Paris, that sweet monster
No other city in the world has challenged me quite like Paris has. While some would say that New York is the toughest city on the planet, I would have to argue that Paris is a strong contender for that title. So, why do I live here? Paris, to me, is what Manhattan is to a girl from the mid-west – alluring and exciting. It’s a place where an opportunity to live the cinematic, romantic dream is within reach.
Did I always love Paris and French culture? Not exactly. Let’s flashback to the early ’90s when my mother moved my brother and me from Manhattan to Long Island after a tragedy struck our family, and we needed to be closer to my grandparents. As much as I would like to say that I was miffed over her decision to move us from the glamorous New York City to the (unfairly) stereotypically cheesy Long Island, I wasn’t. I was going to have a backyard, unlimited access to grandparents, and my new school offered language classes with my choice of Spanish or French.
Choosing French over Spanish was an easy choice. Coming from the not-quite gentrified Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, and my father being a fluent Spanish speaker, I wanted to choose a language that was completely alien to me. Once school started, I fell head-over-heels in love with my French classes, and I fully admit that I annoyed the hell out of my mother as I substituted my proficient English for horrible, broken French during our daily conversations, while she simultaneously screamed over my attempts in her thick New York accent, reminding me that we were Italian-Americans.
After two months of glory in Madame Moureau’s class, clouds rolled over my kingdom of conjugations. It appeared that, while I was excelling in French, my Math studies were suffering, and I was snatched out of French and put into the dungeon of boredom otherwise known as Double Special-Ed Math. I repeat: double special-ed math. Was this a joke? This was pure torture for anyone who has a love for writing and languages.
While I didn’t mind that I was being re-taught how to count money without using my fingers at the age of twelve, I did not see the reasoning behind eliminating French from my curriculum. “We offer language classes to broaden the horizons of our students, but you’re from New York City, you’ve already been exposed to culture,” my guidance counselor said, trying to soften the blow of what was my crisis of 1993. So, that’s it? Being exposed to culture is a one-shot deal? Like, seen one museum seen them all? “And besides you’ll never need French anyway,” he continued. “After all, they only speak it in France (and Quebec, a few countries in Africa, most of the Caribbean, Belgium, Haiti but, hmm, details, I suppose.)”
I’m writing this from Paris.
I coasted through high school without what most students called the burden of a foreign language, and was learning long division in my special-Ed math class by senior year. As irony would have it, my first corporate job was with a French fashion house where our meetings were held in, you guessed it – French. After a torrid and passionate tryst with one of the French guys from the IT department, who ended up fleeing back to Normandy after fashion week, and wanting in on all of the jokes that were being bounced around the conference room during meetings, I wanted in on this ‘French thing’ and finally enrolled in classes at Alliance Française. If I was annoyingly eager to learn French at the age of twelve, you can only imagine how I was in my late-20’s – unbearable.
As my 30’s were fast approaching, I wanted to have one last great adventure, make use of my French classes and take that overseas sabbatical that I had always dreamed of. I came to Paris in 2009 for three months in hopes of getting the dream of living in The City of Light out of my system, while finding that working in a cubicle in Manhattan wasn’t my true calling. But, of course, life has a way of being unpredictable. That aforementioned trip was two years ago, I’m still in Paris, and I refuse to leave. And since then, Paris has been a two year whirlwind of ups, downs, highs, lows, sadness, loneliness and overcoming obstacles.
On top of dealing with language barriers and cultural misunderstandings in a foreign city, I’ve been challenged with a broken engagement which left me homeless, failed friendships, a robbery, mounds of paperwork, and a depleting bank account that would signify my life here is a nightmare. But, in actuality, it’s anything but. For me, it’s been about growth, experience, character building and zipping around town on a Vespa. The highs make the lows worth it, and though I may get my ass metaphorically kicked on occasion, the experiences I’ve had while living in Paris have been priceless, and I will continue to relish the opportunity to live in the city where my heart will always be.Image credits
1, 2, 3, 4 Fifi Flowers
NOTE: This article was first published in 2012 and due to its popularity has been refreshed and republished
Ella, I really enjoyed reading your article. I actually identify myself a little bit with what you’re telling us. It’s not always easy to live in Paris but like you say, the city is exciting and alluring, and it’s really worth living there.
I’ve always felt that in France, mathematics or sciences in general were paid more heed than Arts, and according to me that’s a shame. Speaking various languages can give you great opportunities in life!
Ella, After enjoying all of the entertaining tales that you tell of your current life In Paris on your blog, I loved reading this prequel and getting to know more about the lady from Long Island.
Were you ever tempted to email your guidance counselor to let him know that you’re now speaking French on a daily basis in Paris?! 😉 So much for never needing it…
But then again, Larry Summers (the former head of Harvard) caused a stir this week by saying that foreign languages aren’t one of the “things that students (really) need to know”.
Larry Summers said that? It’s such a shame. First, there are many things that we don’t “need” to know, that we are not necessarily going to use later in life, like how to use a pair of compasses and still we all do it in primary school… But then again, why should something be “useful” all the time. Learning something that grabs your interest is a personal enrichment, it fulfills you and that’s why it’s relevant to stick to it. And it also opens your mind on other things, makes you think further than your original field of interest and can trigger unexpected creativity through association of ideas.
Just look how Steve Jobs made good use of the calligraphy course he enrolled in at Harvard: Now computers have all different kinds of fonts. Here is the wonderful commencement speech he held at Stanford university (with FR subtitles): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7iy3j_2m7PA
Besides, learning languages is a great exercise to train your memory and keep it strong.
But I probably don’t need to convince anyone here 🙂
My impression is that Ella’s counsellor was also aware he was wrong. His arguments sound way too weak to be justifiable.
@Hannah – Thank you for your comment! Yes, Paris is a tough town when you’re the new girl but it’s worth the trouble! I’m so glad that I’m not the only one who thinks this place is as magical as I do!
I think university in general is taken more seriously in France than it is in the States. I noticed this when my internet was down for a week which forced me to use the library at the Pompidou Center. It always took me about ten minutes to find a seat because this rather large library was jam-packed with young students (sans computers) who were studying, writing notes and reading. I remember my first year of college being less studious!
@MK – Thank you!!!!!
I’ve always been tempted to send a postcard to that guidance counselor which has turned into the running joke between my mother. We’re hoping that he has since retired because he was also my mother’s guidance counselor!!
What’s funny is that my French is (and will always be) much better than my math skills! Seb was dying when I was calculating something with my fingers at the market the other day. Eh, what can you do?
Haha 🙂 Speaking about the Pompidou Center reminds me of good memories… I often used to go there, that’s a nice place to study. But you’re right, it’s very often crowded. I wrote about the Bibliothèque François Mitterrand in my first article, but Beaubourg is so cool as well!^^
Are those your original works of art ? Amazing !
Loved the article but also wondered about the art. 🙂
@Bethany – No, I’m not at all an illustrator! The art is by Fifi Flowers. You can check out more of her amazing work at http://www.fififlowers.com !