I called Paris home for a little more than four months. “Home” was never a word I thought I’d use to describe the place.
I remember spending my first run in the city with a constant scowl on my face as I was forced to stop every 30 paces for either crosswalks or swarming masses of people on the streets. I remember the first time I took the metro to school and being literally squashed flat against the door in the crowds, and I remember having my phone stolen out of my coat pocket in a metro station only days later, after I’d let down my guard for 15 seconds to remove my scarf.
I remember looking at the Seine for the first time and seeing its grimy color and the rampant city pollution diffused throughout its waters (just enjoy the view at night; it’s easier to forget how gross it really is). I remember friends being mugged in the streets or uncomfortably followed most of the way home after a late night out. And I remember the 10.5 million people, 20 districts, 16 metro lines and half a dozen train stations just within the city limits; that’s anything but comforting for a small-townie.
But now I can’t help but look out the window of my Southern Pines, North Carolina bedroom, expecting to see the tall, off-white facades with black metal accents lining each balcony. I can close my eyes and imagine the view now. It’s firmly imprinted on my consciousness; it’s what I’ve come to see as “familiar.” When I returned from trips within and outside of France, it was this sight that put a smile on my face. As wonderful as traveling is, I knew I’d come “home.”
On my last afternoon in Paris (it appropriately rained for hours), I crossed the familiar expanse of rue Saint Antoine and walked into my favorite neighborhood boulangerie one final time. I bought a baguette and a pain au chocolat, figuring I’d stop by the supermarket and get a small wedge of brie cheese to make a nice, student-budget final Parisian dinner.
As I walked down the street and sank my teeth into the delectable pastry, the best chocolate croissant I’ve managed to find in the city, I saw a woman and her two girls sitting on the wet ground to my right, leaning against the back wall of a newsstand. They had a little cup for coins, so it was easy to know why they were there. I wondered if I’d seen them before; I walk this street at least once a day. But I couldn’t remember.
“Des centimes, mademoiselle?” I heard the cry so often voiced by the homeless on the streets of this city, the so-called City of Lights and Love, where poverty stares you bluntly in the face every time you step out of your apartment and the gap between the rich and the poor seems to grow ever wider as weeks go by — despite a welfare state that is supposed to help the less fortunate. I’ve had conversations with study abroad friends about this “other” side of Paris. It’s affected us all at times this semester: on the metro, outside grocery stores, near museum entrances and lining the length of major boulevards.
I usually follow the example of most Parisians in the streets; I avert their pleading looks, I don’t acknowledge them, I continue on my way with barely a second thought. I know some of them aren’t even really homeless; I’ve heard that women and children in particular place themselves near popular tourist areas to fool passersby. It’s pretty easy to get “played” if you look foreign enough.
I was wearing dark jeans, black shoes, a faux leather jacket and a scarf; it doesn’t get much more Paris than that. But I’d fallen victim to the other “no-no” — I had made eye contact with the woman. I looked at the two adorable girls, perhaps ages 4 and 8, and I felt my heart twinge.
So, yeah, I might have been getting played. But I remembered reading a story just two months earlier about French homelessness, revealing statistics that a homeless person dies every 20 hours in France and that the number of homeless people has risen by nearly 50 percent in the last 12 years. And I know that in France, le chômage, or unemployment, has yet to return to its pre-economic crisis rate. I had a hunch this family really could use the help. Maybe I was right, maybe I wasn’t.
I tore my glance away from the family and looked down at my half-eaten croissant. I wasn’t even hungry; I’d been eating it for pleasure, to treat myself — honestly, to romanticize my final day in Paris and probably write about it later. I felt greedy. This semester I’ve given a number of street musicians coins as I’ve gone by, but I’d only given half a baguette to one homeless man, one time.
I turned on my heel and marched back to the boulangerie. I fished out the last coins in my wallet and bought two more baguettes, a total of 1.80 euros. I returned the way I’d come and met the woman’s eyes again. She opened her mouth to speak, but I started first: “Bonjour, madame. Comment allez-vous aujourd’hui?”
She responded with a small smile. “Alors,” I continued, squatting in front of her, “je vous apporte quelque chose. Vous voulez du pain?” I held out the two baguettes. Her eyes lit up, and the younger girl let out a small gasp in delight.
“Oui, oui,” the woman said. “Exactement ce dont j’ai besoin. Merci, merci à vous.” The older girl stood up and hugged me. “Vous êtes gentille. Et belle,” she said, eagerly taking one of the baguettes from the woman and tearing off a piece. They wished me well with an “au revoir, merci!” as I stood up to leave; the youngest girl blew me a kiss.
The simple choice made me feel good, as such decisions often do for people. I didn’t let myself think too much of it; giving away two baguettes isn’t particularly selfless. But I allowed myself to smile as I turned down rue des Tournelles and walked to my apartment. I hoped I’d made their day a little better in any small way, as the act had for me.
I recalled similar sentiments I’d felt from other Paris-induced highs of my final two days: an egg, tomato and onion crepe from my favorite stand in the Bastille area, a long solo bike ride along the Right Bank in glorious 60-degree weather, an afternoon stroll through my favorite city park, Buttes-Chaumont, an evening with some of my closest friends and cheap wine while watching the Seine by night.
As I reflect on those 48 hours now, I can’t say it enough times: Paris has been so good to me.
That’s not to say that I don’t have mixed feelings about the city. I know I’ll never again be able to read “ooh, la la!” travel columns in newspapers without a critical eye. Paris, like anywhere else, has got the good, the bad and the ugly. And I don’t want to romanticize my study abroad experience, which has had its share of stresses and lows.
But I have been so fortunate to have such an incredible journey this semester. I’ve managed to become relatively confident interviewing people in French. I’ve made wonderful international friends I hope to be able to visit someday. I’ve been a tourist, a tour guide to friends, a student, an observer and listener, a long-term city resident with somewhat competent French and a “stupid American” who played dumb with a police officer to get out of a ticket while riding a bike (yes, really).
Four days ago, I went from this Paris “home” to home in Southern Pines, and in five days I’ll be trying to find “home” elsewhere, as I move to Philadelphia for the summer. I just returned from a brief excursion to Chapel Hill — immediately upon my first sighting of the sprawling grassy Polk Place quad and the rickety old brick pathways, I breathed a sigh of familiarity. That magical campus and quaint downtown really are “home,” too.
I think I’m starting to enjoy that concept of having different “homes,” of being less rooted and yet still feeling embraced metaphorically by each home with a hug and a warm smile upon return.
So, I’m back, America. I’m still baffled by the necessity of driving a car everywhere, and I still have a sleep schedule that’s stubbornly synced with a different time zone. I miss discovering centuries-old churches and off-the-beaten-path museums around every corner. I’m craving a one-euro freshly baked preservative-free baguette terribly. And what the hell, 95 degrees and stifling humidity is a thing?!
But as I took an early stroll along Franklin Street this morning, a copy of The Daily Tar Heel in one hand and a Starbucks coffee in the other, I felt completely and entirely in my element.
I whispered to myself, “Welcome home.”