Europe Narratives Study Abroad

The Details that Make a Life

Story and Photo by Caitriona Keane, Study Abroad

Ever since I was young, I’ve dreamed of Paris. I was a certified Francophile; in middle school I eagerly began my French classes, read as much as I could about the “City of Lights” and imagined myself walking along the famous lamp-lined bridges of the Seine. When I set off to study at Sciences Po this past spring, I was unsure of what to expect. I knew the Paris of my childhood daydreams would be different than the vibrant, modern and global city. I was excited to live in a different country, to put my French skills to the test and to study politics in the halls where many a French president once walked. After landing at Charles De Gaulle, I set out to visit places I had only read about, which at times, seemed surreal. I climbed the Eiffel Tower, gazing out onto the city from a bird’s-eye view as my knees shook, half in wonder and half with a case of mild acrophobia. At the Musée d’Orsay, I studied the swirling blue brushstrokes of Van Gogh’s self portrait, calm against his famous red hair, just as I had once analyzed in my Art History class. I walked the cobblestone streets of Montmartre and climbed all the way to the Sacré Cœur, where the buildings below were wrapped in a cold January morning mist. I was still in the process of checking off my list of “must-sees” when the pandemic forced me to pack my bags and return home with less than 48-hours’ notice. It seemed some of my dreams of Paris would have to wait a little longer.

Between the exciting days of making acquaintance with my new home and all it had to offer were often days of stress and uncertainty. As the weeks went on, the specter of COVID-19 loomed larger and larger as the virus seemed to inch closer to Paris. After the first outbreak emerged in Italy, where my roommate had visited only a week prior, I was forced to quarantine at home and missed a week of classes. Within my apartment, we began tracking the number of cases in France, unsure of whether we too would be sent home like our friends in Italy. And finally, the other shoe dropped; within days we were to return home, Sciences Po would transition online and the very day I left, Macron announced the first confinement. On my last day in Paris, I finally stopped in the bookshop I had passed on my daily walk to campus in St-Germain-des-Prés, disappointed I only had time for a hurried stop between packing my suitcases, rather than the leisurely browse I had envisioned. Yet as I rode the metro back to the 14 arrondissement one last time, I must admit I also felt relief. 

Reflecting on my life in Paris now, it’s funny what stands out. Being home in New York these past few months has made me think about how my life shifted so suddenly. When moving to a new city, it takes time to understand its character, adjust to its quirks and uncover its secrets. It takes time to build a life somewhere. When I arrived in Paris, despite its magic, I was overcome with uncertainty, and at times, I found myself wishing for the simple familiarity of going through my daily routine unthinkingly. Yet slowly, day by day, detail by detail, I built my life. I learned new words for things I’d never come across in my French classes (arugula, la roquette). I figured out how to use the tricky handles to open the doors on Metro Line 12. I sampled different boulangeries on my daily walk home and quickly found my neighborhood’s best. I learned how to order my favorite bread; “une tradi, s’il vous plaît.” I began leaving my eggs out on the counter like the French do. I got used to the different wail the ambulance made as it drove by. I started to have a life in Paris, instead of just feeling like a tourist who had outstayed their welcome. Then suddenly, I was back in New York, in the house where I grew up, while my new home was under lockdown.

I hope to return to Paris eventually, to finish ticking off the boxes on my list of Parisian wonders I imagined when I was 12. One day, I hope to marvel at the jeweled light of the Saint Chappelle’s stained-glass windows and gaze upon the masterpieces in the Louvre. I am sure the Paris I left, still relatively unchanged by the pandemic, will not be the same one that will greet me in the future. The city, like much of the world, will be marked by a new normal in the wake of its ordeal. Through its loss, unrest and adaptations there will be new uncertainties, new struggles and, yes, new beauties. Yet I will return to Paris as an old friend; still unfamiliar with all of its idiosyncrasies and contradictions, yet aware of little details that make it what it is. I will recognize the roar of motorcycles and savor the taste of my still-steaming crêpe de sucre et cannelle with a fondness, a reminder of the time when, for a brief moment, my life belonged in Paris.

Photo by Caitriona Keane
Photo by Caitriona Keane

The story is featured in VOL 5 ISSUE 2 Fall 2020 (Print Edition)

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