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Last week I nearly forgot that I live in Paris, which is something I vowed I’d never do in my six months living here (and I’ve only been here five weeks!). It was one of those cold rainy days that wasn’t typical of May, or so the locals assured me. I was annoyed because I hadn’t been able to write anything decent all day long, pissed off because the cheap replacement umbrella was no match for my original ladybug-printed umbrella I’d accidentally left in a bar (yes, it’s gone, and some French man who likes cute umbrellas is probably using it right now!), and cursing all the stores that were closed on Sunday, when all I needed to do was buy some chicken.
I could’ve been walking down any damn street in any damn city as I had these annoying thoughts, and I may as well have been, because second-by-second I was losing my sense of Paris.
A few days later I was annoyed again, this time because of something I “might” (might!) categorize as “matters of the heart,” so when my pal invited me to a friend of a friend’s backyard party an hour outside of Paris, I couldn’t have been more thrilled for a little escape.
As we peeled our way out of the city, past gorgeous weathered buildings and scenic river views, I realized it was the first time I’d ever left Paris, which instantly made me compare it to the day I arrived. I recalled how I’d looked upon cathédral Notre Dame for the very first time, and how its stunning grandeur may have literally made my heart skip two beats (quickly followed by my heart resuming its regular beats, because obviously I’m alive today and writing this post!). I also thought about the first time I’d sat on a café terrace, and how even with no distractions like a cell phone, I was totally happy just to watch the world go by. It seemed like a far off time, the way photo albums remind you of ages and trips you can never go back to.
“But I’m still here!” I cried (to myself, inside my head). So why was I becoming a spectator of my life in Paris?
There wasn’t much time to over-analyze it, as I suddenly became aware of lovely green fields and crops on either side of the road. It was the least amount of people (zero) and most amount of nature (everywhere) I’d seen since moving to Paris. And it was nice.
A few minutes later we turned into a nice neighbourhood, with charming-looking houses set far apart, which spared it from appearing like a crammed North American suburb.
Oh, and in the neighbour’s sprawling yard or acres of field or whatever you want to call it…I saw a horse.
You’re not in Paris anymore, Dorothy.
I was immediately welcomed into a wonderful family’s home with the classic French kiss on either cheek, and from that moment on I was no longer a stranger from a foreign land who had squeezed my way into a party, I was one of them!
Okay, so maybe I technically WAS a stranger from a foreign land, when one of the main hosts kept asking me to say “Bonn-juwer” in my Canadian accent as he introduced me to people (so he could laugh at how I sound in French), but that was a small price to pay for being around twenty or so amazing locals of all ages (and two dogs!).
On that night, I witnessed army buddies who hadn’t seen each other for eighteen years reunite…and then proceed to insult each other in French (great practice for my language skills!), I enjoyed some smackin’-good ribs that were made by a professional chef from France who’s been living in LA for a while, and I even got to listen to a live band they had playing in the yard (a band that performed amazing cover songs of all the classic hits—my favourite was their rendition of “On Broadway”).
But best of all, and I mean truly, simply the best, was when a fifty-year-old French man sat next to me.
Typically, introductions of fifty-year-old men in my life are strongly associated with a “creep factor,” but wait, there’s more! (And it’s not creepy!)
First, he said he was going to speak to me only in French to help me improve my listening skills. Awesome.
Second, he asked me how long I’ve been in Paris (I did the math and quickly answered).
Third, he asked me what I think of Paris.
It must’ve been the fact that I had to answer in French which meant I had to talk more slowly, because the more I heard myself say each word, the more I really listened to all the amazing things I’d seen and experienced.
But that’s not all!
He told me he’d been living in Paris for his whole life.
Now I clasped my hands nervously, waiting for him to tell me how ugly he thought the Eiffel Tower was, or how there were way too many tourists, or how it wasn’t like the good old days.
The first thing he said was: “Apres tout ce temps, j’adore La Tour Eiffel.”
I never would’ve expected a Paris native to tell me he loved the Eiffel Tower after all these years, but that was only the beginning. He went on to say that in fifty years his love for Paris has never waned, and that he loves it just as much as he always did, or maybe more. He believes the city has so much life and spirit, and at night he’ll go driving around on his motorcycle, choosing all manner of winding roads, because he never tires of how beautiful the city looks at night. He added that while he’s driving he sees the Eiffel Tower from so many different vantages, and each time it’s like he’s admiring it in a new way. By now his eyes were glowing, and mine were practically welling up with tears, at this chance I was getting to hear about his earnest love.
But he wasn’t done.
He went on to add that in his real estate work when he’s showing houses, he’ll open a set of doors, look out a window, and still after all these years, he’ll see Paris in a way he never saw it before.
And the Chantilly cream on top of this whole speech? (I’m trying to be French here…) He said that even when it rains it’s okay, because the rain lets you see the city of lights reflecting off the puddles, a gift you just don’t get when it’s dry.
Who is this guy? Santa Claus?!
I’m not sure, but I truly believe it was fate that I wound up at that party, and fate that he ended up sitting next to me.
When I returned to the city and back to the bustling Latin Quarter, I remembered that I lived in Paris, and this time I know I won’t forget. A pretty good test of this happened today, when I walked further and further down Rue de Monge, in search of any store that was open because I needed to buy mushrooms.
I was out of luck, but instead of huffing and puffing about a walk now wasted, I smiled because it’s Paris, and who doesn’t love a good walk? Nearby I noticed a boulangerie that was open, and decided to make some revisions to my original dinner plan. I didn’t expect much in the way of fresh bread at six p.m., so when the lady handed me the baguette and it was toasty warm, I wanted to giggle with glee; yes, giggle!
Then it started raining.
And I didn’t have an umbrella.
It was way too early for the light to reflect off the puddles, but I actually didn’t mind the rain. Note: this doesn’t mean I danced around in the rain like in a scene from a cheesy movie, it simply means I didn’t care if my hair got ruined ’cause it was already greasy.
Since my chat with the inspiring French Santa Claus, my love for the Eiffel Tower and experiencing it from different vantages is now even stronger than ever.
This is from earlier in the week, when I looked out the window of someone’s apartment in a neighbourhood I’d never been to, and suddenly saw the tower in all its evening glory. Magnificent. One day soon I’ll actually visit it close-up, but for now I’m enjoying this flirty dance we share.
Paris, je t’aime,
Scenario: moving to Paris to write.
Is there a default definition and image in your head when you read that?
There certainly was for me, and it involved: sitting on café terraces, wearing scarves (you know this is true, look how many scarves I brought to Paris!), gradually running out of money because there’s something bohemian and romantic about that (this book captures that perfectly: Time Was Soft There), and dressing casually all the time.
If I was a writer in New York City however, then perhaps my writer self would be closer to Carrie Bradshaw. But in Paris? Definitely the first description.
But that’s stupid!
I’ve realized the above stupidity after almost a month in Paris (my four-week anniversary is on Friday—time flies!).
Initially I tried to maintain the first “writer description” but found it difficult, because I felt like some of my behaviour was conflicting with “bohemi-topia.”
Like that time I was taken to a shoe store that specializes specifically in wedge shoes (yes!), and I simply could not help myself (I would’ve posted a picture of my feet in the shoes, but I’d prefer not to cater to the foot-fetish readers—and I know you’re out there, don’t think you can hide with your comment-free lurker blog visits! ). There was also the time I tried on ten-thousand-dollar earrings at Chanel in Place Vendome, because obviously I’m going to need earrings for my next book’s launch party in Paris! (Yes, I did post a picture of these, which means I’m probably now catering to readers with an earlobe fetish—and I know you’re out there too). And finally, when my new friend and resident Paris expert took me out to Plaza Athenée for fancy cocktails in the form of popsicles, I embraced that too, which meant finding myself next to a couple who snobbily brought their dog to this swanky hotel bar, only for their snobbery to be validated by a neatly-dressed waiter who arrived with a steel bowl of water (to satiate the canine’s thirst).
And all of the above was so much fun!
Despite my joy, I regarded the events as a shameful secret. I tried to hide my shopping bags when I attended an open mic later that night, and I didn’t dare speak of the exorbitantly-priced cocktails to my writer pals.
So who was I then? A material girl only posing as a writer?
Well no…because I also write in Paris. I have an outline for book three pinned up as a long row of Post-It notes on my closet, and I’ve been writing this blog twice a week, which is already inspiring the fiction (may the names be changed and the events somewhat altered, haha!). I also started putting down pages for the book’s first draft. Best of all, I read some brand new material for an audience at Spoken Word in Paris on Monday night, and I can’t even describe how exhilarating it was to share my work (not to mention watching so many other talented writers read their stuff).
So then…is it bohemian wordsmith or Carrie Bradshaw? Which is it dammit?!
Neither, or both…or who the hell cares?
The great thing about Paris is that so many other dreamers are here to make their own stuff happen, that no one gives a crap how you get your stuff done, or what you do for fun in-between, because there really are no labels beyond the thing you do; and for me, I write. Whatever else, no one cares. And I love that. It’s also highly possible that no one cared about these things back home, but since I spent so many years, hours, and days with the default professional label of “corporate rat” (which ultimately described how I dressed and what coffee I drank), I accidentally packed some stereotypes into my luggage on the way to Paris.
So now for the truth: I like basement bars and seeing writers perform their work, and I also like shoes. That’s perfectly fine, there’s a place for me in Paris, and there’s really no need to categorize it any further.
There’s also no need to assign any labels to people, since labels only belong on clothes I can’t afford (but will still try on…because it’s fun).
I noticed it the first day I arrived in Paris, in the form of a Canadian flag not too far from my apartment. It belonged to the “Abbey Book Shop,” and it was something I instantly connected to, in this city where I didn’t know a soul. Due to various circumstances (crazed insomnia, an entire day at the Louvre), I wasn’t drawn back to my country’s flag until day number three.
And this time I went inside.
If you can imagine a cross between a library from the Middle Ages and something out of Harry Potter, that’s how this bookstore felt to me. The overflowing shelves, the narrow winding aisles, the warm lighting, the rare books and the beautiful books, not to mention the stone-walled basement that seemed like a cave…it was nothing short of enchanting.
The shop was opened by a Canadian in 1989, and as he directed me to the Hemingway books I was looking for (required Paris reading) we got to talking. He was so full of knowledge and interesting facts, it was almost like he himself was a book, minus the “old-book-smell” and thin layer of dust (not that there’s anything wrong with “old-book-smell,” actually I love it and would wear it as perfume). After he explained that his shop carries the version of “The Sun Also Rises” with the original title of “Fiesta” (I told you, he’s full of facts!), he invited me to come back at seven p.m., for cider with a few of his friends. Once I finally understood that cider is not apple cider, I did that whole “North American thing,” where you’re thankful for the invite but you’ll just have to check on this, that, or the other before you can see if it’s possible.
He rolled his eyes at me.
I quickly understood the eye-roll, because where I come from we “schedule things in” with such detail and so far in advance, that spontaneous invites three hours before seem almost laughable, in the face of our regimented lives.
Against all regimented instincts, I came back at seven p.m.
What I found was a little table outside of this little book shop. There the owner chatted away, with an audience of Canadians that included a couple in their forties, and a guy doing some crazy-complicated-sounding doctorate or PhD about the seventeenth century (I am probably screwing up the title, sorry Mr. Smart-Man!). I could tell you the specialization, but then he might lose his anonymity…moving on!
So this, on day three, was the first time I’d spoken to anyone in Paris outside of a store clerk.
And three hours flew by like minutes.
The end of the first hour had its share of North American default statements like “we should really be going soon,” but the magic of Paris easily dissolved those echoes, ’til we settled into this world where human interaction isn’t rushed.
Pretty soon, the book shop became (and remains) a permanent fixture in my Paris life. The quick chats on my way to or from a jog, the delicious coffee the owner makes for his customers (not the kind of service you get back home unless you’re paying for a Starbucks!), and the memorable book shop “street parties,” that last far into the night. I’ve seen guitar performances, I’ve had wonderful discussions on writing with a successful author (whose memoir “The Traveller” I recently started reading—it’s addictive!), I’ve met cool Romanians, Swiss men, French men (don’t expect any juicy sentences to follow, I’m just describing nationalities), Americans, and some other Canadians too. Most importantly, it’s the specific kind of people I’ve met, which this book shop consistently attracts: writers, art history majors, thinkers…sometimes it feels like the shop is the center of the Renaissance period. Other times it feels like it holds the remnants of Gertrude Stein’s salon from the Lost Generation. None of us are Hemingway but we don’t even need to be, because having a place that feels even one percent like THAT when the world we’re living in is ninety-nine percent like THIS (insert any image of a Kardashian)…well that’s my version of modern-day magic.
The best part of all is that the “writer network” at Abbey Book Shop introduced me to a writers’ open mic, which happens in a basement bar once a week. If it wasn’t for finding that Canadian flag and meeting those writers, I would not be producing and presenting my writing by week four in Paris (and yes, I’m actually presenting this week!).
So how can I not believe in fate?
The irony of it all is that I DID have a book shop in mind when I arrived in Paris. It was the famous “Shakespeare and Company” (not to be confused with the original shop from the 1920′s owned by Sylvia Beach); after reading so much about it I had this highly-romanticized view of spending entire days there and connecting with so many writers…little did I know that a totally different place I’d never even heard of would end up sweeping me away instead. That’s the magic of Paris, you never know what’s around the corner.
I did eventually make it over to Shakespeare and Co, for what turned out to be a very different experience. Not a bad one by any means, but…different.
I’ll tell you about it another time,
At first my days were filled with solo touristy jaunts, quickly followed by ice-breaking meet-ups, which then gave way to follow-up encounters since I convinced people I’m normal (ha!) and conned them into being my friend (if you’re in Paris and you’re reading this, I jest, oh how I jest! Wanna hang out next week?). These plans and hangouts were not only fun but exhilarating; it was the thrill of getting to know people from diverse backgrounds, and the way it fed inspiration for the book I’m here to write.
Yes, it was great, but all of these encounters meant seven days in a row of “stuff”…so much stuff! Late bedtimes on top of late bedtimes, leaving clothes strewn about because I had to be at this place or that place, it was hectic, and I hadn’t considered that “full-time writer life” would be like that. Instead I had this stereotypical vision in my head, in which I huddle over my typewriter at a secluded log cabin, sitting out by a lake with the chirping birds as my only companions. I have no explanation for why that particular vision was my stereotype when I knew I was moving to Paris, like how many lakes are there in central Paris? Maybe I should open a map sometime, jeez. As for the typewriter, if it don’t have Wi-Fi, that shit ain’t right.
So it isn’t the solo cabin life for me, but I’m extremely grateful for the recent frenzy, because I know that in order to write you first need to live, and I’ve never felt more alive on a daily basis than here in Paris.
Today however, the frenzy went on pause, when a totally different recipe for a “writer day” developed.
It was a mellow set of tantalizing ingredients:
-One daytime encounter with a fellow human and writer, which really put my mind in the writer mood
-A café creme on a terrace where it was actually sunny (the weather has been weird here lately, and by weird, I mean absolute shit)
-Intent observation of an elderly woman (with a cruel expression she demanded cigarettes from people on the terrace, then came back around a minute later to demand even more)
-Being taken to Ernest Hemingway’s first apartment in Paris, where I felt the significance of the Lost Generation in my bones
-Casually walking along but then doing a double-take, because the winding, cobble-stoned street to my left was totally enchanting
-A “baguette tradition” that was still warm when I bought it (at six p.m.!)
-A slab of Comté fromage
-Enjoying a leisurely walk home, during which I bit into my baguette with a smile (imagine my face taking a bite of something while sporting a clown smile in a public place, plus my crazy eyes (“crazy eyes” stem from my unstable personality which was confirmed in paragraph two of this post)
Instructions for the above ingredients:
The day was not over by six p.m., but to have done so little and to have felt so inspired was a thrilling paradox. The cheese excited me the most, since it was the first time I’d bought anything other than a safe wheel of Brie or Camembert at a Fromagerie. This time I actually asked for something, tasted it, and told her how much to slice off, all in French (and I’m glad to have been tipped off about Comté by one of my French pals—merci!).
By seven p.m., with my belly full of bread and cheese an even more thrilling thing occurred:
-I put on my pajamas
The tourists on the street were still strutting around in their uncomfortable jeans, but my PJs and hoodie were on (including the hood), and I was ready to write!
All evening long the soundtrack from Drive provided the inspiration (what a great soundtrack!), as I relaxed and wrote with my horrible penmanship skills (I hope I’ll be able to read it later). The ideas are flowing and I’m almost ready for sticking the Post-It notes on my walls, the ones that’ll guide book three. I also feel ready to re-experience the emotions from the previous book, so I can bring all my characters back to life for their latest adventure.
And all it took was a whole lotta nothin’…
Or so it would seem.
In reality (if one can call this dream-like state a reality), time has taken on a very different pace here, life’s been turned topsy-turvy, and “routine” is now entirely out the window (for the first time ever in my life!)
For one thing, I feel like I’ve been here for months. Work e-mails, “office brain,” commuting, and daily trips to Starbucks seem a distant memory, in this comparatively mythical place, where time is no matter (“c’est pas grave”), where you meet people randomly, where hang-outs transpire without making plans two weeks (or even two days) in advance, and where you often end the night a lot later than you thought you would (which is why I’m so often writing until three a.m.!)
It’s a shock to an existence that used to operate on the “Death of a Salesman” clock of sameness, so shocking that every morning when I wake up, I lie in bed for twenty minutes to let myself just “think.” This thinking is an essential part of clearing out my brain, which makes room for another random day of encounters. It’s the sort of thinking that now requires sleeping with a notebook and a pen (I hope that’s not too R-rated for you!).
The notebook in bed is only a part of it; Paris is quickly bringing my “writer self” into focus, whereas before my “corporate self” was large and in charge. In fact, I can now break the news that my “corporate self” has been murdered by the city of lights, via the following combination of death blows: meeting multiple authors with very different backgrounds, being in a city that’s a huge source of inspiration, writing whenever I feel like it, and being invited to my first spoken-word “open mic” tomorrow night. I wasn’t planning on reading any of my work for the crowd on my first night out, but today I felt inspired to write about a highly-antagonizing character in the story of my life.
Annoying e-mail responses can bring that out in a writer (beware the pen of doom!).
So maybe I’ll read my writing for others or maybe I won’t; all I know is that it’s Paris, so there’s really no need to decide just yet.
In summary, it’s all very magical, isn’t it? Ahh Paris. This transformative city that has already swept me away, definitely worthy of at least another “ahh.”
But who would I be without putting things in perspective?
A dishonest writer-jerk, that’s who.
So here’s a little retrospect on Paris things I didn’t expect:
-So many people smoke over here. I’m definitely cool with people doing what they want, but I’ve inhaled more second-hand smoke in the last two weeks than I have in the last ten years, and that’s kind of a bummer.
-In some grocery stores in Paris, there are two different chip aisles in two unrelated areas of the store. Due to this layout anomaly, I didn’t find Doritos until day ten. A curse on Paris for that!
-Chip bags are so much smaller here, so it’s a mixture of shame and annoyance when I finish a whole bag in one sitting.
-There are way more male hecklers here than in Toronto, by a long-shot. This quickly became apparent whenever I combed my hair, applied my mascara and put on my skinny jeans before going out. All I had to do after that was go outside, and the complimentary-heckling would begin (“Bonjour belle fille!”). I strongly suspect it had nothing to do with my actual appearance, and everything to do with having lady parts, because I’m pretty sure they’ll heckle pretty much anyone who doesn’t have a “ding-dong” (except for maybe eunuchs—oh, by the way, I learned the term “eunuch” long before reading “Game of Thrones,” just so we’re clear). Despite the hecklers’ lack of discriminating taste, my ego finds this agreeable.
-It’s been raining for the last couple days, and I’ve noticed people looking at my ladybug-printed umbrella in an odd way. In defiance I use it even more (i.e. during light drizzles), because even though Paris has transformed me, I’ll be damned if it influences my adorable umbrella choices.
-When I buy a baguette I don’t want it to go stale, so I end up eating more bread in one day than any human should ever eat. Is there a way to buy half-baguettes? I’ll need to inquire with my heavily-Canadian-anglophone-accented-French (so I’ve been told) the next time I’m in a boulangerie.
Looking back at the post title now, I feel assured that it was timely and appropriate to do a retrospect (like how could I NOT talk about the Doritos thing?!)
I’ll get back to specific topics next time, and future installments will include:
-My experience at the Shakespeare and Company book store
-My range of experiences at the Canadian-owned Abbey Book Shop, which without even trying is drawing its share of thinkers and writers (I have a very strong feeling that my book about my time in Paris will have a lot to do with this place)
-Paris by night
-Open mic night for writers in Paris
-Progress on book 3 in the “Year of the Chick” series (that one’s fiction)