I held my breath as our plane touched down, watching the runway below us and the Eiffel Tower that stood as a constant reminder that I wasn’t dreaming. In that instant my vocabulary was shortened to “I can’t believe it,” and “we’re actually here.” Smiles spoke louder than words, especially when I was unsure of how much English our shuttle driver actually spoke. Three years of French class could not have prepared me for this experience and my humming brain could not recall a single phrase beyond “Bonjour, comment ça va?” My grandpa chatted like it was second nature, because for him it was, and the inflections of a foreign language I thought I knew tumbled around the car in a familiar harmony. My cousin napped by my side but my eyes were transfixed on the cloudy city beyond the window. Years of saving had brought me here and nothing would take it from me now. Driving through L’Etoile, around the Arc de Triomphe, felt surreal. But it was all real, and the only that kept me calm was the wish to conform to Parisian culture. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I imagined that Parisians contained their emotions fairly well in front of strangers.
I wanted to fit perfectly into what I imagined this trip would be. In my mind I wasn’t a tourist, I was a girl on an adventure with her French-speaking grandfather who had actually lived in France multiple times before. I wanted to look like the French and act like the French and sound as much like the French as I could. But first I had to stop disbelieving the reality that I was there. Had I truly crossed an ocean? Was this actually another country? Opening the car door onto Avenue de la Motte Piquet answered all of my questions. The fragrant smell of diesel and cigarettes, the relaxed chatting of Parisians, and the unfamiliar humidity all hit me at once and I knew that I was somewhere else entirely. Not the Paris I had created in my mind, not the Paris of glitter and pink and accordion music, but the real Paris.
The Paris that actually was.
I will never forget the stairs that led to the apartment. Carpeted and worn, they were the first sign that everything I had imagined about Paris was distinctly incorrect. The apartment was old; not unpleasantly old, but it was still a surprise to someone who imagined that apartments were relatively new and shouldn’t look like they were caught between the Regency period and the present. Later I realized that, of course, in a city known for it’s historical sites, and a culture reluctant to change, as many buildings as possible would be preserved. That included housing. But oh, I loved the smell of that apartment.
The first place I went was across the street to the Carrefour to buy groceries. I’m not going to lie, the thing I was most excited about was the cheese. Boursin isn’t seasonal, it’s year-round in Paris. And Babybel isn’t only found in half-dollar-sized rounds, but also rounds as big as your face. We bought a lot of cheese. Then we bought a lot of things I hadn’t realized were French. Schweppes soda? There were tons of flavors in France. And it didn’t taste like alka-seltzer water. Chocolate? Of course I was expecting French chocolate to be amazing, but the huge selection of flavors and brands astounded me.
But enough with the narrative. Recalling every little thing that I did is riddled with emotion for me, but to the rest of the world it can’t be that enthralling.
So let me try to amend that.
Paris is a clock that runs until 2 am and doesn’t start again until 8. It’s a place where the hours of 7 in the evening to midnight are set aside for dinner because more talking happens than eating. It’s an exhibit with the most wonderful museums imaginable and an exquisite light show that happens every night at 9, three blocks from my apartment. Paris has a culture all its own, where friends are made slowly and yet it’s rude to enter a shop without telling the owner hello. It’s where people will either love you for trying your best to speak French or resent you for trying to match the culture at all. It’s where the best ice cream is found in the gardens of Versailles and you’ll probably send your grandpa back to get seconds because it’s just that good. It’s where the metro is 20 strides away from your front door and as soon as those train doors close you feel like you might be on your way to anywhere. Like you’re now connected to everywhere in the world and all your dreams are about to come true.
Dreams do come true in Paris. But for all that dreaming, Paris still wasn’t quite what I expected. I loved it, but it was almost suffocating at times. In my mind it could have been a place to reflect and think to oneself about life and love and the world. There weren’t many places for that sort of thinking. One such place was the Jardin du Luxembourg, my cousin’s favorite spot. If we could, we would have spent all day there. It was lovely. My spot was a castle. Château de Vincennes, located at the end of the Vincennes metro line. Out of the way, unknown, delightful. It was a medieval castle built not for beauty, but to fortify the city of Vincennes in the old days. It had a chapel and a courtyard and a garden, and the castle was the most amazing thing I’d seen. It was unstaged, but it was beautiful. Every room spoke of it’s history and I wanted to know more. And it was quiet. In that trip to Vincennes I had found my Paris. It was everything that I imagined. It was everything I hoped Paris would be. Beyond the castle walls was a bustling city, but here I felt immobilized. It was a sort of calm joy that I can’t hope to describe. I can only hope you understand what my words can not convey.
Paris itself creates dreams. Dreams in the form of Monet and Notre Dame and Rue Rivoli and Laduree. Dreams in the form of baguettes and tartes and the duck you never thought you would try in your life. Dreams that you didn’t know were dreams until you experienced their fulfillment. And when they are fulfilled, the memories are sweeter than anything you could have hoped for. I have a map of Paris on my bedroom wall, postcards and bookmarks and magnets of places, even pictures that make my heart ache to be back. But the very best thing I brought home with me was myself and the way Paris changed me. I am different somehow--more complete, with new dreams to drive me forward.