a small but significant epiphany

sunset in the 17th arr.JPG

Since writing my blog post about French new wave music, I must have listened to “Paris” by Taxi Girl a hundred more times. Sometimes I hear it in my head when I’m walking through the streets of Paris and I smile so hard I start to laugh.

I’ve been reflecting upon why I love this song so much, and I think I’ve figured it out. This understanding in turn feels like the missing piece to the puzzle of why I had such a hard time falling for France.

First of all there is the fact that I like the sound of the song, pure and simple. The drumbeat – and the way it interacts with the lead guitar and keyboard riffs – is, I think, rather genius. But that alone is not enough to instill the adoration I feel.

No, it’s the words that do it. They speak to me. But they don’t just speak to me, they also speak about me.

For example, take these lines:

C’est Paris… Remarque, ici, il fait un peu froid. Mais ça, aucun radiateur au monde n’y peut rien. Il fait froid dans nos têtes. C’est pas Tokyo, Londres ou New York ou Amsterdam. Non, non, c’est Paris. Et à Paris y’a rien à faire. Paris, ville de nos rêves. La poubelle est pleine depuis si longtemps qu’il n’y a plus de place pour nos déchets à nous. Il reste rien à faire, juste marcher dans les rues, marcher dans les rues et attendre qu’il fasse un peu plus chaud, qu’il fasse un peu plus jour, qu’il fasse un peu d’amour. Oh, ville de nos rêves… Hé! Mec! Mec, comment t’épelles Paris? “Paris? P-A-R-I-S.” Non, non, non, non, non. Paris, ça s’épelle M-E-R-D-E… C’est Paris. Paris, ville de nos rêves. Et à Paris y’a rien à faire. Juste marcher dans les rues. P-A-R-I-S. Alors marche, et attends. Attends. Attends.

[Here is my imperfect translation: This is Paris… You should know that it’s a little cold here. But no radiator in the world can do anything about it – the cold is in our heads. This is not Tokyo, London or New York or Amsterdam. No, no, it’s Paris. And in Paris there’s nothing to do. Paris, city of our dreams. The trash can has been full for so long that there is no more room for our own trash. There is nothing left to do, just walk the streets, walk the streets and wait for it to be a little warmer, for there to be a little more daylight, a little bit of love. Oh, Paris, city of our dreams. Hey man, how do you spell Paris? “Paris? P-A-R-I-S.” No no no no no. Paris is spelled S.H.I.T… This is Paris. Paris, city of our dreams. And in Paris there’s nothing to do. Just walk the streets. P.A.R.I.S. Well then, go ahead and walk, and wait. Wait. Wait.]

My experience of Paris seems startlingly similar to how this song describes the experience of real Parisians (albeit 30-something years ago). When I first got here, it was freezing, wet, and gray, and I had nothing to do but walk around trying to warm up and wondering why everyone adored this city that I found frigid in both temperature and temperament. And because I got here with neither work nor plans to stay, there was nothing for me to do but write emails, leave voicemails, and wait for responses that sometimes never came, while walking around feeling underemployed, miserable and bitter… Which is, I now know, how many Parisians feel.

In my little orbit, that is huge, because it means I actually, finally have something in common with French people. And my joy at that connection makes me realize the extent to which it’s hard to feel like you belong in France if you are not French – and the extent to which that is a horrible way to feel.

It’s now clear to me that my distaste for Paris had to do not only with the overly princess-y feeling of the city – which is what I originally attributed it to – but also with my sense of not being particularly welcome here. It’s not that Parisians are aloof, but I do think they can be particularly frosty to strangers. Not all of them – some of them are nothing short of jovial – but many. Furthermore, Paris is full of immigrants from around the world, but it is not a city fundamentally of immigrants the way New York is. There are insiders and there are outsiders here, and I’ve realized that there are also degrees of outsiderness that impact how long it takes to integrate into life here.

As a well-educated Westerner who came here speaking some French and carrying an E.U. passport that furnished me the right to work, I had it far, far easier than most foreigners who come to France. But I am not French, and I couldn’t speak fluently when I came here. There’s an only natural distance that comes with differences in language, norms, and culture. Plus, I moved back and forth between three different neighborhoods and never held a steady job, so it was really hard to get to know French people organically. Add to that the fact that working for a French documentary production company never seemed like an option until very recently, and it’s not hard to understand why I felt like à Paris y’a rien à faire.

The nice thing about Taxi Girl’s song is that it reminds me that Paris is a tough city for everyone, Parisians included.

But if you listen to the song, you’ll notice that despite the bleak words, there is an irresistible upbeat bounce to it. And if you watch the video, you’ll see that the singers have a spring in their step, a swagger in their walk. There is resilience and fight in them. A joie de vivre even. And my time in Paris has made me realize that I have that, too.

For six months I walked around feeling lost, alone, and quite often inarticulate. But in the end, I found my way around this city and figured out its wacky arrondissements; I finally saw its beauty and warmth and discovered a very unexpected love for it; I made French-speaking friends – not simply acquaintances; I learned enough about French culture and visited enough of the country to feel a true connection with French people; and I held my own in enough conversations and interviews to feel like I had finally become fluent, or at least fluent-adjacent. That last one was my primary goal when I went abroad, and even though I failed at many of the things I attempted here, I achieved that most important thing.

That’s why I found myself walking around grinning ear to ear this autumn even though I really had no reason to. Paris tried its best to break me, but it did not succeed. Through ennui, career uncertainty, heartbreak, depression, a health crisis, various rejections, and the worst fucking weather, I persevered in this city eight months longer than I had originally intended to. God only knows why I stayed… but that’s a mystery to be solved with another epiphany, another day.

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