Nearly five months after I moved to Paris, I’ve finally found a café where I feel at home: L’Arobase, metro François Mitterrand. I am there now, writing this letter and watching bundled pedestrians hustle by, striding through their own chilled exhalations. The baristas here are happy to make me a café allongé. The rest of the crowd doesn’t gawk, astonished, at the feminist stickers on my laptop. And the tarte salée? Divine. L’Arobase welcomes you in and hopes you’ll stay awhile. It is a nice reprieve from the harsh, turbulent world that waits just outside its door.
If you’ve been following along, you may have noticed that I’ve become increasingly negative over the last few months. I don’t speak very highly of the City of Lights, and I’m sorry if I’ve crushed anybody’s dreams of living out their Parisian fairytale. In many ways, this city lives up to its romantic expectations, but there is a lot of grime and darkness that you don’t get acquainted with until you live here. Hopefully, the worst of Paris doesn’t get under your skin and into your bloodstream. Me, I’ve known for awhile now that Paris has wearied my spirit, but I didn’t think it had changed me. It took another set of eyes to see the transformation.
My best friend came to visit me for ten days during Christmas and New Years. Within a few days of his arrival, it became evident there was tension between us. It obscured the happiness of our reunion like rain obscures a window pane. By his last night here, the tension had grown unbearable, and we talked it out. There is one thing he said that refuses to leave my thoughts: “I came to Europe to see my best friend,” he said, “but I feel like I haven’t seen very much of her.”
I am not the same person I was five months ago. For the first time, I feel like the warmth in my heart is ephemeral, flickering like a flame fighting for air. I hate to lay all the blame on Paris, but life here has tested me. Each day is a series of small, yet unnerving battles: The fight to wake in the morning, knowing the sun, though it will rise, may never kiss my skin; the fight to make it through the metro, where people roll off escalators like rocks falling in a landslide; the fight to get a healthy meal, to stretch my euro as far as it will go. A euro can buy a baguette, if you’re in the right neighborhood.
I know I speak from a place of privilege. I have a bed to sleep in, food to eat and a mother to help me pay the bills. I know I am lucky to even be here in the first place. And trust me— I am grateful. In fact, I believe that because day-to-day life here is so austere, I appreciate the gifts I have in my life more than I did when I began this journey. I have love, security, family, friends, education. I am blessed, and now more than ever I do not take that for granted. Living here has made me grateful for all I have. But it has hardened me, too.
Perhaps I am merely homesick and longing for Arizona, where the sky is almost always blue and the Earth unfolds before your feet for miles upon miles—endless, like time. Each morning there the sun floods the horizon, dabbling the sky in pinks, oranges and blues, as Michelangelo painted Heaven. It’s impossible not to greet the day in Arizona. And when the sun falls at night, its glimmer compels you to sit out on the porch, on a mountaintop, on the grass, to watch every last beam of red fade to black before you bid goodbye.
There, beneath that fiery sky, I was not a cold person. I am not a cold person. But here in Paris I wear a steely exterior to defend myself. I have to wonder whether Paris did this to me, or whether I let Paris do this to me. Could I have fought harder to keep my smile?
In any case, I am dedicating the next five months to getting my smile back. It is time to reclaim this experience. It is time to reclaim my Self.