Oh. Hello there.
In case you’ve been wondering where I’ve been, I started a new job. It’s a very exciting, foodie-based job, and it has swallowed me whole and is only now starting to spit me out. It’s not bad, just different. But the new rhythm it’s instilled in me — the getting up at 8am every morning and going mechanically to the same metro stop — has reminded me of something I’ve been wanting to talk about for awhile.
When expats meet in Paris, one of the first questions we ask, after, “How are you here?” and “Where are you living?” is “How long have you been here?” I’ve started to accumulate months and years, scattered here and there since my first arrival in 2007. Most expats, even the ones who have been here awhile, are surprised when I say six years.
“That’s a long time!”
It is, but it doesn’t feel like it, mainly because Paris has been reinventing itself for me ever since I moved here. There are clear breaks in my time here, breaks that make it seem as though it’s a completely different place, as though I moved somewhere new, instead of just looking at Paris in a new way.
Paris: The Prequel
When I count how long I’ve been here, I almost always start in Cannes. It may not be Paris, but it’s where it all began. Cannes, for me, was the place that made me even consider living in Paris full-time, not to mention the springboard for my arrival. Three weeks after starting my semester abroad there in February 2007, I filled out the AUP transfer application, and that was that. I was convinced that I was in love with France, and perhaps I was, but it wasn’t the France that I know today.
We were warned, in Cannes, that we would develop “third culture.” It sounded like a disease, and we made fun of it together, as we had midday picnics with bottles of wine, skipped class in favor of going camping, and closed the bar on a Tuesday night at our favorite Irish pub. Without actually consciously thinking it, I was convinced that this would be my life when I moved to Paris.
My 1st Paris Life
Of course, it wasn’t, but my new life — September 2007 — was quite similar, even if it didn’t seem that way at the time. The huge, bonded group I knew from the collège in Cannes was replaced by a much more manageable group of students from my American university — mostly visiting students from California, but also a Bulgarian, a Lebanese guy, my Canadian ex-boyfriend who had a penchant for throwing parties without even having to get up from his chair, and Emese, the other American, the other one who was permanent.
For me, life was small. Paris was restricted to the 5th, 6th and 7th arrondissements. Emese and I had a local brasserie, a few blocks away, and a far-flung Vietnamese noodle shop in the 20th that felt like an adventure each time we set out in its direction. When an old friend of mine from California moved to the 16th, it felt far. I saw the distance between the two stops as I rode across the city from the third time today — Alma-Marceau to Ranelagh — and almost laughed out loud.
As much as I didn’t realize it at the time, we were still living a third culture life. We had “floor picnics” of cheese and wine, convinced the bartenders at a weekly Erasmus night that we were Hungarian and Canadian (not that they cared), and finally ventured to our local market after months without knowing it was there. That life lasted three months in its entirety; then the exchange students and the Canadian left, and it was just me and Em, but we continued shirking the generally accepted use of daylight and nighttime until December 2008 and the end of my first Paris life.
My 2nd Paris Life
My second Paris life started when I finished university a semester early and moved out of my first Paris apartment and into the Parisian’s apartment. I decided to shirk “third culture” once and for all and immerse myself, but when I made the leap, I didn’t realize that I hadn’t set up anywhere to fall. I worked for one month as an intern at a Franco-African news agency — my first-and-a-half Parisian life — and then decided to “be a writer,” which, as I’ve told numerous writers since, is a very, very, very bad idea and was the true beginning of my second Paris life.
I had good intentions, but it’s really quite difficult to write all day when you’ve got nothing to write about. I had some friends here — the Artist and the Almost Frenchman — but mostly I watched all six seasons of Lost and picked up running again. I took excellent photos for the blog because I cooked during the day, gained fifteen pounds from eating a huge lunch and a huge dinner (in spite of the running), and started taking myself on destinationless walks every afternoon through unfamiliar neighborhoods, neighborhoods I had never encountered before. I felt like I was adventuring, but I was walking in circles through the 5th and 13th. I was bored, but I refused to admit it. I talked to random people in the street and tried to convince myself I loved my new Paris life.
And then I moved to Spain.
My 3rd Paris Life
Spain was like the palate cleanser between two courses. I was very happy to come back to Paris, convinced that this time would be different. Instead of wandering aimlessly through the 5th and 13th, I moved in with my cousin, the Actress, in the 7th, my original arrondissement. That’s perhaps the moment I realized how different I was, how different Paris was from what I had first encountered more than two years before. I was two blocks away from the apartment I had shared with Emese, and yet the neighborhood felt like a completely new world.
I was attending an intensive month-long course, 9am to 5pm, Monday through Friday. My weekends were filled with trips to London, studying like a maniac, and occasionally meeting my cousin’s expat friends, a full five years older than I was and therefore on their sixth or seventh Paris life already.
Before I knew it, the month was over, and I had moved back to New York. My third Paris life had ended.
My 4th Paris Life
My fourth Paris life was a dream life, perhaps, but it was real all the same. It began the day that I arrived in Paris after I had accidentally stayed in New York for five months and pretended to be a grown-up, all while living at home for the first time in six years. I came back to Paris to collect some belongings for an intended move back to New York, and I felt such a visceral connection with the city that I distinctly remember wanting to physically burrow into the sidewalk. Instead, I wandered the streets until my shoes broke, and then I applied for a job in Cannes and planned to move back to the south in January.
And then I fell in love.
My 5th Paris Life
So there you go. My fifth Paris life started, I rented an apartment in the 15th, and I started school, met the Almost Proust Fan and developed a penchant for pulling all-nighters to write 30 pages or more of literary comparison. Try to tell that to the Emiglia of my second Paris life… she wouldn’t believe you. I didn’t really live in Paris at this point, at least not Paris 2011. I lived in 1830s Paris and on my sofa. I moved apartments once, 200 meters away. Sometimes, I went to parc Georges Brassens.
My 6th Paris Life
My fifth Paris life bled into my sixth Paris life — an odd and manic combination of Masters degree and working odd jobs — and I didn’t even realize it had began until my seventh Paris life — this Paris life — began. Working a 9-6, eating out on occasion, because now I have the money, but not too often, because I don’t have the time. I believe that some call it adulthood. I’m not sure what I call it, but there you go.
If you’re still here — I don’t blame you if you left 500 words ago — here’s the reason I was thinking about this today.
On days like this — days when the weather is just starting to get nice — pieces of my old life bleed through the distinctions that otherwise seem so clear. I have an automatic desire to call up Emese and jump on a train to Cannes, or at least get a bottle of wine and day drink in a park, and yet that’s impossible, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Paris as it once was doesn’t exist for me anymore.
Some part of me wishes that I had locked it up and left it the way it was in my memory — the way Toronto will always be — so that I didn’t have to see what it looks like when the sparkle wears off. With each new life, a layer of the novelty faded away, but with each new incarnation, I also felt closer to my adoptive city, like it was finally becoming mine. And now I feel almost further away from it, seeing as new people discover what I’ve already discovered, so blinded by the other things that consume my life that I have little time to think about what it really means to live in Paris.
I don’t know if this is something that will go away. Is this just another life? Just another version of Paris that a later version of me will look back on and smile? Maybe. It’s impossible to know now. But regardless of what Paris has in store for me in the future, I’m glad to have the Russian dolls of my Paris lives, the transformative métro stops that feel like a step back in time when I visit them, on occasion; the whiffs of a certain smell that make me think of a different time, a different year, a different life, a different me.
As for the sweet part of this story, this Carambar cake does it pretty well. Carambars were one of the first foreign things I encountered in France, or at least, the first tangible foreign things. Before I started thinking about cultural differences and what made France distinct from America, I noticed that these candies — like caramel Tootsie rolls with jokes printed on them — were different from anything I’d seen before. Of course, now they’re normal, alongside Speculoos spread and Nutella in the supermarket aisles. I baked them into a cake, because I can.
Carambar Cake (translated from Torchons et Serviettes)
10 cl milk
150 g butter
160 g sugar
150 g flour
1 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a saucepan, gently heat the milk and the butter. Add the Carambars, stirring regularly until they melt.
In a mixing bowl, combine the sugar and eggs. Add the flour, baking powder and salt, and mix until just combined. Add the melted Carambars with milk and butter. Mix well and pour into a lined baking pan.
Bake 40 minutes. Turn out onto a cooling rack and cool.