Thirty Years Living in France: Where it All Began
The Paris metro at rush hour on Monday mornings is as soul sucking as any public transportation system in any metropolis, maybe more so because we know what we’re missing on the surface. As often as I can, I take the bus to see the sights, and to feel the thrill of being a tourist again, although I haven’t been one for 30 years now.
In 1988 I boarded an Air France red-eye from JFK to Charles de Gaulle and met a flight attendant who would become my second husband. Paris has always been a sexy place. I wouldn’t have moved here had hormones not been involved.
We were married for 13 years; 13 is a lucky number in France, but in this case American superstition won out. I put our break-up down to “cultural differences”, especially our differences about infidelity. During the time we were together, however, I learned French, got work and became Parisian. His grandmother once said to my parents that if we were to divorce one day, she was sure that I would stay on, so completely had I embraced the French way of life. She was right.
Paris has always been a sexy place. I wouldn’t have moved here had hormones not been involved.
I’ve had several careers, relationships have started and ended, but the one constant in my life has been the 10th arrondissement. My Parisian identity has been glued to the blocks around the Canal Saint Martin for more than half of my life. I have the same sense of homesickness for the rue du Faubourg St Martin and its adjoining streets as I have for where I grew up in Southern California. I get around instinctively and I’m confused when shops and cafés change ownership.
My neighborhood was once populaire, which is a word that the French call a faux ami. It looks and sounds like a word in another language, but it doesn’t have the same meaning. So, populaire, rather than meaning trendy, means working-class and culturally mixed. Now it has become popular in the trendy sense of the word.
The Valmy was the first sign that the quartier was changing. In the early ’90s it went from a café with blaring neon lights and linoleum flooring to bohemian bourgeois overnight, complete with a custom-made mosaic bar and exhibitions by wannabe artists. Long gone the chain-smoking, hookah puffing clientele of the canal where it wasn’t safe to walk at night. The bobos had arrived.
I don’t have an elevator pitch explanation for why I’ve been living in France for so long.
This was not an invasion by outsiders come to gentrify the neighborhood. The management was taken over by the sons of the hard working Berber Algerian owner who had several establishments around town. Those boys could see into the future. I only entered it once while it was still run by the father, to ask for change for the newly installed parking meters. In spite of their cordial welcome, I quickly realized that not many, if any, women crossed that threshold. That would change when the sons took charge.
The canal is now a hipster hub. There are cafés, juice bars and sushi restaurants. On weekend nights the banks are lined with young people drinking and picnicking. On Sunday it’s closed to traffic and bike riders and joggers abound. (I never saw a French person jog until five years ago). Yoga studios are opening up on every block, much to my pleasant surprise.
The energy feels more urban that it used to, except when I go out early on Sunday morning to do my shopping. I stop into the Valmy for a café crème and watch young families have an orange pressé at tables where students were drinking the latest IPA until 2 a.m. the night before. The flexibility of the Parisian café, catering to each type of client at any time of day, continues. The generations mingle and neighbors from all walks of life still meet.
Although I still have a sentimental attachment to the U.S., I no longer identify with a nationality. The world has become a smaller place because I have two countries to call home.
Paris has changed and it has changed me. I’m not the person I would have been had I stayed in the States. I don’t have an elevator pitch explanation for why I’ve been here for so long. I was adventurous by nature before I moved. But it’s possible that I’ve been more receptive to new opportunities because I took that first big step to live in a country other than that in which I was born.
Paris has always offered me experiences that I’ve found difficult to refuse. Being bilingual has opened doors in my professional and private lives. It has also made me more confident in the world and, I believe, more open-minded. Although I still have a sentimental attachment to the U.S., I no longer identify with a nationality. The world has become a smaller place because I have two countries to call home.
When I arrived, the city seemed huge and busy and incomprehensible. Now it feels familiar and comfortable. At times I have a melancholic moment when I see a beloved, historic building has become a frenchified version of a Brooklyn bistro. Then I stroll through the Luxembourg gardens at lunchtime in autumn and see kids lounging on the park benches and I realize that they are just like their parents once were. Parisians will always have the same nonchalant confidence. And the city’s blend of beauty and grittiness that has existed since long before my discovery of its complex layers will always intrigue and seduce me.
I recently dined with a friend who lived here for a while 10 years ago. She told me that Paris is a place where she comes back to measure and re-evaluate the dreams of her youth. I can do that everyday.