It has been over a year since I first arrived in Paris, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, anticipating the span of five months that, in my fantastical imagination, would be pure bliss. It would be all frolicking, colorful macarons, endless bottles of wine, cornucopias of cheese, and elegant style. I just assumed that I would suddenly transform into one of those chic people you see in photos from Paris fashion week at the Tuileries. Indeed, I certainly did consume countless bottles of wine, but what I didn’t expect was a crippling reality check.
The French word dépaysement in the most general sense describes the condition of being disoriented in an unfamiliar context. At a deeper level, it is used when a person finds themselves far away from their home country, feeling a sense of alienation and longing for home; the word itself contains pays, which is French for country.
Securing a Parisian apartment months ahead of time did indeed alleviate a boat-load of stress, but in turn, this meant I arrived alone, tackled public transport alone, and entered a foreign apartment building alone, all the while struggling to carry my body’s weight in luggage. I had detailed directions written on a note in my pocket that I re-checked every 10 seconds like a paranoid schitzophrenic, even though I had it memorized by heart. The building was super easy to find, a short walk from the metro station and in view of the “city hall” of the 15th Arrondissement.
After taking the miniscule lift to the 7th floor (thank GOD for the elevator) and then spending 10 minutes attempting to unlock the door, I stumbled into my new home. I was simultaneously cocaine-high on nerves, in disbelief at the absolute beauty of the apartment, and absolutely terrified at how utterly FAR my comforts were from me. It had Turkish rugs on the floor, an old wooden armoire, a teeny kitchenette, and a view of those quintessential little chimineys. I kept saying to myself, “oh my god, is this real,” over, and over, and over again.
Allowing myself a few deep breaths, I realized how many unexpected logistical issues there were. Wifi was nonexistent, the power adapter I brought didn’t work, my lap top died in 5 minutes without power, I didn’t know if my US phone would work, I needed a French phone to contact my au pair family ASAP but had no idea how to get one, I had no food, I had no way to contact my family to let them know I was safe, and the next day I had an orientation to attend.
Needless to say, I broke. Uncontrollable sobbing. Violent shaking. The whole nine yards.
I disregarded international charges and called my mama. Even writing this out makes me feel a little choked up. There are certain times when you just need your Mom.
It took me almost two months to get past my depression, fear, and anxiety. I hadn’t realized how NOT independent I was, and the vicious cycle of “feeling bad for feeling bad” only added to the situation.
The best advice my mama gave me was to “fake it until you make it,” and it eventually worked, after many a sad, lonely, forced trip to the Eiffel Tower or a nearby park.
In fact, the very first “sightseeing” outing I took was to the Eiffel Tower, the quintessential icon of Paris, the symbol of romance and awe… And you know what happened??? I felt no joy whatsoever. I was incredibly scared of practicing the language, and just assumed that people wouldn’t have the patience to “deal with me” and my fragmented French… If I had to take the metro, I would pre-memorize the route I would take, the station names and directions to take… I would clutch my bag so tightly just in case pickpockets were lurking nearby… The need to cry would randomly surge up in any unoccupied moments… It was BAD, guys. Really bad. Oh – and did I mention that I was also in the midst of a break-up? yeah… just bad.
My life wasn’t magical. It was full of mundane things and metros that smelled like piss. I had to work a job (nanny), I had to combat the French university system tooth and nail to enroll in classes, I had to make sure I was nutritionally balanced, and wear comfortable shoes. I remember one particular afternoon, sitting in a hidden corner of a café and messaging my mom, seriously considering packing up and returning home. After that conversation, I realized that I either NEEDED to enjoy my time in Paris, or leave; because there’s no way I could live this miserably continuously for 4.5 more months. I also couldn’t let Natalie down – my best friend had bought a ticket to visit me over Christmas, and dropping that ball just wasn’t an option.
I was on a mission from that point forward, posting mantras on my walls, forcing myself to make friends and step out of my comfort zone. You don’t know how good it feels to be completely content and confident in your life when you’ve experienced the level of fear that I had. I remember a day in which I resolved myself to find a winter coat, since I didn’t own one yet. It was nothing crazy – I just walked a few blocks out of my neighborhood, visited a few shops, and came home with a new black, wool coat!! I was so proud of myself! For something so simple.
And the more I ventured out, the more clarifying moments of accomplishment I had, and after a while, almost every day felt like the best day ever. I was able to walk confidently through the streets, navigate conversational French, and socialize like a butterfly. The new surroundings and my conscious decision to step out of my comfort zone made my time in Paris the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. period.
Getting to the good part took A LOT of struggle. The biggest lesson I learned is this: That happiness doesn’t mysteriously happen to you according to some unknown system of destiny, but rather, YOU make it happen to yourself. It isn’t a passive occurrence, it’s one that demands action, a choice.
I feel like reflecting on my past is so appropriate right now, considering my future move to Versailles coming up in January. The upcoming move will be a completely different one. Things will be more familiar, and I’ll be arriving to the comforting presence of my boyfriend, Erik. I know that my comfort zone will be challenged, nevertheless, and I’m really looking forward to see how it all unfolds! At least I’ll have a handsome Swede to greet me at the airport this time ’round!
Enjoy these photos and their accompanying captions. The next installment of the Paris Memoirs will be about all the magical times.