I think my stay here will be longer than expected.
I just flew from St. Paul to Chez Hannah in order to jot down these thoughts. I’m a bit sweaty now; you know how that always happens when you walk too fast, dodging through snail-like crowds, on a mission. You arrive glistening, and shrouded in winter clothing, at your destination.
I’ve figured out the bus system in Paris; it only took me four months. It’s a lot simpler and often more efficient than the metro. Yesterday I took the 86 from my corner all the way to College de France to eat Ethiopian food with my hands at midnight, surrounded by six close friends in an intricately decorated shack with an impossibly small kitchen. The ride there only took nine minutes, on the metro it would’ve taken a half hour. Today I took the 76 from Faubourg Saint Antoine/ Ledru Rollin to Saint Paul. The stop is a two-minute walk away from my apartment, in front of SFR, my mobile provider here. Anyhow, I show up at the stop and it says fourteen minutes until the next bus. I have to do quite a bit of work for finals, so I don’t want to waste a minute—never mind fourteen—waiting idly at the stop. So I jog down Faubourg Saint Antoine towards Ledru Rollin looking for a café to grab an espresso at; no luck. I sprint into Monoprix (it is open on a Sunday! Again, something I realize only at the very end that would’ve been so great to know for these past four months) and slide back out, empty handed.
I finally just speed walk to Charonne and Faubourg Saint Antoine, stomp up to a bar, and order un café. I think the bartender gets the gist that I am in a hurry and he magically produces an espresso in under thirty seconds. I blow on it as hard as I can, watching the foam disperse in the dim lighting, let the fire drop down my throat, ask how much, give him my 2 euro, grab my change, say bon soir, and leave. Walking back to the 76 stop, I see the bus approaching, and I start darting between pedestrians, which allows me to catch it just in time.
The bus is deserted. Just the faded yellowed patterned chairs and I. I take a seat and catch my breath. Before the Bastille, a man suddenly appears and takes a seat in front of me, and says something—I only catch “faux.”
“Ca, c’est fausse fourrure?” he asks, pointing to my fur coat.
“Euh, ouais, ouais, c’est pas vrai, oui, c’est faux.”
“Ah, c’est fausse fourrure [mutters something in comprehensible].” This is how most of my conversations go: I only understand half of what is said to me.
I have an instinct to move. Living in Paris has caused me to develop a habit of ignoring and avoiding any male stranger. I think ok, it's especially odd that he decided to sit directly in front of me, when the rest of the bus is free, I don't want trouble. Is it too much to ask for just a quiet bus ride
? And I can smell him, despite my stuffy nose. The man’s eyes are highlighted by streaking street and car lights, and are surreally protruding—as if they are swimming inside a fish bowl. He is carrying a ragged shopping bag stuffed with unidentifiable things, which makes me think clochard
. My legs begin kicking, jittering— physically manifesting my mind’s instinct to move. But he is giving off this tranquil air and is not overly adamant to make conversation, so I silence my body and allow my head to turn and watch each passing pedestrian for a fleeting moment. Faubourg Saint Antoine spits us out into the Bastille, and I tilt my head upwards in awe as we slide around the statue. An infinite millisecond passes before I tear my eyes off of the glowing centerpiece, in fear that he’d get the notion I am some sort of gazing tourist.
He then asks me something else that I can just absolutely not comprehend, and I attempt to mimic his words and then add quoi
at the end-- the solution I have for all misunderstandings. He registers I don’t speak French.
“Tu es Française
“Ah non, je viens aux etats unis,” I say, mispronouncing etats unis.
“Aux etats unis.”
“Ah! The big apple!”
“I went there, fifty years ago,” he says, and then turns his head and gazes out the window.
“Ah, really?” I say, not knowing what else to respond.
We both sit in silence for just a little longer, until he asks if I’m here for vacation.
I say, “Non, euh, j’etudie au universite ici pour un semestre.”
Then he says, “Ok, so you’re here. You live here.”
“Yeah,” I say, smiling, because often the response to my saying I study here consists of some sort of criticism about how a semester is not enough time to spend in Paris. “But unfortunately I am leaving in a week.”
He seems not to hear the last part.
“So you’ve just arrived, or—?”
“No, I got here in August. But I am leaving very soon, unfortun— ” I trail off, because, again, he seems not to hear the last part. “How long have you lived in Paris?” I ask, staring into his bottled eyes.
“Well, since forty years. But I am Italian. I come from Italy.”
“Oh, cool,” I respond, unoriginally.
“I came here for a week and then never left.”
“Oh, wow, oh, that's--” I don’t know what to say. I am impressed and enthralled.
“Yes,” he starts, “I was just going to stay here for a vacation, just for a week. But it has been forty years, now.” I look outside as the bus slows, we are pulling into Saint Paul; I wait for a break in his sentence to quickly tell him I must go.
“Ok,” he says calmly, as I rise to my feet. I walk towards the back exit, “Well,” he turns his head toward me, “Have a Happy New Year!” I look at him in thanks, “And a—Merry Christmas!” I thank him several times over and wait for the bus to come to a full stop. The door won’t open.
“You too,” I add. He informs me that I must press the red button. I thank him again and look back one last time, feeling guilty for making the assumption that he could be a clochard
I step off the bus and start walking towards Chez Hannah. These last few days, I have been wishing I were here next semester. Ever since the beginning of high school, the plan was to stay in Paris for a whole year. But then I got here and it felt like I was just escaping obligations and I felt as if I had
to go back to New York, I felt as if Paris couldn’t ever be as real as New York. As the semester progressed, I realized more and more that I don’t have to do anything, that I could stay in Paris, that nothing was stopping me, really, except that everyone expects me back in the spring, despite the fact that all those people expecting me back are doing quite fine without my presence.
A conversation this past weekend with a friend really cemented the realization that I have developed a strong connection to Paris. Maybe most of my reasons for wanting to stay here pertain to my being so removed from New York, and therefore I forget all that I used to love about it and consequently don’t have a strong impulse to return, but there’s something more than that. A few nights ago, I was discussing all this with a friend, and we watched this interview she had filmed of my friend who is a graduate of NYU and studied abroad here for a semester, and he was just going on about how, “if you’re going to study abroad, stay for the whole year or don’t go at all.”
We were standing on a balcony with the pretense of watching a film shoot happening down the street, but I was mostly just looking directly down at the empty cream crosswalk below us, and the shadowed buildings. “You know what it is?” she exclaims, “It’s that—New York is—New York thinks that it is this superhuman, this perfect, absolute entity, and it's just pretension, all show. Then there is Paris, and Paris doesn’t pretend to be anything more than human. It is a hypocrite and it is scared of so much, and it doesn’t strive for the same things as New York does because everyone here realizes that so many things that matter in New York don’t really, actually
matter. New York is obsessed with being the best, and Paris is just here, living.”
I’ve often wondered if I can ever fully fall out of love once I fall in it. I realized in coming here that I’d probably miss Paris quite a lot upon leaving, but that it’d probably not surpass New York for me, and I really didn’t expect to actually want to move back here. I don’t think it would’ve been to hard to predict, if I had really thought about it before, but I just wasn’t expecting to fall for Paris so hard and so quickly. At a dinner the other night, someone said “I am afraid that when I return to New York, it’ll just feel temporary and I will subconsciously, the whole time, be expecting to return to Paris at any moment.” I know I am going to feel like that. It’s impossible for me to take my mind off something I love; I haven’t even left here yet and already I am imagining it being summer, I am imagining walking down sun beaten streets in Belleville to go picnicking in Buttes Chaumont.
So, I think that the man on the bus was choosing not to hear me, when I said I was leaving here. Because he is wise enough to know I will never leave here. I think he realized it when he saw the way I looked at the Colonne de Juillet
when we circled it in that neon blue bus. It doesn’t matter that in eight days, I will be lying in my childhood bed 3,500 miles away, my whole being will still be in Paris. As was the case with that old man on the bus, my stay here will be longer than expected.