happy alone in the city of love
Paris is great, but it didn’t feel that way at first. After spending last summer in Kenya, and this past fall studying abroad in Edinburgh, I know it takes me at least one week to adjust to a new place—sometimes more. The first week is spent lonely and disappointed—simple things seem to be harder to navigate and figure out. It is easy to dwell on these difficulties rather than looking forward to the opportunities that lie ahead. So yes, the first week of living in a new city with a language I don’t know, an unfamiliar metro system, and meal times I am not accustomed to wasn’t a breeze, but these memories of helplessness and frustration after my arrival in Paris just two weeks ago only make me appreciate the city more.
My first four days as an au pair in Nanterre, France—ten minutes from Paris on the metro—I didn’t get into Paris once.
The first day I was in France was a Wednesday. On Wednesdays my French kids don’t have school, which means I was thrown into eight hours of hanging out with kids who speak another language in a place completely unfamiliar to me. I’ve worked in a preschool for three years, a first-grade classroom for one, and as a middle school coach for another, but this was a completely new experience for me. When I attempted to say anything in English, as the parents had requested I do first, I got blank stares and “je ne comprends pas.” So we played board games in silence and ‘charaded’ our way through a lunch conversation. It was awkward and uncomfortable.
On Friday, I got ready for a big day out in Paris. When I got to the Nanterre-Ville RER station the ticket machines wouldn’t take my ‘chipless’ American credit card; little did I know that there was a machine on the other side of the station which took cash. I spent another day at the house. The next day, my French “mom” gave me some metro tickets so I could finally have the picture-perfect-Paris-day I imagined. When my tickets didn’t work at my exit point, I ended up stuck in the bottom of Charles-de-Gaulle Étoile metro stop, and too afraid of the repercussions for jumping the barriers (which is absolutely nothing). I headed back to Nanterre without success. I had been right under Paris, yet still hadn’t seen it in the light of day. That night, I did what a mature twenty year old would do—Skyped my family and complained about all my failures in this strange new French world, and probably shed a couple of tears too.
Last night I thought about this, as I walked through the same station on my way home from French class.
Yes, I said home after two weeks.
For me, home is a place I feel content being alone in.
In Edinburgh, students the same age as me were everywhere, and I went to Kenya with a group of nurses, but here I had to adjust to eating and touring by myself right away. I’ll admit it was a little awkward asking a stranger to take a picture of me at the Eiffel Tower, but now I really love reading by myself in the Luxembourg Gardens, or going on runs alone along the Seine. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy going out and grabbing dinner or a coffee with others, but it’s nice to feel okay being surrounded by strangers and soaking up the experiences, sights, and emotions of a new place despite not always having friends and family to share them with.
So after a day spent wandering around Paris on the metro (which I now have a month’s pass for), reading a French book I found in a ‘take-if-you-want’ pile outside of a house in my ville, and eating a home-packed baguette with French cheese in Pompidou before picking up my kids at school, I definitely think home is the new right word for Paris.
I love living with my new little brothers and sisters—Théodore, Iris, and Gabriel. It’s fun to go out with other au pairs and neighbors and attempt to understand one another. But Paris is also a great place to people-watch and take time to think to yourself—whether it’s over some chocolat chaud or some vin—and appreciate the amazing city that it is.