When I say I dream of Paris, I bite my inner cheek and shuffle my feet and avert my gaze, because I know how vapid these words sound. It’s cliché to the point of being unreal, a faux-cosmopolitan way of saying I am a Europhile. Another American who loves Paris, whoa boy. Put a beret on my head and a baguette in my hand.
"MAYBE, SOMETIMES, THE EQUATION OF OUR LIVES ADDS UP TO SOMEWHERE ELSE. THE CULTURE WE ARE RAISED IN MIXES WITH THE MEDIA WE CONSUME AND THE VALUES WE HOLD, AND OUR BRAINS BECOME TUNED TO THE FREQUENCY OF ANOTHER PLACE."
There’s never enough time to add the qualifying statements that race through my mind when I tell someone that the only other place I would want to settle down is Paris. Besides, it would all sound cheap. It wouldn’t do justice to how I feel in Paris. The closest I’ve come to expressing it is this: I miss Paris the way I miss home when I am away.
I went to Paris for the first time a decade ago, and the last time eight years ago. The first time I was 16, without a day of French in my short life or any working knowledge of a subway system. I was a pup, wet behind the ears.
But under a cloudy July sky I figured it out because I had to, because I had been handed a Metro card and a map before being sent out into the city—because I wanted to be someone who got it right. Paris was the first city I was ever alone in, and you never forget your first.
The second time I was 18, depressed and broken. I was alone, but that was true no matter where I was. Feeling the chilly March air wrap around me was soothing, but the validation that Paris is somewhere I could be happy made my heart ache. I woke up every morning with raw eyes, walked for miles every day. At the end of the week, I went back to the U.S. just as lost as ever, but with the knowledge that the little piece of my heart I had left in Paris would never be mine again. In that moment, I decided to one day move there.
Paris has always been close enough to taste, but all the best laid plans and careful calculations turned to dust in my hands as the years passed and my life became more and more difficult to uproot. Paris became less a place I would one day call home and more a place I put my better days, where I would do all the things I wanted to do and be the person I wanted to be. As long as Paris existed, I had an excuse to put off happiness. Learning to separate the two has been an ongoing struggle.
There are three images that jockey for space in my mind when I hear the word Paris. First, Rue Rivoli in the rain at dusk, when the street lights are just coming on in the gathering gloom. To one side, the walls of the Tuilleries. Second, Montmartre on a sunny day, the steps and streets winding upwards out of sight. Third, the Metro platform where I realized no one in the world knew where I was and I felt fully alone for the first time in my life.
Paris was the place I walked down crooked streets, lived on street food, and learned how to ride a subway. In the ten years since I first landed at Charles de Gaulle, Paris has devoured my mind because I’ve seen myself there, felt the sticky July air and reveled in the unexpected sunny March day. I can close my eyes and be waiting for the Metro, or stopping in at the Tabac for a soda, or sitting in the park.
I’ve been in fights with strangers on the street, yelling at each other in broken English and French. I’ve paid too much for pizza. I’ve been bumped and jostled at a crowded Fireman’s Ball the night before Bastille Day, where too many people and too much wine are crammed into a courtyard. I’ve been late because of a Metro strike and a bomb threat closed down Versailles when I was next in line to get in. Through it all, I felt real.
Maybe, sometimes, the equation of our lives adds up to somewhere else. The culture we are raised in mixes with the media we consume and the values we hold, and our brains become tuned to the frequency of another place. If that is the case, and I believe it may truly be, Paris will always be a beacon of hope and home.