This weekend I was cruising the streets on my velo. All of a sudden, a cop on a bike swerved in front of me. “Madame!” He shouted. “What did I do? I’m pretty sure I already paid my taxes. France cannot get rid of my just yet.” I thought in a panic. “Did you lose your telephone by chance?”, he smiled with a judgmental twinkle in his eye. Patting myself down, my phone was nowhere to be found “Wait a minute, madame.” His colleague cruised up with my mobile. If it were seconds later, my phone would have been smashed to smithereens. I bowed my head in both gratitude and embarrassment. A Parisian miracle indeed.
After graduation, my adventurous friends were on their merry ways to NYC. The others were moving back into their Midwestern childhood bedrooms to ‘save money and figure it out’. But something else was in store for me. I had always squaked on about moving to Paris to learn a new language and escape the inevitable recession. My mom wrapped up the big surprise in a hot pink cardstock card she had crafted the night before. There was a clip art pic of a girl walking a wiener dog leaping in front of the Eiffel Tower. Sure enough, the generous graduation present from my parents was a one-way ticket to Paris. It was as easy as that. A little clip art and a Bible verse sent me on my way. I carefully packed my giant red suitcase with all the Eiffel Tower-embellished giftshop trickets my friends and family overloaded me with in anticipation. As I waved my parents goodbye at O’Hare, I settled into Economy class, keeping my Tour Eiffel journal close to me as a witness to my adventures. It was time. And I had no plan other than a contractual agreement to watch a mysterious 4-year old for one year of my life. The mini bottles of wine could not come sooner; I was terrified.
When I landed, I quickly regretted not learning a word of French beforehand. Before I left the States, I purchased French for Dummies, which was not the most becoming read on the Metro. I impatiently tried memorizing “Quelle heure est-il?”», breaking it down both phonetically and musically, but nothing stuck in my untrained monolingual brain. I thought answering ‘oui’ to everything would give me a little more conversational momentum. But alas, the conversation quickly switched to English. And a full analysis of the Bush presidency was demanded of me.
But I was quickly thrown into a routine of my own. When I wasn’t blow-drying this small child’s hair, cutting chicken cordon bleu into bite-size pieces and learning to say « non! », I was out-and-about roaming the streets. I quickly learned that my ‘Midwest does Carmen Miranda’ wardrobe got scary tongue-wagging attention from strangers. So I muted my color palette. I replaced my polyester ruffles with knits. Unlike America, where a little eye contact could get a friendly ‘howdy-do’ from a passing stranger, that quickly backfired. Every guy I made eye contact with all of sudden had something extremely important to tell me. I thought not speaking French would be a free pass out of these situations, but they all went down a laundry list of languages they spoke until finding the right one. Nevertheless, I learned to sink my head low and keep my smile to myself. I also grasped that pointing out someone’s baseball hat from my hometown sports team ignited more hassle than it was worth. So I quickly felt that Paris was not the kind of place where I could make friends just anywhere. But I became fast friends with other au pairs for much-needed happy hour cocktails and a little childcare catharsis. In retrospect, we didn’t have much in common other than the English language and controlling host mothers, but at the time we really needed each other.
In my solitude, I quickly connected the streets I knew with all of the tiny, winding rues in between. Unlike what some expats say, I didn’t find Paris’ cobblestone streets to have the power to rejuvinate my soul. I can’t say, « I was neither feeling life nor death. I was just feeling » or whatever Margo Martindale utters at the end of Paris, Je T’aime. Although I felt like the city was still permanently closed to me, as I walked the streets more and more, the more I discovered the beauty in the fine details and the history. I crashed vernissages, evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of the pain au chocolats of the 12e, and took note of places I would return to when I was making more than 300 euros a month.
My time in Paris has almost passed its 4-year mark. Although I have only set foot in France for a little over half of it, I am still surprised that I am permanently and legally here. It would be too easy to classify my relationship with Paris as love-hate. It’s a bit more like one among siblings. Through the powers of fate, I am connected to this person although it has been irritating me endlessly since the very beginning. But as time goes by, I can look at our shared experiences with clearer eyes. Although there are still tremulous ups and downs, this person (or place) is still a defining part of my personal history. Come to think of it, my relationship with my own brother is far easier than a certain Paris, France.
Now that all my creative ventures revolve around eating, I am in “foodie” territory. And nothing celebrates fooding and all of my other interests like Fricote Magazine, a French quarterly for the curious urban epicurean. Marrying food, cuisine, illustrations, design, photography, fashion, and humor, it’s a bilingual expression of everything I love. And with a steady list of food events and happenings in Paris, I can easily see myself getting involved (AKA I’m open for collaborations!).
I know I have a one-track mind; I should just give into temptation and get my Mexican fix at the new Chipotle already. But the past few months, this sign at the park at the Place de la Republique in Montreuil always stops me in my tracks. Before hopping on line 9 in search of carnitas, let me just warn you that this sign is situated in the parking lot at an isolate end of the park. Just like GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS, any word repeated three times is a promise. But no tacos are to be seen! Is this a cultural misunderstanding or false advertising? I will buy a taco for the first person who can put this mystery to rest. But that all depends on what taco means first.
We’ve set a date! The renovations are wrapping up in our new place. And we are set to move in next week. But sweet nostalgia is sinking in. I’ll miss our untamed little garden out back. The warm tradition at our local boulangerie. The peeling paint. And the curtains of cobwebs. The assortment of wildlife that creep into our bathroom. The defunct washing machine which serves as our only counter space. The scars on my shoulders reminding me of our ongoing war against bedbugs. The upstairs neighbors and their Saturday morning smooth jazz sessions. Wait a minute, let’s blow this joint!