It’s a moment that often repeats itself. A moment of familiarity. A moment that requires little thought. The well-known scene of a Frenchman or Frenchwomen entering their local bakery (boulangerie), rattling off their order in a string of rhythmic staccatos, and tearing off a hunk of their chosen loaf as soon as they stroll out the door is luckily a stereotype that holds true. I like to think that a Frenchman can go a lifetime without God, but no more than a day without bread.
Like some sort of star-spangled disease, my family and I have slowly fixed ourselves to the city of Paris over the past decade. With each passing year, we linger longer and longer. At our mother’s bidding, my younger brother and I attempted to wrap our lazy English-speaking tongues around the temperamentally beautiful words we heard in the streets. He lost his fight with the language in the middle of high school. The British blood in me refused to let it win. Eventually, we purchased a little corner of the city for ourselves. Our presence became chronic; a permanent blemish on the loveliest of faces. The face of a lover we just couldn’t seem to forget.
I’ve heard the traveler’s heart is a most Frankensteinian creation. For each city one falls in love with and must leave, it cracks and heals in a different place. What remains is a mosaic of failed love affairs held together with a longing to return. Peek under my skin, and it’s easy to tell which piece belongs to Paris. It’s the largest, fixed to the rest of my heart by the deepest seam.
My mother, a petite woman with wild brown hair, always delights in telling strangers my initial reaction to the city. It was a cold November night during Thanksgiving break just after I turned thirteen. As my mother and I wandered up and down the Champs Élysées in a fatigue-induced daze, I concluded that Paris was like New York, only elegant. I remember the evening, but not the quote. Thankfully, that’s justification enough for me to distance myself from so ridiculous a statement.
New York is too American to be French, and Paris is too French to be American. For the English-speaking French in New York, it’s easy. Speak English or no one (to make a sweeping, but mostly accurate generalization) will be able to help you. For the ardent French-speaking American in Paris, every conversation becomes a game of deception. It’s a delicate symphony of details including, but not limited to, body language, accent, and dress, where if one note is misplayed, the entire effort goes up in flames. Unfortunately, most interactions happen so quickly, it’s difficult to pinpoint what you did right or wrong if the error wasn’t obvious.
The daily ritual of buying bread, a habit which integrated itself into my routine quite easily, was one situation where things could rapidly spin out of control. I walk in. The tinkling of a little bell above the door announces my presence. I make eye contact with a plump young woman with jet-black hair. I see the recognition flicker in her eyes. I’m there every day. I live around the corner. She smiles. I order my usual: Une tradition, s’il vous plaît. (A baguette made in the traditional method. More expensive, but better-tasting.) My fingers scrape against the inside of my pocket searching for loose change. She says something. I freeze. I didn’t understand. I can feel the mask peeling away as panic invades my expression. I ask her to repeat herself. My tongue is heavy in my mouth. It trips over the words. In the split second before she responds, I see what I always feared: the realization that I’m an imposter. A foreigner. She repeats herself in heavily-accented English. The piece of my heart reserved for this city starts to ache.
It’s a silly reaction. You can only fool someone for so long.
In a way, Paris is a lot like New York was 150 years ago; hyper aware of foreign invaders, although arguably much more tolerant of them. The difference lies in overhead. You can live in New York City for two years and call yourself a New Yorker. You can live in Paris for thirty years, yet never be considered a Parisian. Claiming the title of New Yorker simply requires tolerance. If you can put up with the noise, shoddy public transportation system, grimy streets, and a habitually pissed off populous, congratulations. For better or for worse, you earned it. There is no way to “earn” the title of “Parisian.” Putting up with the city for a few years means nothing. In fact, you don’t “put up” with Paris. If someone ever uses those words side by side, there’s no hope for them. The light has left their eyes. Their soul is damned.
Being Parisian is something you’re born with. It isn’t something you can learn. I don’t mean the mystical allure of French women or wild tales of illicit love affairs fueled by champagne that dissipate as quickly as cigarette smoke into the night sky. That’s cinematic fabrication. To be Parisian is to know how the streets twist and change, how to walk as if you have nowhere to be, and how to remember the secrets it whispers when you walk home alone. To an outsider, we’re lucky if we can perform any of these skills badly, if at all.
I walk too quickly, talk too loudly, and think too harshly to be Parisian. Whether that is due to nature or nurture, I can’t say. Like many others, I’ve fallen in love with the illusion that I can disguise myself. Yet, the masquerade only manages to last for a little while. The city belongs to me, but I don’t belong to the city, and I never will. New York and I at least have an understanding. If I can put up with New York, New York will put up with me.
Some fool (probably an American) came up with the idea that once you dream in the language you’re learning; you’ve gained some kind of mastery over it. I’ve dreamt in French before, but I always seem to fixate upon a single sentence; repeating it incessantly, and trying to glean its meaning. Whether I find the answer or not, it never fails to dissolve into ashes the second I open my eyes. Mastery of the language serves no purpose other than to allow me to watch Parisian life unfold firsthand, rather than through the one-way mirror of English.
One chilly night this past March as I left a student-frequented bar just south of Montmartre, I thought I heard the city whisper to me. I was alone. It was faint. Yet, I was certain of it. Instead of taking the train, I chased the whisper through the city’s 8th district; down rue de Monceau, to rue Washington, and avenue Georges V. It was the hour of peace, and I was on a mission. Yet suddenly, I was back on my side of the river in front of my own building. Between my labored breaths, I listened as the whisper faded away. I wonder who the city mistook me for, even after discovering I couldn’t keep up. Taking a chance on the situation was stupid of both of us. Yet, I fell a little more in love knowing that perfection will always have its limits. It’s an unrequited love I can endure. I know it’s possible when rain is no longer an inconvenience, but an afternoon of anticipated beauty. I know it’s possible when my gasp of awe under an impossibly starry in the planetarium of the Palais des Découvertes sounds like the gasps of those around me. I know it’s possible when wandering the streets alone is never lonely.
Gertrude Stein once said that America was her country, and Paris was her hometown. I can’t think of a better way to describe an American who has fallen in love with Paris. Eventually, one discovers that it’s an undeniable heritage; a cheap and recognizable scent worn by millions. Now, that plump young woman with the jet-black hair greets me with an enthusiastic “hello” whenever I wander through her boulangerie’s doors. I smile and order my usual: Une tradition, s’il vous plaît. Everything changed, but I’m too stubborn to accept it. If I can’t be Parisian, I’ll be la américaine. It’s better than nothing, and in all honesty, I’ll take what I can get.