At eighteen, I arrived at the Gare du Nord and I just knew that I was in love with Paris. I knew that I would buy a croissant and a scarf that afternoon; knew that I would confuse the French phrases I had Googled on the train from London; knew that I would move there after college. I did not know why the receptionist at the Hôtel de La Trémoille laughed at me when I told her, after she asked how I was liking Paris, “Je t’aime.”
I believe we fall in love with places the way we do with people: first with the idea of them, then the reality. The process is slow and subtle and reveals as much about ourselves as it does the object of our affection. That first weekend in Paris, five years ago now, I fell in love with a city that I hardly knew. I had known of it for as long as I could remember, so when I got off the train and wheeled my suitcase into a taxi, Édith Piaf’s voice was the only thing missing from the familiar scene. My first impression was exactly what you see in films: a blur of cafés teeming with fashionable people and cigarette smoke, a glimpse of the River Seine, an abundance of pigeons, and the shot of the Eiffel Tower that signals the story is about to begin.
I believe we fall in love with places the way we do with people: first with the idea of them, then the reality. The process is slow and subtle and reveals as much about ourselves as it does the object of our affection.
I saw the city this way for a long time. When I returned a year later for a semester abroad, I did not live so much as act out a life, performing the role that the stage was set for: I took to visiting museums and smoking on my balcon and scowling on the métro. There was even a script that I could parrot—“Bonjour” and “Bonne journée” when entering and exiting a store, “Pas mal” when asked my opinion on anything, “Je ne savais pas” whenever I crossed that thick French line of propriety, whether or not I actually knew what I had done.
“La Vie en Rose” remained the soundtrack to my first few months in Paris, despite the leaden grey winter. The novelty of the city and of my commute cast a rosy glow over the sidewalks and doorsteps that lined my path to school. The cold did not faze me then, as I crossed rue Fesart to the neighborhood’s communal garden, peering through the wire fence to see if anything had sprouted since the day before. It was winter, and the garden was dead. The dirt was dry and the plants had withered, shivering as I did. And yet, each morning I would walk past this small patch of dirt and think, ‘My commute is only going to get better.’ The weather will warm and the buds will bloom and by then, I will be able to pronounce their names.
Much of Paris was like this for me in the beginning—a flower furled into itself, something endlessly beautiful because it hadn’t yet been revealed.
This was in part because I knew hardly any French. The city spoke to me, waiters spoke at me, but I did not yet have the words to understand. Scenes played out without subtitles. I wanted to learn the language, but it exhausted and embarrassed me to go off-script. I can still recall the peals of my French host mother’s laughter as I tried to say that I liked the book she was reading (“J’aime beaucoup”) but mispronounced the last syllable, swapping “coo” for “cue” and informing her, rather abruptly, that I liked nice asses (“J’aime beau cul”).
As I studied harder and spoke more French, Paris began to take shape around me. French turned a beautiful city into a belle ville; turned a movie set into a real place.
I often wished I could return to my first weekend, when greeting people and not rolling the ‘r’ in merci and ordering breakfast (“Je voo-dray uh cwoissant, see-voo-play”) felt like impressive progress. But as I studied harder and spoke more, Paris began to take shape around me. French turned a beautiful city into a belle ville; turned a movie set into a real place, where I go out with mes amis and sometimes ignore the buildings in favor of my cellphone and occasionally, only slightly ashamed, duck into a McDonald’s. French turned what always seemed like a good idea into a reality that, while it isn’t always easy, I would choose every time.
There are still moments when it feels like I’m in a movie: circling the Arc de Triomphe on the back of a Vespa, or crossing the Seine at dusk when the bridges glow to life one by one, as if passed over by a wand. I fall back under the city’s spell in those instants. Even born-and-bred Parisians know the feeling—they call it joie de vivre. The joy of living lies in the knowledge that nothing lasts forever, that pleasure, love, spring, visas, republics, and films all fade out eventually. C’est la vie. The Paris I fell in love with is not the Paris I love and live in now. The girl who gloated she “just knew” has learned that in France and in French, it is better to admit “je ne savais pas.” I didn’t know, I still don’t know—why Paris? Why not?