I cannot tell you how many times over the past nine months I was about to quit Paris. I was only originally supposed to stay for a month, and then one month morphed into two after I was given an amazing Montmartre house-sitting offer I couldn’t refuse. And then two months turned into four when I had no better plans and found a cool place to stay in Belleville. And then four turned into five when the house-sitting opportunity came up again… And so on and so forth, and now here I am on month nine. It feels like an eternity since I arrived.
Back in the day, i.e. around month three, I would joke about the probability that in 30 years I would find myself still living in a country I never really liked and never really chose, through stasis alone. As it turns out, the universe had a different ironic twist in store: I fell in love with the city I hated just as I realized I would soon be forced to leave.
I suppose it’s fitting that the movie version of my love story with Paris has a French ending. But funnily enough, the plot reminds me more of an American rom-com from 1990, “Green Card.” It’s not a 1-to-1 comparison, but the similarities are there.
Here is a quick plot summary:
Brontë (Andie MacDowell) enters into a marriage of convenience with a stranger, an illegal alien from France, Georges (Gérard Depardieu). She does this in order to obtain the apartment of her dreams, which the building’s board will only rent to a married couple. Meanwhile, Georges needs the marriage to get his green card and stay in the United States. The Immigration and Naturalization Service grow suspicious of the couple during an initial interview, and they schedule a follow-up with them for two days later. In order to pass the test, Brontë and Georges spend every waking minute of the next 48 hours getting to know each other, only to find that they are polar opposites and ill-suited as friends, let alone lovers.
During the follow-up screening, Brontë and Georges are questioned separately. Brontë passes her test but Georges gets caught lying and admits the truth to the INS officer. He agrees to be deported but doesn’t tell Brontë and pretends all is normal. The two part ways and she finds herself missing him. A few days later, he invites her to join him at the cafe where they first met. Brontë sees an INS officer behind Georges and realizes he is being deported, at exactly the same time she realizes she is actually (rather inexplicably) in love with him. They kiss passionately, slip the wedding rings back on each other’s fingers, and say their “I do’s,” before Georges gets into a car ostensibly headed to JFK and the next flight to France.
In the Ruth-Paris version of “Green Card,” I am the Brontë to Paris’s Georges. To wit: I entered into a loveless relationship with Paris so that I could keep learning French and eat the cheese of my dreams. INS did not come after me, but a host of financial, career, and health problems did (some of which were Paris’s doing, some of which were just dumb luck). After barely squeaking through test after test, not finding much to like about the city for a good five months, almost going broke, and becoming very exhausted, I called it quits and bought a one-way ticket back to New York.
It was only with the knowledge I’d soon be saying goodbye to Paris, a city that I could barely tolerate until recently, that I realized the depths of my (rather inexplicable) new feelings of love. Had I been aware of them earlier, things might have worked out differently and we wouldn’t have had to separate. But they didn’t, and though I fought it at first, I’m now at peace with the trajectory of my experience here.
My year in Senegal was the most rewarding time of my life, so it is only fair and balanced that my nine months in France were among the most miserable and confusing. In all honesty, this city kicked my ass. I am happy to get out alive and start over somewhere with more possibilities.
And I go home with important lessons learned, both big and small:
- What a person does is not who they are. Neither the amount nor quality of work a person does, nor the success they achieve, has any bearing on their value as a human being.
- The ability to derive self-validation internally is the most important skill in all of life. It is worth working hard to develop this skill.
- It is important to know one’s limits, and to stick to them. Everyone is better for it, even the people pushing your limits.
- They say the quickest way to learn a foreign language is to date someone who speaks that language, and not yours. They are right. But at what cost? Oooohhh boy, at what cost?
- There is actually no limit to the amount of cheese one should eat. (Unless one is lactose intolerant.) More broadly: creature comforts are important, even when they seem trivial.
On that note, I’m heading to the fridge to eat the last of my super-aged Comté, then out for drinks at a bar with a view of the twinkling Eiffel Tower, because I’ve got to cram in all the Frenchness I can get before I deport myself on Sunday.
[P.S. I chose the photo above, from the flea market in Saint-Ouen, to posit the theory that perhaps the République française and I are meant to be together, because we have the same initials. I recognize myself all over Paris, as it were.]