Paris, like Hogwarts, is home.
I wrote that sentence in my travel journal as a bookend to my most recent trip to the City of Light, my favorite place in the entire world. I know, I know. I can hear the eye roll happening from here: Oh look, another dumb travel writer who’s obsessed with Paris. Big fucking deal! We ALL fall in love with Paris.
Isn’t there a certain magic to a place that can collectively make people feel something? (This also applies to Harry Potter, and Hogwarts.)
Well, the more people I meet, the more I find the “collective” adoration for Paris to be a half-truth: you either passionately love it or desperately hate it, as a rule.
But I don’t want to just talk about Paris, and I promise to not be one of those people who quotes Audrey Hepburn (she’s fab though) and posts pictures of themselves smoking in a beret (am I Parisian now omg!!?!) and makes you feel inferior for not having gone there yet. That is not what the city is about, and it is not what this storytelling experience is about.
We begin in Paris because it seems a great disgrace to not give credit to my first excursion out into the world. I attribute my well-forged relationship with every wanderer’s best friend, the Travel Bug, to this incredible city and to the entire country of France. It was where travel became not just a hobby, but a priority.
I was 20. I’d started college the year before, and I was loving every minute. It was different than anything I’d ever known. I grew up in a tiny suburb in New Jersey just outside of Philadelphia, and I’d become used to it. My town was a hundred years old and full of white people who went to church on Sundays and had Italian last names and three or four children who all bore those last names. We were families of people, clannish at times. You knew your neighbors, you could name everyone in your graduating class in high school, you marched in the town’s 4th of July parade at some point in your life. It was a lovely, comfortable place, but I was bored of it.
So I went “away” to college, which meant just two hours down the turnpike to Baltimore, Maryland. I’d laugh about this later, but at the time it felt like a full day’s journey. To me, Towson was a diverse campus with actual representation for people of color and students from states I’d never been to or thought much about. To my roommates and some friends who came from other regions, it was not diverse at all. Regardless, it opened a lot of doors for me, in both opportunity and in thought.
For everything my education was, and for all the new friends I made, and for as much fun as I had, I was still a lonely small-town girl in search of something to provide meaning. I was young, and I was doe-eyed and naïve, and I was, as every woman ever is, questioning my place in the world and my own self-worth. When I took time to think about what I aimed to achieve in my life, I realized that I wanted more than what was being given to me. (Cue the music from Beauty and the Beast. There’s a reason Belle is my favorite Disney princess.) I wanted to go out and take something from the world – not physically, but mentally. Culturally. I wanted to find my own things to learn that didn’t rest in textbooks or final exams or job offers. I wanted to be worldly. And I realized that nothing or no one would MAKE me a worldly person. It was something I was going to have to find a way to BECOME.
I’d been taking French classes since high school, and I continued to take them in college. I liked French, and what’s more, it just came to me. I didn’t have to try hard at the coursework like I did in my other classes. I enjoyed tossing around the words on my tongue with those throaty R’s that no one else seemed to be able to manage. I realize how it sounds, but being good at French was something solid for me that I clung to because it was the first time in my life that I felt superior to everyone else around me. None of my peers were playing on my level. I was not, by any means, fluent and my accent still felt off and I couldn’t yet have a full conversation with a native speaker. But I was on my way to something I didn’t know would change my life.
I’d wanted to study abroad even before I got to college. But by the time I was a sophomore, I was double majoring in fields not related to my burgeoning interest in French, so for me it wasn’t a realistic use of an entire semester if I wanted to graduate on time. I tried to find any way around this that I could, and I caught a lucky break after visiting the Study Abroad office on a whim.
Towson was introducing a new program called History and Civilization from the Middle Ages to the Present. It was a two-week, one-credit course based in Paris, with excursions to other parts of France that were rich in history, like Normandy and the medieval cities of Tours and Rouen. It sounded like a dream. And the best part was that it was running right after the spring semester ended, which meant I wouldn’t miss any work for my other classes. They were encouraging students in the Art, History and French departments to apply, but you weren’t bound to any of those majors if you wanted to foot the bill to go.
Ah, yes. The bill. Nothing in college comes free, and even in my naïveté I knew that, but this program cost $4,000. And it was $4,000 that my 20-year-old broke ass did not have.
I’d love to say I went and got an off-campus job to earn the money to pay for the trip myself. But I was already busy with two majors, a new minor in French, band rehearsals, chorus rehearsals, a fraternity (what’s up KKPsi!), an on-campus job and trying to have a social life. There wasn’t room for me to take on anything else, and I realistically don’t think I could have raised that much money in a couple of months anyway.
So (and please know that I am checking my privilege here) instead I begged and begged my amazing, selfless parents to let me go, citing the fact that I was good at French and explaining how it was important for me to get real-world experiences like this while I still could, before I graduated and became a boring adult with a job and a steady paycheck (two things I have since come to appreciate). Eventually they agreed that the experience would be good for me and my future.
And so, in the summer before my junior year of college, I wasn’t yet legal to drink in the United States, but I got on a flight to Paris with nine other girls, most of whom were complete strangers, and my French teacher, who was running the course. Our assignments to earn the credit were largely completed before we left and after we returned, and our only real responsibility while we were there was to keep a daily journal in French of what we did and learned. It felt like more of a vacation than a college course, but I found the structure of it to be exactly what it should be for a first big travel experience: learning by immersing yourself into the culture you want to know more about. Learning by doing.
From the minute I set foot on the old and wizened streets of Paris, I was enraptured. Here was this place people write books about, sing songs about, paint masterpieces about. I was in it. I was being cultured. It was all around me. There were so many things to see and do and I was ready for it all to hit me like a brick wall and demand that I experience it.
When I wasn’t being dramatic in castle windows, I went to Normandy and saw the humbling grandeur of the D-Day beaches. I wept at the American Cemetery and felt the pain of the war-age families whose loved ones were buried there. I went to Rouen and saw a steel monument that now stands at the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. (I would later realize this was a powerful moment for me and would spark my involvement in the feminist movement.) I marveled at the Château de Chenonceau and how regal but calm everything felt in the Loire Valley. It was important, but it was also unobtrusive. I sipped wine and ate like a queen and laughed really hard and made several new friends out of these women I hardly knew.
Most importantly, I saw more of France and Paris in those 17 days than most people ever see in their lives, and for that, I feel the most fortunate. I would learn several years later that this was the great shift in me.
I was no longer a girl from a town no one had ever heard of who got good grades and was kind of good at a handful of things. I was a woman the world was waiting to meet.
I learned later that my parents had borrowed the money from my grandmother so that I could go to France that year. It was a gesture I didn’t know how to even begin to thank them for. But it meant my family knew that I couldn’t be contained. They knew on some inherent level that I’d stand in front of the 5th-floor clock at the Musée d’Orsay in awe of the city below, that I would climb the stairs to Montmartre singing the Rufus Wainwright song in my head, that I would willingly eat escargots whenever it appeared on the menu. (It’s soooooo good.) They knew it wasn’t just a trip, or something cool to say I did that one time when I was young.
They knew I’d be affected and overwhelmed and changed.
And here I am, eleven years later, with more college degrees, more wisdom and more appreciation than I had back then for the short time I have on this Earth and the people I get to spend it with and the wonders awaiting me in other parts of the world.
In 2017, I went to three new countries and solo traveled for the first time. And those are tales I can’t wait to divulge here.
I now live in New York City, which I don’t know if I saw coming but do not regret. It contains an astounding 8.5 million people, but it can still make you feel like you’re the only person who exists in the world. But I navigate it, and I fight it back, and I make it into a place I want to call home, because it’s where I need to be at this point in my life.
I spent much of last year writing poems about adjusting to life in the Big Apple. It’s eye-opening to go back and read them through, one-by-one, and to note the evolution that has occurred in me.
What I discovered is this: It’s easy to see a girl living in the big city. It takes much more finesse and understanding to locate the city within a girl.
Welcome. Let’s be adventurers together.