Paris vs. New York, Revisited
Around a year ago, while visiting Paris over winter break, I wrote a little essay about Paris and New York. Or, more specifically, how much I loved Paris and how much I wanted to leave New York. At the time, my greatest fears lay in facing reality, about separating Paris-the-Fantasy from Paris-in-Real Life. It was thanks to those days in Paris, thanks in part to the introspection of writing that essay, that I made the conscious decision to go forward with the whole France dream. I was going to come back ASAP, even if I had no idea how. And in the end I did, and it was weird, and this is en essay concerning my feelings about that.
Frankly, it makes me kind of uncomfortable to talk about Paris, or New York, or anywhere else in the world as mythic places. On one hand, it's because I'm afraid of coming off as a starry-eyed girl that I'm just not; on the other hand, because I think it creates a certain image of unattainability and impossibility that I really think is just a shame. What I mean is, it's a city. Some places take more work to be in than others, maybe a good deal of privilege to make work. But it's a real, tangible place, not a utopia.
I am revisiting that post though, because I want to talk about the difference between desire and possession; between love and marriage. I think everyone who reads this blog follows me on Facebook, and I think everyone who follows me on Facebook knows that I post a lot of Grandma-pleasing "Guys this is so great!" kind of stuff - I mean, because it totally is, and then also because I think Facebook is kind of dumb and that's all I really want to share. The problem is that you tend to lose a lot of the nuance of the experience, the exhilaration and bizarre sense of inertia that comes with a constant feeling of being not being something.
I am revisiting it mostly because I stepped off of a train a week ago and felt my entire body relax, I don't even know how else to describe it. Even better, I changed from Line 1 to Line 9 at Franklin Roosevelt, which is my least favorite metro station on this entire planet (the ceilings are really low and it's always a way longer walk to transfer than I remember which means it ALWAYS MAKES ME LATE). And you know that kind of thing where like, you start to grin really wide, and then you realize other people can see you and this is Paris, how dare we be happy! so you sort of reign it in but deep down you're really feeling that Kanye West coming through your headphones? I did that thing. "I'M SKY HIGH/IT FEELS GOOD TO BE HOME." Yes, yes, yes, Kanye, I agree.
So this isn't like a "HERE ARE THE HARSH REALITIES" kind of complain-y post. First of all, if you want my advice, never listen to anyone that suggests that you make decisions based on reality. I'm only kind of kidding. Go do the thing, don't let me tell you why it's bad and you shouldn't. But I digress.
(This essay is just one really long introduction so far, isn't it great?)
I don't think there's really anything that can prepare you for the ways that living in a foreign country can be difficult. There are approximately 500 million expat blogs out there with plenty of warnings and advice; and 90% of these things will seem either broad and unspecific or so specific as to be irrelevant. And of course, if you have a brave stomach for administrative bullshit, there's the visa process, which... remains pretty horrifying, but not objectively worse than trying to say, fulfill core requirements at Fordham or something.
There's a lot of dumb minutiae that kind of suck, little circumstantial things that are prone to change, eventually. I think regardless of language proficiency, there's the struggle of being a perfectionist and just making mistakes constantly, all day, linguistically and culturally. People will pick up on an accent and it kind of turns into this bizarre "Me Tarzan, you Jane," dynamic, no matter how good your French is. Or even when we're speaking English, honestly. It took me a long time to learn to roll with it. You laugh about it. These are the reasons you discover that you need French friends to integrate, but that you really, really need American friends too, people with whom you can whisper, "What the heck are these people doing?" without causing offense. This stuff is generally kind of hard, but ultimately unimportant.
So that's that stuff. I would say the most important take-away here is the experience of being an outsider.
First of all: I think there is a very powerful degree of political and social privilege that defines one's relationship to a host country. There is a great degree of fortune involved in my rapport with France. It's a post for another time, but I think it's important to say that the experience I speak for is entirely my own - not even the au pair experience, or the Buffalonian, the American, or the Fordham-grad experience, but mine, personally, me, myself, alone. Moving forward.
It took me a really long time (until last week) (literally) to begin to grant myself the freedom to flout certain rules. Because I live here too, whatever. It takes time and conscious effort to develop a sense of belonging - not of belonging here, but of here belonging to you.
As with all things in life, there are times when your experience of a given situation will be different from the majority - your views, your ideas, your morals, your myths. But I find that's particularly true living in a new country. There's a certain sense of alienation that comes with your perspective on things not necessarily lining up with the established perspective, especially about things you'd once considered objective. This can be major social and cultural issues, but it tends to feel the weirdest when it's the little things: "What do you mean XYZ trend isn't cool here? You guys don't like cold brew coffee?????" You find yourself constantly placed on the outside, in a certain way isolated. I'm not even a real resident.
It takes a surprisingly long time to believe in the value of that experience - its equality, and its relevance, and its importance.
Because there's a certain sense of freedom that comes with being an outsider. You're given the observer's post. You're free to comment, consider and judge without the same ties and clichés. And many times, there are things you will form opinions on long before you're familiarized with the accepted mythology. It becomes a two for one deal: you get the fun of accepting and enjoying the mythology, and you also get to experience it however you personally choose to. Remember what I said about reality being a matter of opinion? You're given the freedom to invent, to decide for yourself what is meaningful, purposeful and valuable. By being the outsider, your perspective is lent a wide range of flexibility: I don't always agree. But I also don't really have to. I'm also more or less free to be inventing the entire thing as I go.
I think that's true for life in general, but there's something about being in a totally new place that makes that feeling so much more palpable and profound. And so if I had to reply to myself a year ago, to explain what I love so much about living here, it would be that I'm pretty much making all of this up. It's this incredible freedom, that strong sense of personal - maybe personalized? - experience. And it can be tough, and lonely, and weird, and feel oddly directionless. Who knows where we're going? Who cares? Ain't worried about nothin'.
In case all of that was entirely senseless, I've also prepared this list of additional things that I have fallen in love with:
The train cars, particularly those on Line 6, with the little levers you have to pull to open the doors. The fact that a tailor thinks it's acceptable to chain smoke Marlboro Reds over people's clothing. You knew about Goat Cheese Chips, but did you know they pair really well with red wine? The Bernese Mountain dog that is too big for my building, oh my god. Raclette. Sitting around a table and eating for five hours. Miromesnil is a name for a sinus medication, not a metro station, don't argue with me. I have fallen deeper in love with Belleville. Everyone here is so polite, I don't know where any myth to the contrary comes from. Saying "bonjour" to my neighbors makes me feel good, even if the New Yorker in me resents the eye contact. Scooters, oh god, please talk me out of buying one. When I took the train back from Christmas break, there were like 15 girls who brought their cats, god love them. There are a lot of stairs here. The bodega holds strong, and has not been replaced by Duane Reades everywhere - sometimes inconvenient, mostly great.
I still really, really, really, really love the way the announcer says Saint Sulpice. Like a polite suggestion, then a command. Saint Sulpice? Saint Sulpice. Can't beat it.