When I first arrived in the City of Lights, I was disappointed.
In the days leading up to my first European jaunt with my best friend and her mom, I had recurring dreams about seeing the Eiffel Tower. In each romantic reverie, I was driving in a car with sites whizzing past the window as I stared in awe at the lattice tower.
But my first day in Paris, just a week before my 25th birthday, was a far cry from the whimsy of my visions. After arriving at the notoriously massive Charles de Gaulle airport, it took nearly three hours (and dozens of precious international cell phone minutes) for me to locate my travel companions. After we breathlessly located one another (finally!), it took another hour and a half to track down our Super Shuttle, doing the best we could to navigate the terminals with exhausted miming and my high school French. All the while, we were dragging overweight suitcases packed with our many attempts to look Parisian chic.
When we arrived at our hotel, I felt dizzyingly tired. I’d planned to spend the day sightseeing, but who knew that jet lag actually isn’t just an urban myth, but in fact a very real state that can cause you to see, think, and feel things that should not be repeated? An hour-long power nap morphed into a few; groggily, the three of us woke up to meet our other best friend, whom we’d come to visit during her law school study abroad.
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“I had recurring dreams about seeing the Eiffel Tower, of driving in a car as I stared in awe at the lattice tower.”
We walked to a nearby café for dinner. The entire way, I found myself straining—to no avail—through the humid August temperatures for a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. While some of the buildings looked vaguely European, I remember thinking to myself: I don’t feel like I’m in France. I could’ve been right back in the US, and my dinner didn’t help the matter: I caught up on my friend’s Parisian adventures over a bland omelet and soggy fries, all the while secretly dreaming about New York pizza.
The next day, we decided to visit the Louvre. A flaky croissant and café crème made me a bit more hopeful that today would be the day I’d discover the magic of this city. But after a 90-degree metro ride with a few passengers who—how do I put this lightly—fit the French-people-don’t-wear-deodorant stereotype, I was still skeptical about what all the hype over Paris was about. As I made my way outside while studying a map, a few Frenchmen bumped into me without so much as a pardon. So much for New Yorkers being the rude ones, I grumbled.
We walked past handfuls of tiny, fluffy French dogs and Renaissance-era buildings as we approached a park called the Champs de Mars. And then, peeking out above the trees, I saw it: The top of the Eiffel Tower. Suddenly, there it was: The sight I’d seen for years in textbooks, movies, and even in my dreams. I tapped my friend on the arm and pointed. For once, I couldn’t find my words; my breath was caught in my throat.
But what struck me the most about that first view of Le Tour Eiffel wasn’t the tower itself, but the hundreds of Parisians lying on the grass in front of it. I was in disbelief that, in the middle of a workday, so many French people (and yes, definitely French, not tourists; trust me, their effortless style is a telltale sign) were leisurely lying on blankets with bottles, baguettes, and baskets. Like real, actual picnic baskets. (Can you remember the last time you went on a real-life picnic? Yea, me either.) Looking at them—the way they laughed leisurely, leaning back on their palms with their faces turned up toward the sun—I recalled the French phrase joie de vivre. The idea almost knocked me off my feet: This is what the enjoyment of life means.
“It was like someone turned on an enchanted, rose-colored switch that shined above Paris for me.”
After that moment, it was like someone turned on an enchanted, rose-colored switch that shined above Paris for me. I fell hopelessly, helplessly, head-over-heels in love with the city. I drank in every single detail: The painstaking, exquisite curves of the architecture; the way locals literally stopped to bury their noses in sidewalk florists’ flowers; how we had to track down the waiters at each brasserie if we wanted our check. For a week, we tried our best to be French, too, paying no attention to our watches as our lunches lazily spread over multiple hours and (and many glasses of wine). I took my time wandering the pages of the storied Shakespeare and Company bookstore and scribbled unhurried in my journal as I sat in the Parcs des Buttes Chaumont. (And I may or may not have taken my sweet time shopping for a Louis Vuitton bag as a birthday gift to myself. When in Paris, right?) One of my most memorable meals that week was a simple dinner at our AirBnb that we threw together with roast chicken, baguette, and veggies picked up from a local market. The perfect dessert? Staying up all night swapping stories and memories, our chests free from the weight of our usual worries.
As you might have guessed, my ambivalence toward the city from that first day was quickly long forgotten—in fact, I completely forgot how disillusioned I’d felt until I began to pen this essay years later. While I can’t promise my passion for Paris made me completely laissez-faire back home in New York, the city did teach me to stop every now and then to drink in the green of Central Park’s trees or ask the waiter for more time to enjoy another glass of wine with my girlfriends. Though I’ve since been back, I’ll always itch to return to the city that I fell in love with—the city that graciously gifted me a little piece of its joie de vivre. Merci.
Image credits: Heather Deffense/Twenty20, personal images courtesy of Arianna Davis.