Paris is Always Worth it – wherein a young writer begins to question just exactly what he’s doing in Paris – Part 2/3

Read Part One:

We always returned to [Paris] no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it.”
Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Playing piano in a London bookstore (Skoob Books), December 2012

I was unmoored in Paris teaching English to bankers and insurance clerks. I applied to three different master’s programs in the UK and crossed my fingers for a new adventure. During that time, I missed my twin brother immensely, who at the time was pursuing his own dreams of being a singer-songwriter in New Orleans (he lives in Paris now). For the first time in my life, I wasn’t surrounded by a tight-knit group of male friends, and while my Parisian partner’s friends were kind, they didn’t feel like home. And while I might’ve spoken French fluently and had even developed a French sense of humor, I was beginning to recognize the limits of cultural immersion. I needed to find my tribe.

Unable to connect with most French male twentysomethings,1 I spent my weekends at the National Library of France, cranked out on a friend’s Adderall prescription to write the first draft of a second novel about growing up in North Carolina and male intimacy. Most of the book’s plot revealed itself to me in a single sentence, while riding a train headed to my partner’s parents’ home in western France: “When I saw him lying in his own pool of blood, all I could think of was that half-eaten burger.” I knew the book’s title would be Slim and The Beast, a novel about how, through tragedy, two young men in North Carolina come to find meaning in brotherhood. As I delved deeper into that story, I began seeking out a literary community that went beyond weekly writing prompts for the local spoken word scene.

While I’d made some good friends in Paris’ literary open mic scene, I still found it hard to meet writers who considered writing a lifestyle versus a weekly opportunity to perform 5-minute readings in dingy basements. What I needed were literary peers and mentors, and I had great trouble finding them.

My relationship helped my writing, but not in the way I expected. Me and my partner’s romance had become too comfortable, too easy, too predictable, and in at least one way, spending my weekends writing Slim and The Beast was my way of imagining a new kind of adventure. At the ripe age of twenty-four, my partner and I had become too domesticated in our lives, content to forego sex for Chinese takeout, replacing late Parisian nights in dive bars with home-cooked meals. It was a beautiful connection, but we were too young to feel like we were stagnating. Our young love was summed up in the refrain of Neil Young’s “Tell Me Why”: tell me why is it hard to make arrangements with yourself, when you’re old enough to repay, but young enough to sell?

Soon after finishing the first draft of Slim and The Beast, I received an acceptance letter from the School of European Languages, Culture and Society at University College London. The effect was immediate and bittersweet: my relationship was ending, as were my fiction writing days in Paris.

On the train headed to London, I wrote in my diary: I’m leaving the only home I’ve ever known. I arrived at King’s Cross Station in a grey September rain, and I remember almost slipping on the wet cobblestones as I ran towards a waiting black cab. In the downpour, I told the driver to take me to Kentish Town, a place I’d never heard of before. I remember crying in the back of an empty McDonald’s because, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t sure I’d made the right decision.

Those first months in London were inspiring, challenging, and lonely. I spent most of my days reading dense social theory, six to eight hours/day in my cinderblock dormitory. I joined a funk band, reconnecting with a college-era passion, and I also joined the UCL basketball team and promptly broke my nose, ending the season. I had a few romantic flings, too, and met many nice people, but most of my relationships were less comforting to me than the characters I’d come to know in the early versions of my new novel.

By the time of the first snowfall in London, I’d decided on an interdisciplinary dissertation about social theory and the Holocaust, a subject that I’d studied since I was a child. I’ve always been interested in why human beings do what they do, especially in the negative, and I was particularly intrigued by the theory of human nature laid out in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

My academic work drove me inward and away from socializing, and I soon began to feel disconnected from the more artistic lifestyle I’d left behind in Paris. I remember the moment I realized, categorically, that I wasn’t an academic: I was sitting in an advanced seminar led by two world-renowned scholars, and I was preparing to give a presentation on a text written by a post-structuralist named Pierre Bourdieu, whose theory I found incomprehensible and arrogant. Unwilling to bullshit my way through the presentation, I admitted that I couldn’t make much sense of the assignment, and I asked the professors if they could help me better understand what Bourdieu was trying to say in the very first paragraph of a chapter called, “Structures and the Habitus,” and why it was acceptable to have an opening paragraph with only two sentences:

The two world-renowned professors thanked me for my honesty and suggested the other students help me understand the above paragraph. And then, without exception, whether master’s or doctoral student or professor, each person at the table proceeded to explain to me how it was impossible to understand the opening paragraph without understanding some other obscure text or theorist (“You can’t really understand Bourdieu if you don’t have a grasp on Althusser,” one of the most pompous students said). By the time it came to my professors to admit that it was indeed a complicated text without a clear answer, they said the class was over and we’d have to reconsider the question next week (we never did).

In that moment, my entire opinion of academia changed. Nobody in the seminar admitted that they, too, were confused by the unintelligible text of run-on sentences. When I left that seminar room, I realized that the world of academia was a pissing contest just like any other, a hierarchical structure built on the principles of intellectual conceit, privilege, group think and perceived value. No longer interested in becoming an academic in the traditional sense, I realized that my master’s degree was in fact research for a new novel about a disillusioned academic’s attempt to find a new kind of meaning in the early years of the Nazi Occupation of Poland.

When I finished my graduate seminars in the spring, I decided to stop paying $1,000 for a cinderblock dorm room in Kentish Town. I moved with my cousin to a small home on a cliff in Peniche, Portugal, a fishing village where I could write my dissertation and learn how to surf. After a memorable three months involving wet-suited, bare-footed walks through a sleepy cobblestone town, I returned to Paris in the autumn once again as a single man without a place to live, $25,000 in student debt, a hodgepodge of notes for a manuscript about a disillusioned academic in World War Two, and a desire to re-read (and re-write) Slim and The Beast.

Unable to find a better job with my shiny new master’s degree in social theory,  I went back to my old English teaching gig for the same lousy pay. I was determined to finish a new draft of Slim and The Beast and see where it could lead, and I was also energized by the prospect of a new chapter in Paris. During the month of August 2013, I lived on a friend’s couch for two weeks, as well as in my godfather’s sixth-floor office.

One night while visiting a friend in the Marais, he mentioned that his landlord was renting out another apartment downstairs. I asked if we could call the landlord, who agreed to meet me the next day. She was a wise, elderly French woman who’d lived in India for many years, and at the time she was going through cancer treatment with a combination of Western medicine and Ayurvedic therapy. We connected over philosophy and had a lengthy discussion over herbal tea about spirituality. I moved into the renovated 14m2 apartment (150 square feet) a week later in the heart of Paris’ old Jewish quarter.

The contours of a new life began to fall into place, and, as Paris always proves, a new romance wasn’t far away. The relationship started slow and turned into a 4-year adventure, a beautifully doomed lesson in my own rescue complex, co-dependency, and a relationship theory called the Karpman drama triangle:

I continued to work on Slim and The Beast through the autumn and winter, and in December 2013, I began keeping a diary to write all of the thoughts, experiences, and feelings I wasn’t brave enough to discuss with my partner. And then, sometime around Christmas, I heard that an acquaintance from high school had started a small crowdfunded publisher based in San Francisco. They were just beginning their venture, and they were looking for young writers interested in alternative publishing.

On a whim, I sent them an updated draft of Slim and The Beast.

The good news was they liked the novel, but there was a catch: I had to figure out a way to raise $10,000 in pre-orders in three months.

Read Part Three


About the Contributor

Samuél Lopez-Barrantes

I’ve lived in Paris since 2010 as a novelist and musician. I teach creative writing at the Sorbonne and host the Paris Writers' Salon with author John Baxter. More... my debut novel, Slim and The Beast (Inkshares, 2015) or latest historical metafiction about the Nazi Occupation of Poland, The Requisitions (Kingdom Anywhere, 2024). My website or visit my Substack

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