I don’t know when my obsession with Paris began. It most likely started with my childhood love for Madeline, that little redheaded French troublemaker with her own series of books and videos, but I simply just don’t remember a time when I wasn’t preoccupied with Paris. I enrolled in French class in the eighth grade, ordered photo-filled coffee table books from Amazon at a dizzying rate, and plastered the walls of my small, rural New England bedroom in pictures of the classically elegant city. I watched films set in Paris with a dropped jaw: in elementary school, the Olsen twins’ Passport to Paris was the stuff of dreams, and by junior high I’d graduated to the seemingly more sophisticated The Devil Wears Prada. During college, Julie Delpy classics like Before Sunset and Two Days In Paris held my interest, and I battled my inner feminist when I fell in love with Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Of course, as the English major, I devoured the works of Hemingway and, my personal favorite, Fitzgerald, along with other notable American expatriates in Paris.
There was one caveat: I’d never actually been to France. Furthermore, until I was 21 and visited Vancouver with Kevin, I’d never even left the country, provided one discounts a family trip to Toronto when I was a toddler. I remember absolutely nothing of the entire vacation, except that it was so my father could attend a business conference. I recall how he realized, upon arriving at the hotel, that he’d forgotten his suit back home and had to purchase a new one.
My parents are textbook homebodies, never venturing too far from safe New England haunts. Most trips involved lovely, albeit predictable, sojourns in New Hampshire’s White Mountains or the shores of Cape Cod. Vacations outside the northeast were almost always to visit relatives, and therefore confined to the residential parts of American cities. Two notable exceptions were family trips to the Grand Canyon and to the Colorado Rockies. Both excursions were fun and different, but I still preferred the foreign, the uncomfortable; true to my personality, I liked the promise of challenge.
Then, in January 2015, the fantastical happened. Kevin’s company offered him the opportunity to attend a technology conference in London in mid-April. Kevin and I spent a few nights planning our whirlwind trip of Western Europe; we’d use up all his vacation days and turn the conference into a multi-nation tour. We had enough time for London and two other destinations. Iceland, we agreed, would serve as the perfect jumping-off point to Europe. While we discussed where to go after London, Kevin brought up the possibility of Paris, motioning to all of the Parisian-themed décor that filled our apartment.
I hesitated. Paris had long been a mythical place for me. My love for the city was, unlike most loves, impeccably safe. I’d spent most of my life tucked away in a little corner of the northeast, and visiting Paris had never before been considered possible. Finishing college a year early had left me unable to even consider study abroad – as if the financial burden hadn’t been deterrent enough.
What if we visited Paris and I was severely disappointed by what I saw? It’s a story we’ve all heard, one we’ve become too familiar with. Logically, I knew I’d built the city up in my imagination, but what if it failed to meet even the basest expectations? I wasn’t sure I was ready to let go of the pristine image of Paris just yet; after all, it was Paris that had always been my ultimate escapist fantasy from the mundane backwoods upbringing that I felt trapped me for twenty-one years. Furthermore, having just finished work on my Master’s Degree and my first full-length novel, I’d been struggling with the classic first-world problem of “The Real World.” There was no doubt; after finishing school, I was a little bit lost and aimless. I wanted one love to remain unsullied, one dream to remain faithful to.
So, for the final leg of our trip, Kevin and I chose Bergen, Norway. I’d always wanted to visit the fjords, and even in his extensive global travels, Kevin had never made it to northern Europe. The itinerary had me dancing around our living room nearly every night; it was shaping up to be the trip of a lifetime.
As our departure date neared, I started experiencing some mild setbacks in my professional life. The job hunt was, to put it lightly, brutal. I had devoted hours and hours to filling out tedious job applications, and had not even had one interview. I knew from the start that earning a Master’s in the liberal arts would be gutsy, but I suppose I’d naively assumed it would all work out once I had that diploma in my hand. Meanwhile, writing still filled my days, but nearly all of my work still sits tucked away on my laptop, unread by anyone else but Kevin. I wasn’t earning any income, and I felt increasingly reliant on Kevin, whom I’d just married. The arrangement was especially stressful, considering how I’d always prided myself on being independent.
Maybe, I thought one night, I needed to prove I could handle Paris, a famously mazelike city filled with diverse peoples speaking foreign tongues in nearly indecipherable accents. With the conference filling Kevin’s days during our London stay, I easily figured out I could spend two nights in Paris. I booked the tickets and in the matter of minutes, I was officially going to Paris.
The morning I was due to catch the high-speed train from London’s St. Pancreas station, I started to have second thoughts. “I’ve never traveled abroad before, and I’m about to take on Paris by myself?” I reasoned, Kevin rushing to get ready for a long day of lectures about the latest in computer programming. “What if this turns out to be the biggest mistake of my life?”
In the end, Kevin had to gently coerce me to hop on the train, and I’m thankful he did. I arrived in Paris a few hours later, and so began the whirlwind.
I must note, my skills do not include “going with the flow,” and my forty-eight hours in Paris truly tested my limits. The hotel I’d booked a month in advance couldn’t accommodate me, so upon arrival they relocated me to a completely different part of town. I was stressed out and frustrated, and due to being abroad, technologically cut off from everyone I knew.
Provided I didn’t want to straddle my mother, who, embarrassingly, still pays my phone bill, with hundreds of dollars worth of roaming charges and international phone calls, I had to figure out Paris on my own.
My concierge at my second hotel recommended I take the extensive metro system to the Eiffel Tower and nearby attractions. But I didn’t spend my life dreaming of Paris just to see Eiffel Tower-Louvre-Notre Dame-Arc de Triomphe. I wanted to see the streets, the architecture, the cafes, and the people.
So I walked. For the entire day and a half that I spent in Paris, I walked. I only took the metro twice on my way back to the hotel each night. I walked so long, and so extensively, that my feet turned black and almost certainly ruined the hotel towels I used each night to clean them off. When I first started exploring, I broke down and called Kevin in tears. I found the spider web of streets to be endlessly baffling, and I had no sense of my bearings thanks to the last-minute hotel switch. As always, he helped me collect myself. He reminded me that, hey, I was in Paris.
I took advantage of the chance to fulfill a lifelong dream: I kept walking. I walked down streets that just spoke to me. I walked through small parks and old churches, past cafes where even the shopkeepers didn’t speak English. I talked to the locals, telling a breastfeeding woman in a park that, for whatever reason, doing so was illegal in the United States. I met a man who, noticing I was a tad lost, helped me navigate back to my hotel. I pointed out that he approached me and didn’t even bother to speak French; my American-ness radiated from a distance. He laughed, and started telling me about his one trip to the United States a few years back, when his company sent him to Chicago for a few months.
On my second and final night in Paris, I headed to the Eiffel Tower to see the lights glitter on the hour. From photos, it looked like an amazing sight, and one not to be missed. I was disappointed when, at 8 pm, the lights failed to flicker; I then found out that the sparkling display started at nine. With an hour to kill, I strolled to the base of the famous monument, noticing that there didn’t appear to be a line to climb to the top.
I hadn’t even thought about trying to climb the Tower. Every guidebook and tour website had warned of the long lines and congestion, and with less than forty-eight hours in the city of my dreams, I decided that I simply didn’t have the time.
Or, so I thought. I stood in line, and within minutes, I had my ticket. I was going to climb the Eiffel Tower. The thought occurred to me that I’d never climbed something that has been on my pajamas before. (I have precisely three pairs of Eiffel Tower-themed pajamas).
As I scaled the Eiffel Tower, the entire experience of Paris hit me all at once. Part of the city’s allure is its fantasy, that people spend their entire lives dreaming of visiting this romantic destination that’s been shown in countless movies and novels. But the reality of the city is better, because for all its winding alleys lined with lazy cafes and the fantastical light the sunset casts on the Seine, it’s the rare fantasy that we can actually experience. Here’s what all those glossy coffee table books and old films don’t tell you: Paris is a real place with urban problems. There is an unbelievable amount of homelessness and poverty, and I was harassed by male passersby on multiple occasions in a variety of different languages. I also fear about the possibility of contracting lung cancer from the amount of secondhand smoke. Paris is a lived-in place, and I didn’t always enjoy my visit, especially during the episodes of harassment. It’s 2o15. However, by walking the streets of Paris, in spite of the harassers, I was reclaiming my right to be on that street. Solo travel and the road less taken have, for far too long, been the domain of men.
As my hands clutched the metallic railing, my sweaty feet slipping in my sandals with each and every step, I remembered an encounter I’d had the night before. I’d been wandering a residential part of the Left Bank around eleven p.m., taking in the sights of locals’ Paris after dark. An older gentleman walked past me, exclaiming, “In Paris, mademoiselle, you are free!” I looked at him, caught off guard by his unexpected American accent and harassment-free content, and he repeated himself. “I don’t know if you understand, but if you do, I want you to know you are free in this city of lights!”
My whole life before graduate school was focused on the premise of Getting Out. I had always been too comfortable, too predictable, too surrounded by people too willing to settle. When your longest standing dream comes true, there’s a scary question: What next? Sometimes, we need to let go of dreams, to move onto bigger ones, even more impossible ones.