By Boo Flynn, Staff Writer
I spent this past summer telling everyone who would listen that I was going to Paris for a semester.† I loved to hear them tell me I would have the time of my life, that Paris is the best city in the world, and I would smile and tell them, “I know.”
By the time I was ready to leave, I had constructed a mental image of Paris that fit with these reactions and looking back on that makes me realize how much I learned from my experience.
On my first day in the city, I was in a state of awe.† Everything was exactly how I had imagined it.† I took the Metro to Notre Dame and stood beneath the towering cathedral, watching couples taking pictures together, children feeding flocks of pigeons and tour boats floating along the Seine River.
The people were beautiful and well dressed.† Just like in the movies, they took to the streets in stylish pea coats, scarves, and Oxford shoes.† Almost every woman had a Longchamp purse, and many of the men did too.
Walking through the streets in Paris, there were bakeries every few feet selling pain au chocolat for a euro. Just before dinnertime, Parisians flocked to the bakeries to buy their staple food: baguettes.
It was common to see Parisians riding their bikes in the street with baguettes under one arm or sticking out of their bags.† Add a striped shirt and an extravagant moustache, and they would be the living versions of American-constructed stereotypes.
On that first day, everything was exactly as I had imagined, and the experience was surreal.
Gradually, though, as I had time to explore the city, the image I had of Paris changed.† Now, tourist attractions like Notre Dame became places to avoid, because they were crowded by loud tour groups and beggars holding puppies to attract a passer-by who might have pocket-change.
The places that at first had captivated me no longer held their influence over me.
What I remember most vividly during this time was navigating the Metro system as if on autopilot.
Avoid the Ch‚telet stop, where it’s always crowded.† If a Metro car looks full, push a little harder and space will clear for you.† Hold on to something to keep your balance.† Keep to yourself, and don’t stare at the other passengers.
As strange as it may seem, I came to love riding the Metro. I felt at ease on the Metro, and I loved the feeling of being able to go anywhere I wanted.
I also came to love the feeling of anonymity as I traveled through the city. After a summer full of encouraging smiles from everyone I told about my trip, I think I expected Paris to welcome me with the same enthusiasm.
As one of my professors told me, though, smiles are a rare thing on the streets of Paris.† “Don’t smile at a boy or he will follow you home,” she warned me.
It was hard to suppress the urge to give someone a friendly smile on the street, but soon I was able to put on my “don’t bother me” face without even thinking.† I even found myself getting annoyed at those people who made eye contact with me.
When people ask me about my semester in Paris, I give them a big smile and tell them how amazing and insightful it was.
I might add that I could see the Eiffel Tower from the window of my apartment and that I ate baguette and cheese with dinner each night.
My accounts of my experience are always romanticized and support the image of Paris that I had developed the summer before I left.
I don’t know why I find myself reverting to this previous conception when I talk about Paris. Maybe it’s easier to explain this side of Paris to people, or maybe I think that’s what they want to hear.
To be honest, though, the Paris that I fell in love with was the one that I had no idea I would find.