Finding beauty in Paris beyond clichés
The Virgin Mary contorts as if she were taking horrible, staggered breaths — pulsating with each angry movement that Pierre makes as he wrestles with my dead landline.
“Merde,” he says. “Il ne marché pas.”
I, meanwhile, am fiddling with a pocket-sized map of the metro system, tracing the light pink “Line 7” along the stops. I remain still, trying to avoid tripping over the motorcycle gear my landlord has shed upon arrival. Spanish hip-hop and French bistro music rotate in the background, played by a lone construction worker in the neighboring studio.
My gaze proceeds toward the ceiling of my 14th century apartment. Or more specifically, at the sizeable flap of white, peeling paint curling further in the humidity. At first glance, the tiny space is quickly diagnosed with severe dandruff, among its many apparent ailments.
Pierre then backs away from the slew of newly broken things.
It was this moment — the very first, in fact — that I consciously paused to consider the remarkably unlikely situation in which I had found myself.
I was in Paris, France.
Paris, fondly advertised by the likes of Rick Steves as the “City of Love” and the “City of Light,” will be my home for nine months. During this time, I will be studying international politics and law at the Political Science Institute of Paris, more commonly known as Sciences Po.
And yet, to say such is a complete oversimplification of what this year signifies.
Paris, until very recently, was an ideal. It was a summation of my greatest and my most naïve aspirations. And, consequently, coming here means that I must decide what to do with them.
My relationship with Paris, a city in which I have never so much as had a layover in before last week, has evolved drastically throughout the past 12 years. In a way, this series of changes clearly mirrors my own development as an individual. On some subconscious level, Paris has always symbolized the perfect life.
It was where you came to see Monet and Renoir and Modigliani; the place to smother Camembert over a baguette between sips from 3-euro wine bottles or a 5-euro espresso; a place to dress like Audrey Hepburn in “Sabrina;” to develop a smoking habit and read fragrant yellowed copies of Beckett; to hear Edith Piaf sing about love; to drink absinthe while wandering down Pere Lachaise; to live down the street from Ernest Hemingway, across the Seine from Victor Hugo. And, while on the subject: Yes, rain improves all of these scenarios immensely.
Today, Paris is the place to escape graduation, graduate school, LSATs, internships and all socially approved ambitions. It is the place to be a writer.
And yet, my wonderful Parisian clichés have thus far abandoned me to French bureaucracy — leaving me to wait in various lines and present various documents or to my banker, also named Pierre, who articulates his disapproval of my mediocre French with a comical frequency.
The reality is that I have been so entrenched with residency permits and phone plans and quests (where to find an inexpensive fan to conceal the previously referred-to music, for instance) that I have barely even flirted with the standard tourist circuit. I am only ever aware of this failure when I notice the Eiffel Tower, peering out between apartment complexes as I search for a Tabac.
So, yes, Paris is a real place. It cannot be held responsible for every aspiration I wish to associate with it. Beyond which, I acknowledge my dreams can be classified into such a particular set of clichés — and myself into such a well-known trope — that there is a Woody Allen movie about it.
Nevertheless, I intend to not only chronicle life in Paris over the coming months, but to explore its facets on a very specific basis. Breaking down sociopolitical news, researching its history, studying the subcultures, and breathing in its carbohydrates — as well as that of the other cities and countries I encounter along the way to June.
Above all, I am determined to experience as much as I can here — to pursue my aforementioned, silly aspirations without relent.
And, in the end, I still love Paris in the rain, which has to count for something.