It’s been a busy two weeks here in Paris! This is actually my first time alone in a big city. Yes, I have spent a considerable amount of time in Paris, but I don’t know it the way someone who lives here or has spent large amounts of time on their own knows a city. My Paris is a snapshot of memories from ages five to nineteen, loosely strung together and in which I am always in tow with someone who knows the city by heart. I don’t know Paris on my own. My first memory of Paris is from when I was five years old. It was Christmas of 1997 and I vaguely remember riding the train into the city with my mom, dad, brother, and grandpa. According to family legend, I asked if the bad kids who “wrote on the walls” were going to get in trouble, referring to the abundance of graffiti. We met my aunt at the Eiffel Tower and climbed it. All I remember is it was bitterly cold and I got to eat chocolate cake at a nearby cafe afterwards.
Because a lot of my mom’s family lives in the regions surrounding Paris, the city has always been easily accessible and the years are filled with these kinds of memories. There’s the time I stayed with my aunt, who was living in Paris at the time, when I was seven and she lived on the top floor of an old apartment building that I thought was the coolest thing ever. She took me to le Jardin des Plantes where we saw a puppet show based on the famous French character, Guignol. It started pouring rain and I remember holding her hand as we ran for the metro. Next, I’m nine, the stage where I wore my hair in two braids everyday and had glasses as round as Harry Potter’s, spending the day in Paris with Mom and my aunt. We walked around this square in the eighteenth district where there are lots of artists trying to draw you and souvenir stands everywhere. And then we made our way up to le Sacre Coeur, the church that sits on a hill and looks over all of Paris. We rode on the carousel that sits at the foot of the hill below the church and ate Nutella crepes. There’s the trip to the Louvre with my grandma to see the Mona Lisa, whose miniature size, in my eleven year-old opinion, failed to live up to its monumental reputation. There’s the picnic with my mom and cousins in le Bois de Bologne when I was twelve, where we spent the day boating and playing badminton on the grass. A year later, another picnic in le Jardin des Plantes with my grandparents where my grandmother insisted I eat a tomato like an apple with mayonnaise and I decided that if that was part of being truly French, I would stick with my American tendencies. At fifteen, going to see plays with my aunt and walking around l’Ile Saint-Louis around sunset near the Seine while eating les glaces de Berthillon. And in the later years of adolescence, hanging out with my cousins in the sixteenth district near Place Charles-de-Gaulle and l’Arc de Triomphe, window shopping along les Champs-Elysées, and ice skating in front of l’Hotel de Ville during Christmastime.
Because I am someone who attaches a significance to the passage of time and the connectivity to place, it has been fun and exhilarating to piece together these moments of evolution in Paris into a more cohesive image. The morning of my very first day in Paris on my own, my aunt handed me a map of the city and a map of the metro system. She explained to me the basics of how to use public transit and which train to take home. I couldn’t contain my excitement as the train pulled into la Gare St-Lazare and I confessed to my aunt that just a couple of years ago, I didn’t think I could have done this as confidently as I felt at this moment. She smiled and said “That’s just like your mom, she was so determined and had such a desire to travel on her own that she wasn’t scared.” And that is exactly how I feel about being in Paris on my own now: I have wanted to be in this place for so long that I no longer focus on the fear of getting lost or being mugged or any other big city worries. My mom knew what she wanted earlier than I did but now I feel like I can walk confidently and know that I am competent and able to figure things out on my own. Of course, moments of panic sometimes arise, such as “Is that person following me?!” or “I will surely get lung cancer from all this second-hand smoke.” But for every imagined possibility of abduction or flustered scramble for my metro ticket in a crowd of impatient Parisians lies a lesson in self-reliance. I no longer need someone to hold my hand and pull me along with them through the city. And that has been a very satisfying discovery.
As I’ve made my way through the city throughout the past two weeks, revisiting these places that left such an impression on me as a kid, I’ve come to appreciate the city on my own terms. The commute into the city, walking briskly along with the crowd through the metro while trying to refer to my map as little as possible in an effort to blend in with everyone else and pretend like I’ve been doing this for years. Although a rough blueprint of the city already exists in my head, I am forging my own identity with this city. I have my own favorite neighborhoods now, my preferred metro route, and my own adventure planned each day. I’ve learned to appreciate the quieter areas far away from the stereotypical pzazz of Paris, where I can find a much cheaper and better cup of coffee and a peak into the life of the average Parisian. More than anything, though, a feeling of comfort has settled in as I make my way through new and familiar streets. Being a part of this buzzing city no longer feels as overwhelming as it once was. As different as the lifestyle is from home, I feel like I belong. I feel connected to this city where both of my parents once lived. They didn’t know each other and wouldn’t meet for another twenty years in a small college town in Chapel Hill. What are the chances of that? Now I am also here, walking the same streets in the same neighborhoods that they once walked. Perhaps it is being overly sentimental, but that moves me. Last week, I unintentionally stumbled upon my mom’s university where she did her undergraduate studies before moving to the States. I was walking around the neighborhood and suddenly I recognized the name on the map. I hurried along le Quai de Tournelle and found myself in front of possibly the ugliest building in Paris. But nonetheless, this was were my mom spent two to three years of her life, mastering the science that would become her career. Part of the person I knew as Mom started here. I feel as if being here in my early twenties, the same time in life when my parents were also here, and experiencing a kind of life they once lived has changed how I understand and relate to them as people and not just as parents. My father always describes his time in Paris as a time when he grew up a lot and learned a lot about himself, and I know my mom also had to make some pretty big life decisions after her time in Paris. So if that’s my right of passage into adulthood, passed down from my parents, I’ll take it.