Trouvé: Self Discovery in Paris

When you live in the States, it's hard to avoid America's unnatural obsession with Paris. Every home decor store and Target aisle is filled with black and white photos of the Eiffel Tower, and Audrey Hepburn quotes superimposed over a decoupage display of French newspaper clippings. It's a little excessive if we're being honest. 

Girl's childhood bedroom, somewhere in central Ohio. Sponsored by Dayton Target™

Girl's childhood bedroom, somewhere in central Ohio. Sponsored by Dayton Target™

I was never a francophile. I grew up struggling to speak Spanish on phone calls to Puerto Rico and avoiding having a Boston accent. My knowledge of French was exclusively compromised of Beauty and the Beast lyrics, and the only thought I had of Paris was a faint image of the Arc du Triomphe at night in The Devil Wears Prada.

So color me surprised when I decided in February to move into a co-living space in the Parisian suburbs for two months with a dozen French roommates. I actually remember saying to Selvina, my new "landlord," in my interview: "Yeah I only speak English, but I mean, I'm totally down to learn French!" 

*Cringe*

This was going to be interesting. 

In terms of last-minute housing decisions, I seriously lucked out. The Supernana house became my home away from home, a secret sanctuary I never knew I needed. Started by our fearless leader, Selvina, it's a co-living space designed specifically for entrepreneurially minded females. Aka my happy place. It took me a minute to bond with my new roommates - at first, I thought they hated me, but, turns out we were all just nervous to speak to the other in a second language. Luckily, our ever faithful house manager Marion was willing to correct my broken French and have endless conversations with me in English. Moments like that made living on my own a little less lonely. 

DSC_3879.jpg

What started out as a spontaneous idea ending up being my best life decision to date. But I didn't know it at the time.  You see, Paris is a place that just is. She doesn't care who you are or where you come from - it's not her job to make you feel comfortable. It's your job to figure out how to be yourself. Sometimes Paris feels like a movie, and she can go from being loud and outlandish to quiet and reverent, all in a matter of minutes. Sometimes she's cold and pale and harsh. And other times you stumble upon the warm embrace of a boulangerie and don't think there is a more perfect place in the world. Most days I felt like an alien wandering around a beautiful, foreign wonderland. Then one day I woke up and found myself giving directions to tourists in three languages and simultaneously rolling my eyes in understanding at the French slang being cat-called at me from a pouisson stand.  

Paris, for me, was a lot of that. Accidental self-discovery. Now that I have the power of hindsight, I'm realizing it wasn't much of an accident at all. Being settled back in the States for a few weeks, I wanted to finally sit down and take stock of exactly why my experience in the legendary Paris was so transformative. Most people assume it's because Paris is just *so amazing* and that I must have had a whirlwind romance and ate picnics in front of the Eiffel Tower I'll never forget. But before you tune out - this isn't going to be a glowy review of all the wine I drank like you hear from every girl who spends a semester abroad.

In the moment, I felt like I was just....surviving. Getting through each day, running around in the rain, feeling overwhelmed with sudden bouts of loneliness and culture shock. And that was the beauty of it.

Living in France made me comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Admittedly, most of it stemmed from getting used to not understanding pretty much anything that was going on. Before I came to France, everyone assuaged my fears of not knowing the language, reminding me that "basically everyone in Paris speaks English" and that the city was used to tourists. First of all, what an American mentality. Secondly, guess what happens when you're decidedly not a tourist? I was living in a house with up to a dozen French girls, in the suburbs, and working alongside local freelancers every day. I was constantly straining to hear words I could understand, attempting to understand subway maps, struggling to order my groceries in French, and smiling and nodding while my friends spoke rapid-fire slang back and forth to each other over dinner. When I got off the plane and landed in Boston, I actually teared up because I could finally understand the announcements over the loudspeaker. I didn't even realize that not understanding them had been bothering me.

So obviously I am not fluent after two months in France. My accent isn't bad, and I can hold my own in a Level One French class but....c'mon it was only 8 weeks. I took Spanish in high school, cut me some slack. 

Since coming back, I've realized how much I had been checking out in my past life, when I was comfortable. When I used to go into a coffee shop to work, I would barely speak to the barista, let alone notice anyone around me. Now I constantly find myself chatting up the folks at the table next to me and drop in on neighboring conversations, mainly because I'm just so excited they can understand me. Spending months in a country where you don't know the language can be incredibly isolating, and I'll never take the opportunity to communicate with strangers for granted again. 

At the same time, you also quickly learn the power of body language. Most of the time, I had no idea what words people were actually saying, but I could get the gist of the conversation just from their facial expressions and hand movements. Is that seat open? That girl is weird, right? Can I have some of that pasta? All can be translated with just a look. I find that I'm more observant of both friends and strangers, and have an easier time reading between the lines since coming back. 

It's also interesting to have to explain yourself to total strangers. You can be pretty much whoever you want to be when you live abroad. I took it so far that I even changed my name. Okay, not exactly, but there's no "J" sound in French so I went by Angélica; the only place I ever use that name is the doctor's office and on the phone with telemarketers, thanks to the popularity of the Rugrats in the 90s.  

In France, I got to redefine myself under this new persona.

IMG_1802.jpg

What parts of AJ did I want to keep?

What new things did I want to try?

What could Angelica become?

One day in the house, we were making these posters of ourselves to hang up on the wall for visitors. They asked me to describe myself in a few words - I wrote that I was a marketer, that I liked reading and traveling. And then one of my roommates wrote "Yogi" on my sheet. I started doing Yoga every day in Paris, but it still felt like a new thing to me. To them, though, that was who I was. Someone who did yoga and meditation and spent time centering myself. I realized that since moving, I started cooking dinner for myself every day, that I wrote a blog a week, that I was still running, and that I was helping people with website design after building two in my time there. The one observation that still surprises me is that everyone saw me as a source of positivity. "You're always so nice and smiling and happy about what you're doing." Maybe what they say about happiness is true. 

Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.

That was the magic I found in Paris. The power of sitting quietly. I couldn't talk all the time. I was hours and miles ahead of everything I knew. I lived in a house with a quiet garden with my books, my computer, and my mind. I wandered a foreign city in silence. And in the quiet, happiness floated in and sat lightly upon my shoulder. 

I've been trying to hold onto that happiness ever since. I haven't admitted this to even myself yet, but, since coming home I've been scared to commit to my next travel destination. I think I'm worried. Worried that it will be too loud and wild, worried that it will scare me back into my extreme extroversion. This is my first time ever appreciating peace, and I've been holding it close to my heart like a security blanket, fearing anything that will disrupt it.

But as yoga teaches you, life is a balance of holding on and letting go. 

DSC_4280.jpg

On my first day of solo exploration, I visited the famous Shakespeare and Co where I picked up a book by Eleanor Brown, "A Paris All Your Own." It features a series of vignettes from American female best-selling authors about memorable trips to Paris. The book helped me find stories I could instantly relate to. Feeling lost in the City of Light wasn't just common - it seems like it was actually the norm. 

In every story from Brown's book, the authors close their chapter with a survey about Paris. Now, as my chapter comes to a close, I wanted to get some closure, and say au revoir with my own response. It's time for the next adventure. 

Favorite Quote About Paris

"Paris is a museum displaying exactly itself." - Jeffrey Eugenides. 

In Paris, you must....

  • Eat baguettes exclusively from a boulangerie. They have bread police that test them for crunchiness and length. Any place that doesn't have "Boulangerie" on the sign isn't certified by the bread police. Seriously.  
  • Climb to Sacre Coeur and down. It's a San Francisco sized hill, but you get the best view of the city, and Montmarte is the most Parisian neighborhood you have ever seen. 
  • Make a friend from France. They're painfully honest, and they give the best life advice. 

In Paris, you can skip....

  • Climbing the Eiffel Tower. The best view of the city includes the Eiffel Tower, so why would you pack yourself on a crowded elevator to see a view without it?? 
  • Speaking French badly. Learn it correctly or don't do it at all. They're just going to respond to you in English if you suck anyway. (Getting it right, however, is priceless) 
  • Pretending that every day is perfect. Sometimes it rains for an entire week, you get yelled at in the market, and you step on dog shit on your way to the train only to realize the workers are on strike. Paris is a real-life city, not a fantasy world. 

Favorite Paris Moment

Timing out the Eiffel Tower light show to the Finale of the Ratatouille Soundtrack

Least Favorite Paris Moment

Having a barista leave a note on my laptop saying I was speaking too loud on a conference call. Apparently, the other patrons were asking me to leave the coffee shop. The conference call was two hours....

Strangest Must Have Travel Item

Roll-on deodorant. It's impossible to find in France. Also, a selfie-stick is a must have for solo travelers. 

I write about Paris because.... 

Paris was harsh, but she taught me how to be unapologetically myself. And honesty makes for the best stories. 

Bisous, Paris. À bientôt! 

paris.jpg
AJ Marino