I received a letter from my grandmother today and inside was a Good Housekeeping article by Eloisa James, author of Paris in Love. The article, “Holiday in France,” is adapted from James’ book about her spontaneous midlife decision to move herself and her family to Paris for a year after being diagnosed with cancer. She writes, “I discovered that rather than living my life in the moment, I wanted to live someone else’s life— specifically that of a person who lived in Paris.”
What does this life in Paris look like? In the introduction to the article, Paris is described as “the most romantic place in the world,” so the Paris life must be romantic, too, right? Is it a glowing, magical life as the nickname “City of Light” would suggest? Is it a life spent in exultation and pleasure, as the French saying “joie de vivre” implies? And why must one pack up and change continents to live this way?
As an exchange student and immigrant, these are questions I find myself constantly confronted with. In the first week of classes, the most common question after, “Where are you from?” was, “Why Paris?” Back then, I usually rambled off something about wanting to learn French or the political and cultural significance of the city. These were legitimate reasons, but I could’ve said the same about Brussels, too. So why Paris—really? Why did I come here, and why do people from around the world choose this city as the oyster in which to realize their romantic, pearly-white dreams?
Simple—Paris is “it.” That place you go to enjoy life to the fullest. Where you go to write your first novel, to paint your first masterpiece, to find your first love. Like Ernest Hemingway in the 1920s, you come here because this is the only city in which life is always beautiful, despite your empty wallet and your extramarital affair. Hell, it may even be beautiful because of your empty wallet and your extramarital affair. Pourquoi Paris? Pourquoi pas.
However, I discovered soon after my arrival that this city is not always the glimmering beacon of love and joie de vivre it is presumed to be. In fact, the many ways in which Paris contradicts, even destroys this image are so glaring and so common that I find myself desperately seeking out examples of the Paris I once believed in.
Perhaps the most disturbing example of the anti-Paris is the city’s omnipresent and ever-growing poverty. In 2010, about 13 percent of the Parisian population was living below the poverty line, according to the BBC. It is impossible to know how many people sleep on the streets here, but the last report by France’s national statistics office, which came out in the mid 2000s, estimated the number to be around 12,000.
Anecdotal evidence, and my own personal experience, suggest this number is much higher today. Poverty stares you in the face in Paris, on every street corner, under every darkened storefront.
In the 6th arrondissement, a women passes each day sitting on the ice-cold pavement wrapped in a tattered blanket, mumbling to herself and staring off into space. Her grey hair is cut short and stands at odd angles. Yesterday evening she sat next to an over-priced café on the corner of Rue Vaugirard with a cigarette fuming in her right hand.
In the 7th, a man kneels before a paper Starbucks cup on the corner of Rue Bonaparte and Boulevard Saint-Germain. On the left side of his head, his hair has been burnt away and his bare, scarred scalp gleams in the light. His left ear is disfigured. His eyes are pleading.
Individuals like these populate the streets of Paris by the thousands. Yet many accounts of Paris, including James’ article, forget to mention this in between their descriptions of “chocolate and crusty bread” and “la vie parisienne.”
We come to Paris to manifest the imaginary. We come to Paris because Woody Allen told us to. But in my five months here, I haven’t found the nostalgia and euphoria Midnight in Paris promised me. Instead, I’ve met a cruel reality, and I’ve been forced to examine the role I play in either perpetuating or transforming it.
Perhaps this is why I came to Paris. Not to drink wine and take two-hour lunch breaks and kiss my lover passionately on train platforms, but to face the world as it truly is. I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I decided to move to Paris, I chose to leave behind my sheltered life in suburban Arizona for the big city life alongside the marginalized, the impoverished, the destitute.
Life in Paris is no fairytale. And that’s exactly why people should come here— to shatter delusions and confront reality.