The proverbial they always say that nothing in life comes cheap. And a year abroad in Paris is definitely no exception. It took me a good month before I could rationalise paying seven dollars for a sandwich, and I still haven’t gotten over the fact that I’m going to be run at least the cost of an espresso if I want to use a bathroom on a whim – lest something else run down my pants. I always thought that the pay as you go bathroom (get it ?) was some sadistic/hilarious invention of Rollercoaster Tycoon that was created to enable me to laugh uproariously at tiny cartoon characters throwing up all over my computer screen, but I should have known that the Parisians, unflinching in their dedication to have all of their Metro stations reek of piss, would have been behind the ploy.
But I digress.
The steep price of my exchange hasn’t in fact been due to the outlandish cost of living here; turns out that rectifying my actual experience with others’ expectations of what it should be has taken the much greater toll.
When people ask me about Paris…well they usually don’t actually ask me anything. They rather frame statements like “You must be having a great time!” or “Tell me about your French girlfriend!” as questions, or pose their questions with the answer already in mind, as in “How amazing is it there?” Unhappy with their own regular lives, they expect me to be living their dream, so – at the risk of being castrated for being a whiny, unappreciative asshole upon my return – my answers to such “questions” must always include the words “amazing,” “unbelievable,” or “incredibly hot.” The problem is that, like most comparisons between idealised fantasy and reality, the Paris of the North American imagination really doesn’t stack up to the Paris of the real world. (Note: I understand that many North Americans conceptualise “the real world” as a TV show instead of as actual reality, but I think that that only reinforces my point.)
The tour books, travel guides, and Marie-Kate and Ashley movies that create Paris for North Americans usually don’t mention the city’s noticeably enormous homeless population, the shit walkways that flank its pigeon-infested and traffic-jammed streets, or the bleak, glum monotony that is its sunless, snowless abyss of December to March.
And once here, the tourists themselves don’t notice these things either – because they don’t want to spoil their own fun. For the brief time that they are sur Paris, they get caught up in their partially self-constructed, partially super-imposed mythological dream-world because it is sadly reaffirmed by their revelries. It’s a vicious cycle: they see what they want to see because they want to see it.
They ignore the blank stares on the Metro because they are too busy blathering on about the Eiffel Tower lighting up. “Oh my God, it was just like so unexpected!” They drift unconcerned through the clouds of cigarette smoke puffing out of the meandering crowds because they are too busy blathering on about the civility of sitting next to somebody at a café. (This revolutionary concept also protects them from the outrageous prices they pay for the wrong orders, which are usually served with a side of disdain.) And they do not have to cope with contrived, over-generalised, and incessant blatherings because “those awesome guys from the Frog and Princess last night” are always there to join them in their amazement.
But not everybody can be so oblivious, and I now know why Parisians are so cold. They do have to hear such blatherings. Every day.They do see the homeless at every street corner. Every day. They do smell the piss in the Metro. Every day. And they do step in shit, or get shit on. Almost every day. They are overpowered by the daily grind of a city designed for temporary vacationing, and their recourse is to simply block it all out. Of course, that only makes life more miserable.
The trick, then, is to find within the overbearing, inhuman, and just-plain-annoying reality of Parisian everyday life the elements that allow it to be romanticised. And I am not talking about taking time off from school or work to go see Notre Dame or the Arc de Triomphe, though that may be part of it. I am talking about taking from the city whatever it is that you want it to provide. For while North American manifestations of the Parisian ideal may take the uninspiring forms of a twinkling mass of steel or of a depressingly small portrait, such symbols are not the real reasons that people escape to Paris to admire them.
The trick is to find our own symbols, for our own reasons. Living in Paris should not stifle its aura, but should strengthen it. So while it is much easier for us to close our minds to our reality when it does not live up to our ideals, in doing so we miss all that does. To snobbishly quote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince: “Droit devant soi on ne peut pas aller bien loin.” In other words, and to tellingly draw a comparison to the North American equivalent, Ferris Bueller had a point when he said that “life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
We must therefore make a concerted effort to appreciate all that Paris has to offer; to rectify reality with expectations. Otherwise, sedated by regular responsibilities and frustrated by the gulf between real life and outside expectations, we find in Paris but a miserable place to live. It may seem like a heavy price to pay for complacency, but with the possibilities that Paris provides those of the alternative mind set, it all becomes worth it in the end.
Indeed, as they say, nothing in life comes cheap. ●
Résident à la Fondation de Monaco 2008-2009
Etudiant à l’Université McGill de Montréal