The fireworks over the Eiffel Tower never came, but we drank Champagne on the street anyway. It was our second day, and Paris had yet to kick us in the balls, knock us down, make us cry, and then take our chins and turn them skywards towards the cold emerging sun. City of Lights indeed, and we didn't know it was going to eat us alive.
We came as a loosely knit group of American law students: some spoke a bit of French, some had lived abroad, some had girlfriends waiting at home and others were still drying their tears over failures in the U.S. We all had our reasons to be there, though what exactly those reasons were was apparent to nobody else, and sometimes not even to ourselves. All we knew was that it was 10 p.m. and we were huddled, slightly lost, in a café on Rue Mouffetard eating baguette and brie because that's what French people do.
So began our French misadventure, which started nobly with planned visits to the Louvre and ended, as one of us aptly put it, "in a haze of wine, smoke and ATM withdrawals."
We were decadent, hedonistic and careless. We were about to graduate Columbia Law School, ready to start high paying corporate jobs, and our sense of vertigo made us want to screw with the sure bets.
After all, we only live one life, and that which occurs in life occurs only once and never again. And so we did things "once"; only once became twice, and then weekly and then every day. Paris had taken over. Moderation had flown the coop and our lives had become lovely and empty all at once. I don't think we minded, though: it was only three months, followed by grueling bar exam preparation and then by work... forever.
We were technically there to study, but class wasn't really on our radar. We attended sometimes, and listened rarely. Our professors were probably frustrated with us, but somehow our bunch of type-A overachievers could not muster the energy to care. We traveled as much as we could, until our funds ran dry and then we would hang out in Bastille or the Marais or the Latin Quarter, drinking 3.50€ wine, until we conjured more funds to travel some more.
Some places became ours: the Belle Hortense wine bar in the 4th; Tortilla 10 in the 11th; Café Oz on Grands Blvds (or rather Corcorans, the pub across the street we'd end up at after refusing to wait in line at Oz).
We were amused and appalled at French rudeness and bureaucracy. "Grosier" (rude) and "Ce n'est pas possible" (It is impossible) became our catch phrases and we'd rally back and forth to each other in mock French accents. We became used to being lost, confused and told contradictory information. When I opened a French bank account, my ATM card took 10 weeks to arrive. "C'est normal?" Probably not, but we rolled with it...
We learned to cook on hot plates, learned to pay 7€ ($10) for laundry, learned to pick out stinky cheese and wear scarves (some of us more than others). In fact, we learned to adopt to a culture shock stronger than anything we had experienced when traveling to East Africa, Japan, South America or Southeast Asia.
We also all slowed down. We were on the outside, looking in on a city that bustled around us without ever actually making contact. Our actions mattered not at all here, and we had nowhere in particular to be. So we were content to do nothing and drink our coffee and watch life go by.
In the end, it seems that Paris and I have come to an understanding. This city has given me some of my lowest lows (in my first 2 weeks I got kicked out of my apartment, mugged, assaulted by a bum with a pitbull and followed home by a lunatic). But there were also some moderate highs (mostly revolving around red wine and good company, smoking cigarettes out of my bedroom window). My friends, who are used to seeing my emotions range from disinterested and mildly amused, have seen me add a few stronger specimens to the list: terror, distress, fury, infatuation... I blame Paris.
I've accepted that I'm more anglophile than Francophile, and I'm cool with that. I'm ashamed to say that my French has actually gotten worse, though my taste in wine has gotten better.
I'm looking forward to returning to the familiar and the logical: to a world where I have control. Still, I'm glad for the three month unplug that was Paris.
"Paris, je t'aime" is a bit much for me. Love is still reserved for New York. But, what I can say is this: "Paris, tu me confonds, tu m'enchantes."
I won't be back soon, but I will be back.