I was 20 years old when I first came to live in Paris. I arrived as a student in the Spring of 1998, instantly joining the thousands of other Americans who were also coming for a semester abroad. I was eager to use my french, experience new things, explore Paris! But four months was too short, and my experience too typical. I knew that I would be back, but I didn’t quite know how.
My senior year in college, I found my golden ticket to return. While my friends were interviewing for high paying corporate positions, I was applying for a job as an English Assistant that offered a minimal salary but compensated with an invaluable work visa. That experience gave me the chance to get to know Paris on a deeper level. I was no longer a student – I was a resident. And, consequently, I was faced with the challenges that came with that status such as opening a bank account and finding an apartment (quite a difficult feat in a city such as Paris). I stayed for a year and saw Paris in all its seasons. I fought for a chair in the Jardin du Luxembourg in the Summer and when the tourists left and the city once more belonged to its residents, I roamed the streets of Paris in the Winter. Paris was my playground and I happily explored its small pedestrian streets, learned how to masterfully hop over the turnstiles in the metro and once even yelled in french when, one night, while talking to my parents in a public telephone cabin, a man who must have been tired of waiting for me to finish up my call entered the cabin, yanked the phone from my hands, and ended the call for me. That year, Paris charmed me with her architecture, lulled me with her gardens, fountains and her river Seine, and roughened me up just enough to survive city life. That year, I also found my future husband while working as a waitress at Hard Rock Cafe. Little did I expect that I would be bringing back more than just memories.
And in the years since 2001, I have returned at least once a year, and Paris has slowly taken on a different hue. Instead of coming only with the purpose of visiting a city, I now come to visit family. Instead of visiting Rue Mouffetard and only finding charming creperies and outdoor fruit, cheese and meat stands, I have found my father-in-law framed in the window of a Spanish restaurant with his guitar in hand. And instead of going to Montparnasse to eat a grec frites (without the meat) at a fast food place that I frequented regularly when I was here as a student, I now go to visit my mother-in-law at the restaurant where she has worked for more than 20 years and I feast on vegetarian couscous. And these visits to Paris have added depth and color to this city of lights.
This time, Paris once again captured me with her charm, as she always will, but walking her streets and riding her metro, my thoughts are not as carefree as in the years past. Meeting our new niece and seeing David’s brother become a dad has made us question our own progress in our lives, making me feel that I need to defend the path that I have chosen. Returning at a time when the dollar is weak makes Paris feel expensive, making it a much different city than when I lived here and felt rich because I had American dollars in my bank back home. Coming back at this stage in my life when we’re looking for direction makes us wonder if Paris is where we belong, but makes me take extra notice of the homeless people fighting in the street at 8pm, the roughness of the city, the crowded metros. And all these things make me wonder if this is really where we belong.
Paris is vibrant and dynamic and has taken a very intimate place in my heart. Her streets and buildings bring back special memories, her apartments house my friends and family and her metro covers familiar territory. But, as we prepare for our trip back to Spain tomorrow, we have more questions than when we came as we try to discern which way the signs are pointing. And it reminds me of when I left Paris in 2001 having finished up my job as English Assistant and Hard Rock Cafe waitress. I was anxious then to return to the US. I felt that I needed to get my life started. I needed to get serious, figure out my career, find my path. Ironically, nearly a decade later, I leave Paris with similar feelings of anxiousness – anxiousness to get serious and start down a path. Except that, this time, Paris beckons with her people that have come to have meaning in my life. This time, Paris has become a significant part of my past and therefore is a city that has the potential to be a very relevant part of my future. This time, Paris has presented us with opportunities. And we wonder if we should take them.