I arrived in Paris in my hiking clothes: long green pants that zip off at the knee, a t-shirt over a tank top, my good socks, my sturdy and quite worn in shoes. I wore my pack, too, and over my right shoulder was a small duffel bag, all the extra clothes and items I’d needed for the writer’s retreat I’d just left.
I felt just a little strange, and nervous. My walking stick, which I’d carried for the last 34 days, had been left behind at La Muse; tucked away in the corner of a basement room where, hopefully, I might be able to find it again. My loaded pack felt heavy, though it was a weight that I had gotten used to just weeks before, as I hiked through the Chemin du Puy. Already, I was out of practice.
But I wasn’t in Paris to be a hiker or a walker, was I? I thought that maybe I was here to continue my writer’s retreat but I wasn’t sure about that, either.
All I knew were, well, three things:
1. I missed those full days of walking, and part of me wished that instead of a week in Paris, I had organized a week long trek somewhere new and exciting.
2. I missed La Muse. I missed Homer and the way he would bound up to me and then bound away, dancing in a circle when he knew we were going for a hike. I missed, already, my room with the big window and the view of the mountains, I missed the friends that I’d made, the little writer’s community we’d formed.
3. I love Paris. I really, really love Paris.
But why was I spending a week in the city, alone? What was I going to accomplish here? I already know Paris, at least I know the things that tourists know: where to get a hot crêpe and what the view from the top of Notre Dame looks like, how to find the room with the Van Gogh’s in the Musée d’Orsay and how to open the door of a car on the metro.
I’d spent time in Paris at least a half dozen times during the year I studied abroad in Toulouse, and in the last 4 years, have spent between 1-4 days in Paris every summer. It’s become a regular thing, a mandatory swing through Paris when I’m in Europe. Sometimes all I have to do is buy a baguette and walk down the streets of the Île de St Louis and come upon Notre Dame and stare up in wonder.
Now I was in Paris and I had an entire week and I wondered: am I going to continue to be in love with this city? Am I going to become restless? Will I wish I were somewhere else?
Here are the answers: Yes. No. No.
My days in Paris didn’t exactly have a routine, though I suppose in some ways, little ways, they did. I’d wake up between 7 and 8am, though sometimes if I was awake in the 6 o’clock hour I’d roll out of bed and walk onto my balcony to see if there was a good sunrise. Several times, there was.
Once I was up for good I’d spoon some coffee into the little stove top expresso maker and then take a shower, toweling off just as the coffee was ready. There was a small fridge in the “kitchen” of my place and on my first day I’d stocked it with some essentials: yogurt, fruit, cheese, meat. I’d have a small bowl of yogurt with my coffee and flip through a guidebook and come up with ideas for the day.
Around 9, sometimes earlier, I would set out. The city is quiet in the morning, even at 9 many places are just beginning to think about opening, the tables start to go out in front of the cafes, brooms sweep leaves and trash off the pavement and sometimes I’d pass men or women hosing off the sidewalk in front of their shops. Trash trucks drove up and down the streets, bottles would crash and shatter as recycling bins were emptied.
Usually, the first thing I’d do was stop for another coffee, or a croissant. I found a few cafés that weren’t traditionally French but featured pretty decent coffee, and a few cafés with mediocre coffee and a lot of French charm.
After coffee I would always head off somewhere, walking through the streets, never using the metro (not in the morning, anyway). I went to art museums: the Musée d’Orsay, Espace Dali, the Musée de l’Orangerie, the Musée Rodin. I explored the arrondissements, the neighborhoods: the 5th, the 3rd, the 14th, the 17th, the 6th and 7th, the 3rd and 4th, the 20th. The Latin Quarter, St-Germain, Montparnasse, the Marais, Montmartre.
And more. I walked everywhere. I almost don’t want to write this because it seems absurd, but on two separate days I walked 20km through the city. 20km! Around and around and around.
But I used the metro, too, I love the metro. Even in the summer when it is hot down there in those winding corridors, when the smell is so distinct, it’s a smell that screams to me: “This is Paris. THIS is Paris.” But the metro can take you anywhere, and on the streets you will always find one, there seems to be one at every other turn.
I went to bookshops, and I bought books. I read books, too, in back rooms of the cafés, with a noisette or a flat white (the coffee that is taking over Paris, apparently), and I’d sit and arrange myself on a wooden stool and I would open my book and read.
A few times, I met up with friends: for dinner in a bistrot, for a picnic by the Seine, for a glass of champagne to celebrate my birthday. We shopped for picnic supplies in La Grande Epicerie, a place I’d never been to before and I went back two days later to pick up food for lunches or dinners on my balcony: double crème brie, eggplant and yogurt dip, octopus and prawns and mussels marinated in olive oil, crispy baguettes, fresh raspberries.
I discovered new places: a covered market where I bought hot fries in a newspaper cone, a street market that I walked up and down three times, just to watch the vendors and listen to the sounds. I bought a bottle of wine from a little shop, a chunk of cheese from another.
Parks and cemeteries and canals and squares: I spent a lot of time in outdoor spaces. Jardin du Luxembourg (twice, because it was a 15 minute walk from my apartment), Père Lachaise (twice, because the first time I got turned around and had to leave to meet a friend before I could find Oscar Wilde’s grave. I’ve seen it before- two or three times at least- but it’s like a visit I have to make whenever I’m in Paris. I’m not even sure why, because I’m not a particular fan of Oscar Wilde… I just know that I have to do it). And what else? The Canal Saint-Martin and the Promenade Plantée, the Place des Vosges and the Place de la Contrescarpe. Parc de Belleville.
So many things, all of this and more. But I also spent time in that little apartment of mine- for afternoon catnaps and a glass of wine in the evening, sitting on my balcony and looking out over the rooftops. At 10pm, and again at 11 and again at midnight, thousands of lights on the Eiffel Tower flash and blink, the tower sparkles for 5 minutes and I could see it from my balcony and every night I was home I would stand outside and watch.
Home. That apartment and even Paris, a little bit, began to feel like home. My friend Alex, an Australian writer I’d met at La Muse last summer, moved to Paris in March. She signed a 6-month lease but always intended to stay for at least a year, and when I talked with her about it, her eyes started to shine. “If I can swing it, I want to stay for at least 2 years, maybe 3.”
I asked her a lot of questions about what it had been like to move to Paris, to live in Paris, if the language barrier was a problem, if the cultural barrier was a problem. She told me about a French course she took, how she connected with other expats, her favorite things to do, the site she used to find her apartment.
And I began to dream. What if I could do this? I have an entire life somewhere else but the thing is, I’ve been dreaming about Paris ever since I was 20, from the moment I first laid eyes on the city. And Paris, after all this time, is still a beautiful dream. It’s the city of my dreams.
7 different people asked me for directions during my week in Paris; some of them were tourists but some were French, one- an old lady- might even have been a Parisian. I could only give an answer to one of them, a French guy, and I answered with a smile and with an assurance. I’d understood his question, I knew where we were and where he wanted to go, and I could give a response, in French.
After a week in the city I was beginning to feel like I knew where I was, where I was going. Could I ever have more time like this? More than just a few days, more than a week? Could I live here for a few months, half a year? An entire year?
In my dreams, yes. And if I continue to write and work and aim high and big, if I take chances and with a little (or a lot) of luck, I might just be able to live out my dreams.
But, that’s one of my castles in the air and it’s a beautiful one but for now I’ll be grateful for what is right in front of me: the magical week I just spent in a city that I love, the work it took to get myself there, the chances that I’ve already taken in life, the persistance of my dreams for where they’ve already taken me.
And Paris will always be there. Whether for a few days or a week or a month, a year or a lifetime; it will always be there.