Making Life Elsewhere: Leaving New York for Paris
Standing in the bell tower of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, at the age of 16, overlooking the Manhattan skyline, I had my first feeling of inevitability. On a visit from my sunny hometown, I had no plan for my future, but at that moment I knew that it would happen in New York City.
I didn’t return until I had graduated from college as an aspiring dancer. After six months in a sublet located just beneath the Brooklyn side of the Manhattan Bridge, long before the neighborhood became up-and-coming, I’d had it with the starving artist life style. My part-time job as a receptionist paid only enough for my rent and one subway token per day. I walked to work every morning across the bridge and uptown to 42nd Street, then to 63rd Street to my dance classes. Bananas and pasta were the staples of my diet, being the cheapest form of sustenance available at the bodega around the corner.
Between the gun shots and the hopping of some sort of kangaroo rat across the kitchen floor as the nightly soundtrack and, in spite of the friendly garage employees downstairs who waited every evening for me to arrive safely at my door, I decided to give up and go home. When my mother sent me money to buy a winter coat I used it to get a plane ticket back to California.
Whether it was a theater piece in a black box on St. Marks, an opening in a Tribeca gallery or a party in the Hamptons attended by Broadway and movie stars, I consumed every experience that came into my orbit.
It took a year for me to regroup and make a new plan of attack. I applied to graduate school and made my entrance to the city through a comfortable liberal arts college with plenty of professional connections and a new social set. This time I had thought it through.
Over the span of eight years I had homes in Westchester County, on the Upper West and East sides and in the West Village. I worked in one arts foundation downtown, near the World Trade Center, and in another on Park Avenue. I taught dance in Harlem and the Bronx and aerobics in Midtown. My friends lived in Chelsea and on the Lower East Side. We rehearsed and performed in grubby loft spaces in Soho.
Whether it was a theater piece in a black box on St. Marks, an opening in a Tribeca gallery or a party in the Hamptons attended by Broadway and movie stars, I consumed every experience that came into my orbit. By the time I was 28 years old I was exhausted and my personal life was in a shambles, but I was on my way professionally and having a pretty good time. I would have had to choose between the art and dance worlds at some point, but meeting a Frenchman on a plane to Paris presented me with an even bigger choice.
I stepped out of the elevator into the living room and was smacked in the face by the Eiffel Tower. Not the postcard version, but the real, metallic colossus, so close and so massive that I wasn’t sure what it was at first.
On the first day of my first visit to Paris, the friend who met me at the airport drove me through the deserted streets of the early morning. We went to his penthouse apartment in the 7th arrondissement. I stepped out of the elevator into the living room and was smacked in the face by the Eiffel Tower. Not the postcard version, but the real, metallic colossus, so close and so massive that I wasn’t sure what it was at first. My friend stood by, smiling knowingly, watching me have my second moment of inevitability.
I must admit that my airplane acquaintance’s persistent pursuit of me begun only hours after landing, and it played an important role in my decision to leave New York. I eventually married him. But, my encounter that first quiet morning with the symbol of la France was, without a doubt, what swept me off my feet.
Suddenly, I was indifferent to the neurotically constant movement in the city that had once been the center of all things to me. Before leaving I began to shed who I had been there – my jobs, my belongings, my relationships. My television broke and I went to a neighbor’s apartment every morning to watch French lessons on PBS. I hung out with my Alliance Française teacher and had a flirtation with a Franco-American guy named Alain. When I wasn’t preparing my departure I went to the movies to avoid reality and to be somewhere else; anywhere but New York.
Suddenly, I was indifferent to the neurotically constant movement in the city that had once been the center of all things to me. Before leaving I began to shed who I had been there – my jobs, my belongings, my relationships.
Out of both necessity and desire, as soon as I set foot on the tarmac of Charles de Gaulle airport in 1988, I became parisienne. I do go back to New York two or three times a year. The circumstances of my job require that I stay, more often than not, on the Upper East Side in a swanky hotel, and I seldom go below 14th Street. Having frequented the rarified air of that neighborhood and the uptown art world in my youth, the city appears relatively unchanged to me.
I, however, am no longer the eager, over-stimulated, over-worked young woman who believed that New York City would be the making of her. Manhattan, with its ever-sprouting skyscrapers and blinding electric showiness, no longer impresses nor excites me. My old-world perspective allows me to appreciate the staid calm of Madison Avenue and 86th Street, but even there I find the sirens to be uncouthly strident. Parisian children have a singsong way of imitating the sound of a police car – “Pam Pom, Pam Pom”, which is so much more civilized.
Living between the egos of these two cultural capitals, I’ve attempted to prove to my provincial self that I am a big city girl. I am no different to most of my friends, expatriates or not; all of us displaced city dwellers who have migrated to metropoles in order to prove ourselves and to make a mark where it is impossible to not be anonymous.
There are moments when I wonder what life would have been like had I stayed. I remember still the hopes and ambitions nurtured by New York while it made me tough and fearless. Fearless enough to make the leap and to pursue my dreams in Paris, who has always welcomed me with eternally aloof elegance.