A Fall in Paris

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That fall was a special one. The whole experience felt somehow different. It wasn’t the first time I’d traveled unattended to work as a fashion model; indeed, at 16, I’d already made two six-week trips to Tokyo. Nor was it my first experience with the Paris; I’d been to the city several times with my family. But somehow, it stands out among other trips as the most… what? Educational? Exciting? Homesickness-inducing? I’m not sure really, all I know is that it was special.

I had never traveled with a companion before, but now I was thrown together with another American model pretty much at random. Kelsey was 17 and thankfully our pairing turned out well; we got along and formed a lasting friendship. Being partnered in this whirlwind experience with someone I had only just met set the stage for the surrealism of the ensuing journey.

We arrived in Paris on a grey Tuesday morning. The first day was devoted to settling in: meeting the two 20-something guys whose apartment Kelsey and I would be staying in, locating the metro, and unpacking into the scantily clad room we would share. The apartment, unimpressive and located on the edge of town, was so unfamiliar, and yet it would be my head quarters for the next two months.
And so the journey began, with a hectic energy mixed with jetlag-induced daze, as I tried make my inner self come to terms with the fact that I was suddenly in a different world. Paris was at once familiar and foreign. I spoke the language at a tantalizing 50% or so, little enough to prevent the effortless comprehension of a fluent tongue, while sufficient that I found the conversations around me hard to ignore. Things were just different enough to confuse me – the milk and eggs not being refrigerated, the tricky entrances to buildings, with several doors each of which required a separate code and then opened to reveal yet more options for getting lost.
The daze remained with me for the first few weeks, a sort of film which seemed to separate me from the true inhabitants. I felt that critical eyes were watching me at any moment, lest I take too many pictures or step outside wearing sweatpants, and that strangers surely took my hesitation before speaking as a sign that I was out of place. Out of place, yes, that’s how I felt, and that’s how I suspected others saw me too. After all, what did I have here? What, really, tied me to Paris? While I did have a smattering of second cousins and great aunts in the area, I had no immediate family, none that I went home to in the evening. I didn’t have any regular engagements, a fitness class every Monday night, say, or a scrapbook club meeting. My only reason to be in Paris was my job, and when I wasn’t working, I felt kind of afloat, unsure what to do with myself.
My job – just having such a thing utterly changed my interpretation of the city. It showed me a reality of Paris that was at once intimate and a bit disappointing. As a child I always held the city in a very high regard, like some magical land, equating it with croissants and ice cream and touring with my family. Now that I was here as a working member of society, getting around the city on my own steam and concerned with matters of work and schedule, with the end of my stay many weeks rather than a few short days in the distance, I felt like someone had ushered me backstage behind a theater set. Now I saw the real Paris, the living breathing city as its denizens knew it. I simultaneously was flattered to have been shown the inner workings, and felt that the backdrop was best seen from the audience.
I had casting appointments (the modeling equivalent to auditions) all around the city, which proved to be an excellent way of learning about it. While I saw plenty of the Champs Elysees, the Latin Quarter, and such, some appointments brought me farther afield, down winding cobbled streets and deep into complicated courtyards. My routes took me out into the suburbs, then back to a photographer’s apartment above a little patisserie, off again to some art director’s office in the center of town where I had to battle the crowds of tourists to read the addresses. I carried a camera everywhere and frequently stopped along seemingly ordinary streets to capture, or attempt to capture, anything that struck me, like a sign above a cobbler’s shop or a particularly charming café.
After a little while work started to get slower. At first this trend worried me – with less work what would I do? – but when I stopped fretting I noticed that something in me had changed. I don’t know when it happened, but unexpectedly, subtly, the film and the daze had faded away. I was comfortable now, I was…at home. All the trekking about had taught me Paris geography well, and I consulted my map less and less. The metro system was firmly imprinted on my mind, I knew most of the shops in my neighborhood, I could go into the grocery store and collect the things I needed without lengthy deliberation. When I went out of town for several days, to shoot in Lyon, I was surprised to discover that I missed the Paris. When I did return it was comforting to ride up in the now familiar elevator and plop onto what had become my bed.
This comfort in my surroundings made me less antsy about my free time, often content to fill my weekends with a trip to the farmer’s market or a jog in the park. My adventurer’s spirit didn’t wane entirely however, and Kelsey and I made exploration a priority. One weekend we spent several hours wandering through the Louvre; another, we took a day trip out to the Palace of Versailles to poke around the majestic gardens and apartments. During a slow workday I would drop in on art galleries, parks, and bookstores. Though being in Paris for a relatively long time removed some of the urgency of a short visit, still the museums and cultural highlights beckoned to me and admonished that they were not to be missed, and I certainly didn’t want to miss anything if I could help it.
Time went on, holidays passed. Kelsey and I decorated our room for Halloween, then it was my birthday and cards arrived from family back home. It felt somewhat strange, turning 17 in this foreign place, with none of the usual people present, but my roommates and I had a pleasant little celebration which left me only a tad homesick. The feeling of new arrival had long since subsided, and with it the importance of my departure date, which had once loomed large on the horizon. I was just here, seemingly to stay, now accustomed to this city’s pulse and aligning my own with it. I had finished several books since arriving, and had to wear twice as many layers. One day I happened to notice a calendar in the corner and with a jolt remembered Kelsey asking if she ought to turn the page to November – it seemed endlessly long ago now.
Thanksgiving was particularly memorable. Our spread was a humble one of smoked turkey slices, sautéed vegetables and two baked yams, but it served our purposes well. The pang of sadness at being apart from our families was mostly balanced by the intrigue of this anomalous celebration. The crowning jewel of the night was a pumpkin pie which Kelsey and I had to bake in the toaster oven, sideways with the pan sticking out the door a bit, made with a frozen flakey-pastry crust. How we hunted for those ingredients! Canned pumpkin was nowhere to be found so we’d cooked and mashed the squash ourselves, and we had gone to three stores looking for ground cinnamon. The pie somehow captured the essence of my life in Paris; a little out of the ordinary, rather makeshift, but still to worth savoring. We were inordinately proud of it.
Christmas decorations started popping up on every shop and terrace and there was a definite chill to the air. Nothing marks the passage of time so much as the seasons turning. And then suddenly, it was over. I was leaving in a week, less than a week, a few days. Surprisingly, the date came like any other. My flight was in the evening, and I spent a large part of the morning wandering aimlessly, soaking in the Paris I had come to take for granted. I checked in on now customary haunts – the English bookstore, the park. Kelsey, once a stranger and now so familiar, and I bought pastries and had mild sort of sending off party.
Sitting in the back of a taxi headed for the airport, I felt looked out at the city which I somewhat unknowingly begun to call my own. I was almost surprised that nothing about the city seemed to change with my impending departure; would it all go on without me? I though of the trains in the train yard next to the apartment. Most mornings I ate breakfast watching those trains go by, carrying commuters into the city and day-trippers out, yet I was always there. And now I, like all those people aboard their trains, was leaving, yet Paris would always be here.





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