The quiet thrill of writing as a foreigner in Paris
I dreamt of living in Paris my entire adult life.
It was a romantic dream; the unabashed fantasy of the struggling writer. During the days when work was particularly torturous or I felt uninspired, I would slip into a Parisian daydream. I'd pull out Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast and thumb through my favorite passages. In Paris, I told myself, writers must never fear the blank page or the blinking cursor. In Paris, the stories just write themselves.
The Paris of my daydreams was peopled by a glamorous set of brooding intellectuals and brilliant raconteurs; it was a town for the sharp-tongued and quick-witted. The place oozed artistry. Every restaurant served sumptuous meals; every person exuded elegance.
America was born dreaming of Paris. It was December 1776 when Benjamin Franklin arrived in the City of Light as the newly dispatched commissioner from an emerging nation. He would go on to spend 10 years living in a suburb just outside the French capital. On an earlier trip to Paris, Franklin wrote to a friend about his travels, "perhaps I have suffered a greater Change, too, in my own Person, than I could have done in Six Years at home."
And indeed, since 1776, "Americans have come [to Paris] to study, to paint, to sculpt, to dance, to sing, to write, to love — in a word to live," according to Americans in Paris, an anecdotal street-by-street guide published in 1984. "What Paris gave them was a sense of personal and artistic freedom, the experience of a very different way of life."
In another annotated street guide, this one published in 1921, following the end of the first World War, the authors lay out the relationship between Americans and Paris this way:
It is doubtful if the average American visitor to Paris fully realized, as he wandered through the streets gazing upon the wealth of historic architecture, just how many remembrances of his own countrymen were linked for all time with those very stones. … It was not America they had come to look for in France. But during the last five years such has been the tide of events that a general clamor has risen to know more of the part played by the U.S.A. on foreign soil.
For a long time, I convinced myself that to know Paris even a little was enough. I was happy to spend a weekend or two every few years wandering her streets and sipping wine at her cafes. To want anything more felt childish and a little crazy, like flapping your arms to fly to the moon.
Then a month ago, I moved to Paris.
I have traveled a fair amount and have lived in New York, Washington, D.C., Tehran, and London. Each place has changed me. But the great difference here is that my Parisian fantasy is tangled up with my writing career. What if I settle into this new life and find I can't conjure a word? Because, in all likelihood, I will find out that Paris isn't magic. It's just a beautiful city.
My second night here I stepped out into the bitter cold for a long walk. I passed café after café and bar after bar filled with people eating and drinking and generally enjoying the hell out of life, and, for a moment, I felt that even on my best day, I could never know how great it was to be alive, because I wasn't them.
At a restaurant called Bistro St. Jacques, music was spilling out from beneath the awning. There were small glittering white and blue lights along the restaurant's edge and the window panes were fogged. And I thought, how very special and indulgent this all is. This time. This walk.
A group of older people was leaving the restaurant, saying goodbye and laughing in the doorway. I excused myself and edged past them. I tried to speak a sentence of very bad French to the waiter, who kindly responded in English, and seated me in the covered area outside. All around me people were in groups. As I sat down, as if on cue, everyone who wasn't eating, drinking, or laughing seemed to be singing or about to break into song. The band, which was nothing more than two men on guitar, struck up a number and a woman in a muted gray and purple sweater and baggy blue jeans started to sing. Her voice was near perfect, and she and the band moved from one American songbook standard to another — Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra. Then they sang several French songs. I was the only one in the bar who didn't know the words. Everyone else sang along gustily with the refrain. The scene then morphed into a musical call and response. I ordered my glass of wine and pretended to read. All of a sudden, I felt shy and self-conscious, sitting there with my manuscript and trying to edit. But I loved just being close to it all; a part of and apart from the party that had erupted around me.
The song finished and the woman returned to her table, which was the loudest one in the café. I stole a glance at them over my shoulder and counted about ten men. I don't know if they were individually attractive or not, but, as a unit, they were striking. They were drunk, and they were happy. They were sitting on each other's laps. One couple was kissing. Others were gesturing with lit cigarettes and congratulating their singing lady.
The band started again, and again they played another song that made everyone sing and stomp their feet. Everyone except me and a young man in a well-tailored gray suit standing in front of my table by the door smoking. He tried not to look at me and I tried not to look at him. He would inhale, look down then open the door, and exhale outside.
I finished my wine. I realized I was very tired, still worn out from jet lag. I gathered my things, turned off my recorder, paid my bill, and got up to leave. The band finished just as I stood up.
"The journalist is leaving!" one guitarist called out, smiling. I looked around, waved and kind of bowed awkwardly at him. He laughed. "Goodbye," he said.
"Ok," I whispered, half-smiling in his direction. "Au revoir." I moved past the smoker, opened the door, and stepped into the cold.
Read Neda Semnani's entire Paris project here: