As we landed in Paris, my head was between my knees, a travel pillow pulled tightly over my ears. I was motion sick.
After one glorious week in Rome amid the talking, smoking, singing and smiling Italians, I was back in Paris. Paris. Paris.
I spent five months in Paris as an undergraduate, living at the Cite Universitaire in the 14th Arrondissement, attempting to learn to speak – and be – French, only to discover that both tasks were largely out of my reach.
Now, I’ve returned. Not really by choice, but by chance. I’m spending these three weeks in Europe as a teaching assistant for a small, lively group of journalism students from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Rome, Paris and London. We’re spending one week in each place, learning about European media and seeing the sights.
On our flight from Rome to Paris, I listened as the woman behind me jabbered away in rapid French with my head between my knees. I cringed when I heard the flight attendant announce our arrival at Charles de Gaul.
Merci de voyager avec AirFrance.
I stared at the floor between my feet. If I hadn’t realized it before, I did now: I seriously resent Paris.
Paris, to me, is that girl. You know the one I’m talking about. That impossibly beautiful girl who has long, luscious hair, great style, a family with money and the most strikingly beautiful eyes you have ever seen. She is also probably smart and she is definitely popular. You’ve hated her from the moment you met her – whether it was in elementary school or grad school.
She is perfect and no one should be allowed to be perfect and, so, you hate her.
The only problem is, you can’t. Because, most annoyingly of all, she is also incredibly sweet. She is kind, caring and unassuming. In short, she is unbelievably deserving of all of the wonderful things she has in her life.
Paris is that girl.
Paris is perfect. The City of Lights, full of women who eat bread and don’t get fat, straight men with great hair who wear scarves and children who should be in Ralph Lauren ads.
Last night I saw an old French friend who lived in the U.S. for six weeks with my family eight years ago and still speaks English more correctly than I do. He is incredibly kind, smart and successful. He has gotten better looking with every year he ages. Of course he has: He’s French.
Au revoir, merci! The flight attendant chirps at me as I walk off the plane. I’m still nauseated from the flight, my hair is piled on top of my head and my makeup is running down my face.
Merci I say back. I look at her and immediately feel fat.
As an American in Paris, I was hopeless – except I looked like I was merely helpless. I could dress like the Parisians, walk like the Parisians, I could even talk something like the Parisians – but I could never do any of it perfectly. And I don’t particularly like doing things that I can’t do perfectly.
I would walk briskly through the metro tunnels, order espresso and drink only red wine, but I could never shake the feeling that I was 5 years old in my mother’s high heels. I felt like a fraud in my scarves and knee-high boots. I had lost myself in Paris.
That night, after I’d recovered from the flight, I left our hotel at midnight and started walking. I couldn’t remember how to navigate the city at all, so I started walking in the only direction I recognized, toward the Seine.
I wanted to get lost. I had managed to lose myself in this city for five months in the past. Why not let it take me again?
I was already feeling frustrated and every beautiful couple I saw on the sidewalk made me more so – every gorgeous windowsill and every perfectly organized park. It has been three years since I lost myself in Paris and I was still angry about it. Even now, Paris still made me feel like a fraud.
I walked and walked that night – until I lost myself in Paris again.
I got lost in the lights, the curving streets, in the bend of the river, the sidewalk cafes and the fluttering lilts of the language floating in the air around me. I got lost in the memories that arose as I skipped across streets and turned corners. I couldn’t escape that unmistakably French feeling of déjà vu.
I’d laughed at that café, drank too much wine at that bar and ran for the last train at that metro stop before. I’d been young and stupid in this city before and, yes, I’d tried to be something that I wasn’t in this city before.
Walking in the city that night, I think I figured out the problem with Paris and me: I will never be Parisian. I like open spaces and big skies. I like to drive. I like the sunshine, girly country music, my VW convertible and hiking with my dog.
Paris forced me to finally accept something I spent all of middle school, most of high school and at least some of college trying to fight: myself.
I walked along the Seine and down Rue de la Huchette and down Boulevard Saint-Michel and past the Pantheon and down Rue Clovis to Rue Monge. I had lost myself in Paris again.
Then, I turned a corner and, to my surprise, saw our hotel. Finally, I had found my way back.