The stairs to the author's flat in Saint-Germain-des-Prés (courtesy of the author)

How I failed at Paris: Why I didn't fall in love with the City of Light

I had an idealized image of what Paris would be for me. But from our 6th floor walk-up to the food, it didn't work


Eleanor Brown
July 13, 2017 10:58PM (UTC)
Excerpted with permission from "A Paris All Your Own: Bestselling Women Writers on the City of Light," edited by Eleanor Brown (G.P. Putnam's Sons). Copyright 2017 Eleanor Brown.

Whenever someone asks me how I liked Paris, I feel like I have to lie.

To be fair, the question never comes like that. No one says, “How did you like Paris?” with the same sort of idle disinterest they might ask, “How was Akron?” or “What did you think of Poughkeepsie?”

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No, people get very excited about Paris. “Did you love it?” they ask, already preparing the next rush of questions. “Was it amazing?”

These questions have only one acceptable response: “Yes!” delivered in the approximate pitch and excitement level of a boy band fan.

But this, you see, is a lie.

When I was researching my second novel, "The Light of Paris," my sweetie and I spent a little over a month in the City of Light. We rented an apartment. We drank coffee in cafés and walked along the Seine and smelled the flowers in the Luxembourg Gardens, and saw enough Impressionist paintings to wallpaper a college dorm room.

See, there you go already. Here is what you’re thinking right now: “Did you love it?

Well no. I didn’t.

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I didn’t love Paris. I didn’t, most days, even like it.

What is wrong with me?

I mean, honestly. People have written songs about Paris. When I was looking for a title for "The Light of Paris," I went to the Wikipedia entry listing songs about Paris. Do you know how many are listed there? Over a thousand! Over a thousand people have gone to the trouble of writing, recording, and releasing songs about Paris, and me? I tried to write one, but there was only one note: meh.

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It wasn’t always that way. When I was a teenager, I took a trip with some friends that involved a day-long layover in Paris. The airline had given us a hotel room for the day, but instead of resting, we headed out, giddy and jetlag-drunk, into the city. We went to the Louvre and saw the Mona Lisa. We rode the Métro, where we befriended a young Italian woman who gave us directions (in English). We ate ham sandwiches on baguettes, which, to our adolescent American confusion, were spread with butter rather than mayonnaise.

For years, that was my only experience with the city, and it was a pretty good one. Eight hours or so in any city is a good amount of time to fall in love with it without encountering any of its down sides.

Fast-forward to a few years ago. I was visiting my parents, and I can’t remember how the subject of Jazz Age Paris – but my father told me, quite casually, “Your grandmother lived in Paris for a while, you know. Around 1924.”

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I most certainly did not know this. To be fair, I hadn’t known my grandmother well at all. She was in her 70s when I was born, and then by the time I was old enough to really connect with her, she had already slipped into the cruel grip of Alzheimer’s and whoever she had been once was disappearing quickly.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “The Paris? The 1924? Like, F. Scott Fitzgerald Paris? Gertrude Stein Paris? Like, A Moveable Feast Paris?”

Oui,” my father said.

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Okay, he didn’t actually say that. I think he just said yes.

But they weren’t done. Because then my mother chimed in, equally off-handedly. “Oh,” she said, “and we have all the letters she wrote home while she was there.”

ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

As someone interested in family history, this was a delight to hear. As a writer? Well, let’s just say when I headed home a few days later, I carried onto the plane a box full of my grandmother’s letters, starting in her high school years and, yes, including Paris.  I didn’t dare check the box as baggage – the contents were literally irreplaceable.

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My grandmother’s letters are a complete joy, a reminder of how history obscures the lives of ordinary individuals in favor of the more “important” stories of politics, of populations, of trends. Save for a few pieces of slang, I could have written those letters myself – they are filled with her high school agonies over grades and dresses, her college dates and worries about the future, her endless conflicts with her parents, her search for herself.

My grandmother graduated from college in 1922, and spent a year teaching at what sounds a great deal like a reform school for girls before heading off to Europe on a sort of Grand Tour, that finishing rite of passage for men and then women of a certain age and, more importantly, a certain means.

With a friend, she sailed to England and, after a few weeks there, headed to Paris. From there, they had planned to set off for Italy, but after only a few days in Paris, she had already decided to stay and had begun interviewing for jobs in order to support herself. In 1923, for a woman of her social class, this was a seismic decision, and her letters to her family are clearly attempts to convince them of her maturity and ability to support herself.

I don’t have her parents’ responses to her letters, but you can infer their disapproval from her increasingly firm insistence that she is going to stay in Paris. At the same time, reading her talk about how mature she has become invites a sort of, “Oh, honey,” response. She was 23 when she went, and oh boy is she ever 23 on those pages. She knows absolutely everything and has no fear about expressing her opinions. Napoleon’s tomb? Overdone and gauche.* English women? Frightfully frumpy. Her parents’ plan to send her sister to a school she doesn’t like? Cruel. The thought of dating the son of a family friend? Ghastly.

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*She is not wrong about this.

She is similarly impassioned about Paris. My grandmother’s letters are filled with exaltations about the city’s charms.

“Jean to-morrow night and Bill Sunday – c’est la vie de Paris!”

“Lunched at Prunier’s yesterday off caviar and lobster. You could have heard me purr for miles. I take to luxury so very easily.”

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“Heaven only knows what happens to the time in Paris.”

“The very streets of Paris thrill me — and I’m so glad to be here.”

She lived in Paris for a little under a year, but while she was there, she sucked the marrow out of the city. She was young, and Paris was the place to be young, a vibrant city with all the dizzy energy of the 1920s, alive with painters and writers and musicians and every daring and beautiful thing they were creating. Since she was writing to her parents, she occasionally glosses over the more interesting details, but she is still surprisingly honest — she records her dates with both American and French men, describes the cafés and bars she visits, admits staying out dancing all night only to stagger in to work in the morning. (At one point she sends them a photo of herself, sadly lost to time, in which she describes herself as looking “like the back end of a night at the bar,” and it’s entirely possible that’s when it was taken.)

If you read enough about Jazz Age Paris, it’s hard not to want to be there yourself, and my grandmother’s letters had that very effect on me. As I read them, I began to put together a story about a young woman heading to Paris during that time, breaking her family’s rules and her own expectations of herself to forge the life she wanted to live, at just the time in history when that began to be genuinely possible for so many women.  But I wanted to be able to write that story with authority, since Paris as a place is such a vital part of what became the story of Margie in "The Light of Paris."

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And so I set off to follow in my grandmother’s footsteps, to research her story in order to create my own.

For research purposes, I was determined to follow the exact route my grandmother had taken. And so we sailed from New York City to Southampton, England, which is more fun than it sounds, then took a train to London and then Dover, which is about as much fun as it sounds, and finally a ferry to Calais and another train to Paris, which is less fun than it sounds, mostly because we were very, very tired by then.

The idea of traveling à la 1923 sounds very romantic, but I am going to tell you, from painful experience, that no matter how much the TSA stinks, it does not stink half as much as turning what could be ten hours of travel into ten very long days.

But we did finally arrive, and I began my quest to experience Paris as my grandmother had. I’d made a list of all the places she had mentioned visiting – from the American Library, where she’d worked, to the gardens of the Rodin Museum, where she’d somehow wrangled a private tour, to the cafés so popular with the artists and expats of 1920s Paris – and I set about visiting them. Every day, I woke up, planned where I would go, saddled up with my camera and my notebook, and went out to experience the city.

There were only a couple of problems with my plan.

First of all, while you can go to Paris, you can’t go to Paris in 1924. My grandmother’s Paris was not the Paris I was in. Nearly a century separated those cities, to begin with, with all the attendant modernization, for better or for worse.

Second, I was not my grandmother. When she went to Paris, she was in her early twenties, and a charmingly naïve, girlish twenty-something at that. She had all the wide-eyed innocence that makes one’s first trip abroad such a delicious thing, and she was breaking free of her traditional, coddling family. I was a rather more time-worn near-forty, of the age where the only thing we have to run from is the grim reality that despite our best efforts, we have turned into our parents.

And then, of course, there was Paris.

I was OK in Paris for about a week. And then, little by little, I started to realize I wasn’t happy there. The buildings were pretty, but the architectural standardization inflicted upon the city by Baron Haussmann also makes large swaths of it look disappointingly similar.

The food was fine. Just fine.

The Parisians were not rude, as advertised, but nor were they particularly charming (though boy howdy are they a people who know how to wear a scarf). And everywhere was crowded, so crowded. The museums were so crowded you couldn’t see the art. The cafés were so crowded you were pressed up against your neighbor’s elbows. Smoking had been banned indoors, so all the smokers ate at the adorable tables on the sidewalks while the non-smokers huddled inside.

It wasn’t terrible. It was . . . just a city.

Paris is incredibly popular in Japan, so much so that some Japanese tourists have been known to develop a psychiatric disorder known as “Paris Syndrome,” involving physical symptoms such as dizziness and sweating, and psychological ones including hallucinations, paranoia, and depression.

Ooh la la, Paris!

Reasons cited for the disorder include extreme culture shock and exhaustion, but the root cause seems to be a dramatic difference between the idealized image of Paris as presented in Japanese media and the reality. These tourists, articles claim, arrive expecting streets full of Parisians clad in Chanel, slim and chic, the city’s famous buildings gleaming in the sunlight.

What they discover is that despite all Paris’s beauty, it has the problems of any large city, coupled with a French flair they find uncomfortable. Parisians, for instance, litter the City of Love with over 350 tons of cigarette butts per year, according to The Guardian. Pickpockets abound, paying special attention to tourists, especially those traveling in groups and therefore easily identifiable. The buildings are indeed lovely, but they can wear the stain of Paris’s overwhelming smog – in 2015 the smog was so terrible Paris briefly wore the dubious honor of having the worst air quality in the world. And the people . . . well, the people, as Eddie Izzard says, “are kind of fucking French at times.”

Paris can literally drive you crazy.

Or not. Maybe Paris isn’t the problem. Maybe, as with Paris Syndrome, it’s us and our expectations of it. Maybe it wasn’t Paris at all. Maybe it was me.

I am technically the youngest child, which by all rights should mean I’m the sort of easygoing free spirit I wrote about in "The Weird Sisters." But my sisters are quite a few years older than I am, which also means I’ve got quite a bit of only child in me. And a lifetime of experiences has also given me what I am going to generously term “control issues.”

I had a plan, Paris. I had a list of things to accomplish. I had places to go and people to see. I had an idea of the way things Ought to Be. And you kept getting in the way.

Probably the most important problem of our trip was our failure to pack the correct footwear. I had brought two pairs of shoes – a new, and alarmingly expensive pair of comfort sandals, which I had worn only around the house, and a thin-soled pair of sneakers, which I wore regularly at home, finding them much more “natural” than a heavier, padded pair of sensible walking shoes (I am sure you can see where this is going). The first day I wore the sandals, I strained my Achilles tendon while stepping off the bus in front of the Louvre, and I wore them rarely afterward, as they had a tendency to set off that pain again. As for those minimalist sneakers, well, let’s just say that they were the first indication that Paris had no interest in any of my hippie bullshit.

And when we were there, the Euro was flying high. Each Euro was worth two dollars – fabulous if you were European, terrible if you were American – so in addition to the inflated prices of any large city, the prices felt particularly astronomical. Unfortunately, Paris stores only hold sales twice a year. Fortunately, we were there during one of those golden moments. Unfortunately, the prices still seemed preposterous. We hobbled along the streets, our feet aching with every step, pressing our faces against the windows and sighing at the prices listed next to newer, plusher, more comfortable shoes.

Then there was the food. For a few years, my sweetie and I had followed a diet consisting mostly of meat, vegetables, and fruit. No dairy or bread.

You can guess how well this went over in Paris.

We were hungry all the time. We made it two weeks before we gave in and ate a baguette. And then another. We ate what felt like all the baguettes and cheese in Paris, and woke in the morning feeling groggy and headachey, but at least we were less hungry. Still, I lost 15 pounds on that trip, despite my tendency to stress-eat Brie and the availability of Lemon Fanta. I should probably write an article for a women’s magazine about this: “Lose Weight While Eating Your Feelings in Paris!”

I mentioned before that I didn’t find Parisians as stereotypically rude. But I also found myself at odds with their mood.

I am an aggressively cheerful person (I also like mornings, so if you do not, it is probably best to avoid me until you’ve gotten a few cups of coffee in you). The French, especially Parisians, are . . . less so. Don’t get me wrong, they are not the miserable snobs you see depicted in sitcoms. But they’re not what I would call a cheerful people.

On the train one day, a man boarded, looked at his seatmate, and blew out a contemptuous puff of air before turning away to hang up his coat. I kind of loved him for his frank, immediate dismissal of this other human being, right to his face. After all, how many times do we admonish people on the internet, “Would you say that to someone’s face?” And this guy did! You have to celebrate the unapologetic jerkishness.

We made an effort to say hello and thank you. This, of course, makes you feel fabulous and annoys the person to whom you are saying it. It’s nice to say hello to a bus driver, but if the bus driver doesn’t answer back, it probably has more to do with the fact that they could end up saying Bonjour hundreds of times a day and maybe they just don’t want to. When we said, “Merci, Monsieur,” to the man running the elevator at the Eiffel Tower with one hand while scrolling through his smartphone with the other, he sighed out, “ouais,” which is the French version of “yeah,” the tone of which roughly translated to, “I don’t even know you and I’m tired of you already.” I am tempted to adopt this as my standard response to a thank you.

And then there was the apartment.

We had rented a tiny one-bedroom on the sixth floor of a building in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. In the pictures, it looked tiny and romantic, with a distant view of the Eiffel Tower outside the window. In reality, it was tiny and romantic. And on the 6th floor. With no elevator. We were both in reasonable shape, but the stairs were tiny and the climb was so long and steep that when we reached the top, we had to collapse in our apartment, wheezing.

One of our neighbors had a piano. We could hear them playing some evenings as we made dinner. I have no idea how they got it up the stairs. Perhaps they brought it up, key by key, and then assembled it in place.

In the corner of the bedroom was a bladeless fan. “Be careful,” our landlady told us. “It’s a Dyson.” She said this in the same reverent tone in which one might say, “It’s a Picasso.” We arrived in the middle of a heatwave which might more accurately have been referred to as a humidwave, and after walking around, we’d come back, labor up the stairs, and strip off our clothes, lying silently on the bed as the Picasso hurled the heavy air over our sticky bodies.

Paris is so far north that, in the summer, they get over sixteen hours of daylight. Miraculously, no one seems to use any of that time in the morning, but I’d look out the window to the café below at 11:00, when I was about to get into bed, and people would be having a leisurely dinner at the tables on the sidewalk, children playing tag among the chairs. But when I woke in the morning, feeling American and chipper and ready to Get Some Things Done, and headed out onto the streets, they were empty, only the street sweepers and garbage men seemed to be at work. How does anyone function, I wondered? How does anyone get anything done?

I took six years of French in middle and high school, which qualifies me to ask questions such as, “How much does a stamp cost?” and “Mary listens to the radio,” but renders me utterly hopeless when anyone actually responds. The best possible outcome to speaking French in Paris was that someone would hear my garbled grammar and respond in English. The wash of relief I felt whenever this happened was palpable.

In high school, I had been praised in French class for my accent. But now the elegant curls of the language sat leaden and unpronounceable on my tongue. Yet for some reason, I persisted in trying to speak French, despite the fact that everyone probably would have been happier if I just stopped pretending I could.

But I’m betting you’re noticing the pattern now. None of this was Paris’s fault. I had plans, I had Ideals, but Paris — in the way of any city, though I think this is especially true here — Paris just doesn’t care.

Paris does not give a shit about my control issues. Paris does not give a shit about my whole foods diet, or my idealistic minimalist shoes. Paris does not give a shit about when I think it should wake up or go to bed. Paris does not give a shit about how I think it should handle its homeless population (though, really, Paris, you need to get your act together here — it’s inhumane). Paris does not give a shit about how I think it should be. Paris had been going strong for hundreds of years before I arrived and it is going to be serving crêpes and wearing insouciantly tied scarves and blowing cigarette smoke in people’s faces long after I am dead.

Paris, in short, does not give a shit about me.

And you kind of have to love that.

The best trips I have taken are the ones where I have gone in with no expectations — positive or negative. Where I have read about the culture, about tipping, and adapted myself to it — flagging down waiters instead of waiting fruitlessly for them to arrive as though I were at a TGI Friday’s at home, shoving into the subway along with the natives instead of waiting politely, only to be left behind on the platform, tipped the taxi driver 10 percent without feeling guilty.

This is what I should have done in Paris. I should have adjusted to it instead of demanding it adjust to me. I should have bought new shoes. $200 would have been a fair price for the additional walking I would have been able to do.

I should have attempted to adjust my sleep schedule to a more Parisian one. I should have recognized that the French were never going to wake up on the American side of bed and smile at me when I wanted them to. I should have given up trying to speak French and just been grateful that so many of them speak English. I should have stopped expecting French food to fit my diet and for every morsel to be amazing and just eaten it. I should have paid less attention to my to-do list and spent more time sitting around in the Luxembourg Gardens with my face turned up to the sun.

We ended up leaving a week early (yes, we flew home — I may be a fool, but I’m not an idiot). Who leaves Paris a week early? Us. We were tired, our feet hurt, I had a sore throat from all the damn bread, and I had checked off all the items on Grandma’s Sightseeing Tour. When we told our landlady, she was completely stymied. “I’ve never heard of anyone leaving Paris early!” she said repeatedly.

Je ne sais pas, lady, I thought. It’s just not for me. Or maybe I’m just not for Paris.

But the story has a happy ending. No, I didn’t love the city the way my grandmother did, but when I sat down to write "The Light of Paris," I could see every place she saw, and I could imagine her joy and excitement, and over time, I think that happiness has colored my own memories of it.

Because with some distance from the day-to-day frustrations, I remember so much joy. When I think of Paris now, I don’t think of the irritation, the confusion, the discomfort. I think of the scent of the rain-wet roses in the gardens of the Rodin Museum. I think of the Van Gogh we saw in the Musée D’Orsay that was so beautiful it made me cry. I think of the best meal we had in Paris, in a ridiculously touristy restaurant overlooking the Seine. I think of the symmetry of the endless, twisting staircase up to our apartment and the way the Eiffel Tower glowed in the not-quite-nighttime light through the window.

I think of how I was so determined to beat the crowds at Versailles that we arrived an hour before the gates opened. Not only did we beat the crowds, we were literally the first people there. We were there before the guards arrived. And we were sleep-deprived punchy from getting up so early. My favorite picture from that trip is a selfie we took in front of the wide, deserted courtyard in front of Versailles, the palace stretching out behind us. My sweetie had said something funny — he always does — and I am laughing, my mouth wide open, my eyes crinkled half-closed. It is my favorite picture from the trip. We look happy. We were happy. I didn’t fail at Paris at all.


Eleanor Brown

MORE FROM Eleanor Brown


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