"How can I get back something I've never found?"
I fell in love with Simone de Beauvoir's honest, refreshing depiction of exploring a new country for the first time. It was like Douglas Brinkley says in the foreward: compared to On the Road, America Day by Day "comes to the reader like a dusty bottle of vintage French cognac, asking only to be uncorked."
Although the book is about America, I think it's less about America (which is so vast and diverse) but more about the feeling of being in a new place, a foreign place, where you think you don't belong, and finding your identity. The first part of the book, where she explores New York City, so closely captured my feelings when I went to Paris for the first time.
I did a 6 week study abroad program in Paris two summers ago. I was on the plane, and just like de Beauvoir, I was brimming with excitement. And it was very much like she says, "I feel I'm leaving my life behind. I don't know if it will be through anger or hope, but something is going to be revealed - a world so full, so rich, and so unexpected that I'll have the extraordinary adventure of becoming a different me."
Unfortunately for me, I became disenchanted with Paris, it didn't reveal to me what I had hoped. The experience was entirely different, and rather disappointing. Granted, I had already been in Europe for seven weeks when I took that flight to Paris, and I was coming from Berlin. I was already used to being in cultures that didn't speak English, where the currency was hard to wrap your head around, all the basic struggles you feel when traveling in a foreign country for the first time that de Beauvoir talks about in the book.
But I did have very similar experiences to her. I wanted to find the real Paris, I wanted to meet Parisians, as she says about New York, I felt about Paris, "I would like to grasp it - with my hands, my eyes, my mouth." I couldn't do it. I never could. This past summer, coming back to Paris, I think I was able to find the real Paris much more easily. There is something about visiting a place for the first time, having such incredibly strong hopes and expectations, and being let down.
On January 30th de Beauvoir goes to see three American films, and after each one, she is disapointed. I saw Midnight in Paris, in Paris. That was a strange experience, because what I saw on the screen was not what I saw when I walked out of the theater. For maybe a half an hour after I saw the film, I had fallen in love with Paris again, was determined to see it as Owen Wilson's character saw it, beautiful and magical. But as I walked through the streets back to my dorm, through the Latin Quarter filled with tacky little cheap food storefronts and bars, I lost the feeling.
I think her comment in that same section, "If America were far away, perhaps the taste of scotch would restore my memory in one fell swoop. Here it's powerless; how can I get back something I've never found," is very important. Whenever I've traveled somewhere for the first time, there's something I search for, something I try to grab hold of with both hands, with my mouth, with my eyes, but I can't, because I don't know what it is.
Ps - check out the Paris vs. NYC blog for more awesome images: http://parisvsnyc.blogspot.com/