain on us that day in Bois de Boulogne. It didn’t even get cloudy. That afternoon, I felt at peace with Paris.

It’s hard not to give in to temptation and sugarcoat my experience abroad. To say to the eager listen, “Well, yes! Paris was so fantastic and amazing and beautiful and fun!” Most people want to hear this, and most people imagine the city this way.

For me, Paris was not welcoming. It was a big, loud, smelly, uncomfortable city that also happened to speak a foreign language. Sure, I adored gawking at the pastry window at my neighborhood bakery, but it was usually interrupted by the whooshing sound of a dude peeing against the wall just a few feet away in the somewhat seedy 18th arrondissement. It was hard to be bombarded by catcalls, daily on my street. Hard to dodge men selling counterfeit cigarettes outside my métro stop. It was hard to live with a family that wasn’t mine. Hard, and weird, to feel jealous of my host brothers (12 and 1 and a half years old) who had their mom around, when mine was so many miles away. It was easy to tune out professors who lectured for hours in another language.

If I had to assign one word to Parisians, it would be selfish. This might sound funny, considering that the French just elected a socialist president! I don’t mean selfish in a negative way, more in the way that, above all, they value ME time. Americans are obsessed with “living the American Dream,” but Parisians are obsessed with living. There is no dream, no constant need to be productive, no drive to be “successful”. (How can you even go about defining that word?) Living, for Parisians, entails taking the time to enjoy simple pleasures. By oneself (Paris won’t judge if you feel like eating lunch by yourself) or with close friends. It’s slowing down to smell the flowers in the gardens, to crack open a crispy baguette and slather it with chèvre, to stop talking on a cell phone for just a second and ask a pretty woman comment allez-vous? as she passes you on the street. Parisians aren’t as hurried nor as stressed as New Yorkers, but they smile less. I’d say they swear an equal amount.

Paris taught me to be a little selfish. To do what I wanted to do even if everyone else was doing something else. To withhold approval until it was merited. To not be an automatic people-pleaser.

I was happy and excited to be in Paris in the beginning. It was uncomfortable and new, as expected. What I didn’t expect was a total lack of belonging. I kept holding out, but started losing faith as weeks went by. Since Paris insisted on continuing with its cold and unfriendly façade, I declared mid-semester to my friends that I didn’t like Paris, either. That I was a country/nature girl and was not down with city life in Paris.

It was only when I adopted a selfish attitude that I felt some sense of belonging and an ownership of Paris. My favorite parts of the city were the gardens and the cafés, where one can spend a glorious morning or afternoon for little money. It seems so selfish, to stop walking, talking, exploring, and just sit. I felt so guilty in the beginning, not taking each and every moment to discover every nook and cranny of the city. Constant motion isn’t always best. I found that the Parisian ritual of sitting, relaxing, taking ME time is very pleasant.

Expecting to have a lot of ME time on the eight-and-a-half hour flight back to the US, I bought a book at the airport with my remaining six euros. I was dreading it, that probable last interaction in French when I handed over my boarding pass and walked down that tunnel to the American Airlines stewardess who would inevitably speak English.

I ended up sitting next to a Parisian law student who was going to NYC for the first time sans her parents. We talked for three hours in French, something I don’t think I could have done on my flight way back in January. Page ten of my book was folded down in the corner, and my book sat on my lap atop the red fleece airplane blanket. I smiled, she smiled, we smiled. We. Me and this friendly Parisian. I realized ME time was never just me. There was always Paris, the one permitting me to enjoy, profiter, to live.

On the lake in the Bois de Boulogne, trees were casting long shadows on the glassy water as the sun started its descent in the sky. Plus, our rental of the rowboat was only for one hour. We paddled back to land after losing an impromptu race to a trio of rowdy French teenage guys. It was sad, climbing out of the boat and putting on my shoes on the mainland, when the swans were still sunning themselves out on the lake. But time was up, the daylight fading, and we  all needed to go home to shower before our next adventures.

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Feast Fit for a Birthday Queen

On my last Friday in Paris, I fêted Cara’s 21st birthday at a traditional French restaurant, Au Vieux Paris D’Arcole, located on the Île Saint-Louis. Sunshine and crowds were plentiful as I passed the Notre Dame on my way to the restaurant around midday. Anna, Cara, and I sat at an ancient wooden table and admired the walls adorned with lavender flowers and long red curtains. The restaurant was almost cave-like, with only about five tables downstairs. Our amicable waiter brought us a feast fit for our birthday queen! Champagne (santé!), escargots, les coquilles saint jacques, chicken, haricots verts (string beans), and desserts. We sang in English and French when Cara’s decadent chocolate cake arrived with a candle flickering. The couple next to our table was from Germany, so they also chimed in with a “Happy Birthday” rendition in German!

The meal felt like a fitting denouement for our semester. Cara is an old friend, and I felt so lucky to have her around as a partner in crime in Paris. Anna’s a new friend whom Cara and I loved getting to know as we explored the city, improved our French, and shared daily victories and struggles of abroad life.

It’s hard not to feel like you are breathing in history when walking down the rues and boulevards of Paris, and this quaint restaurant really felt like an old château where one might eat after praying in the Nôtre Dame back in the 18th century.

Un grand merci to Cara’s mom for the special meal! 🙂