Sunday, October 23, 2011

Paris - Toute Seule?

I can tell you unequivocally that being alone in Paris can suck.

I realized this when I visited Paris for the first time. After a rough start, I had finally fallen in love with Paris and was racing around the city trying to see everything listed in my Lonely Planet guidebook in less than five days. On one of these days I found myself standing in line outside at 79 rue de Varenne, home of Musée Rodin. It was mid-February, windy and pouring freezing rain. Waiting to get in, I stood huddled against the building in my black knee-length, down puffy coat - styled after a Canadian Tire sleeping bag – and felt my shoes fill with ice water. In front of me, a couple, so obviously French, merged into one, the man sheltering his girlfriend’s body with his own, whispering mots d’amour to her the whole time. There wasn’t even enough space between them to slip my Paris Museum Pass. Oblivious to the weather, oblivious to anything but each other, they were the antithesis of being alone. I remember feeling an absolute crushing loneliness and I vowed one day to return to Paris with My Love.

I have been lucky since then to return to Paris four times with Chris and each time we have seen versions of this French couple all over the city. Everywhere from the predictably romantic - la tour Eiffel, the arc at Pont Alexandre III - to the less so –on a bench in an unnamed park surrounded by dirty, one-legged pigeons, an alley just off the Louis Vuitton store at 6 Place Saint-Germain des Près. Though cliché, Paris is incredibly, intoxicatingly, overwhelmingly romantic and there is nothing better than exploring its streets with the one you love.

And yet I am considering Paris on my own.

While in Paris a few weeks ago, Chris and I visited the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP). We were there at my doing. Last winter, while not writing and wasting precious time dreaming about Paris, I had Google-ed the phrase “Masters Programs in Paris about Paris” and ULIP was one of the first web sites that came up. ULIP offers an MA in Paris Studies – History and Culture. It is a one-year program, taught in English, and at the end of the year you write a dissertation about a chosen aspect of Parisian history or culture. The more I read about it, the more excited I got, and the more I felt like this was the Master program I had been hoping to find.

The meeting at ULIP was incredible. We took a campus tour (Yes, there are la Tour Eiffel views from some of the classrooms!) led by a former Ottawa native who only had great and encouraging things to say about being a Canadian in Paris. In so many ways, it was the kind of first-hand information that we had been waiting to hear. Yes, living in Paris is possible! No, you don’t have to speak flawless French! And yes, Paris is a wonderful city to live!

Now, the only difficult thing about pursuing my Masters at ULIP (the cost of the program aside) is that I would make the initial move to Paris alone. While this prospective move is several years away, the idea of living alone in Paris scares me to death. Me. Alone in Paris. For nearly an entire year.

Chris and I started our relationship with distance. In the beginning distance ruled and we were constantly trying to find ways to overcome it. When I went to Paris the first time, I spent a significant amount of my trip squished into a phone booth, making expensive, tearful calls to Chris, trying inadequately to describe not just what I felt for him but also what I felt for Paris. I am terrified of making those calls again. I am terrified that I will spend a year in Pars living what I know to be true and hate to admit: Paris, the experience of being in Paris, means nothing. Nothing without Chris.

However, I have always believed, long before I went to Paris, that I would one day live there. Now had I been more ambitious to pursue an opportunity like ULIP in my twenties, I would have left Victoria without a backward glance or a return ticket. But that was all before I met and fell in love with Chris. Most of what I have accomplished and most of what I am proud of, is because of Chris’ selflessness and unwavering support. It is hard for me to imagine pursuing, much less achieving, my Masters degree 7,915km away from Chris.

From a practical perspective, there are many reasons that it makes sense for me to go alone. First, a year, as Chris says and many people will now inevitably tell me, is not really that long. Second, Chris will visit me a lot, even if I will be living in 150 square foot student apartment and sleeping on a single bed. Most importantly though, me going to Paris alone, in the relatively risk-free life of a student, will give me time to research a permanent Paris while still keeping hold of our comfortable life in Victoria. At the end my studies, I will know whether we could have a life in Paris.

I guess what is comes down to is that my reason for wanting to stay is the same reason I should be brave enough to go. Chris. After so many years together, whatever I have dreamed, including Paris, he has not only supported but embraced. With Chris my dreams become realities and I know deep down that I will be able to conquer Paris toute seule.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Ma Rentrée

Early September in France is known as “la rentrée”. It’s the time when every one returns to the business of work and school after summer holidays. For me personally, la rentrée are the weeks immediately following another blissful September spent in Paris, aka ma rentrée.

Ma rentrée began with some misplaced luggage, a $60 cab ride from the airport, $240 worth of dry cleaning, and two days of serious jet lag. My first Saturday home saw me head to Starbucks at 6 a.m. “dressed” in black sweatpants and chocolate brown Uggs, my short unwashed hair rammed under a hot pink togue. On Sunday, I got dressed Paris-style for an early morning grocery shop only to be confronted by a head of rainbow dreadlocks and a sea of plastic footwear (Hunters, Crocs and Tevas!). I felt stunned and garish. I sent Chris a text from the car, “It’s too soon…”

Several weeks later and ma rentrée is somewhat less traumatic. Fall is a beautiful time of year in Victoria and there are so many things I love about it, including the chance to wear all my new fall clothes bought in Paris! Fall is also Chris’ and mine anniversary, it’s Thanksgiving dinner, and it’s riding Countess around Elk Lake under a brilliant canopy of oranges and reds. Fall makes me feel excited for new possibilities including a life with more Paris.

Last September when we were in Paris, I kept a daily diary of almost everything we did and almost everywhere we went. I wrote this year as well but it was significantly different as Chris and I spent a lot less time “doing” and a lot more time just being in Paris. There was a change in both of us and I felt it in everything from the speed at which we walked to our complete lack of itinerary. It was not something we discussed beforehand but the change was profound and it affected how we ultimately felt about Paris. At the end of the trip, we both felt like it was the start of what our lives could be like in Paris.

However, getting to Paris this year was emotionally draining. It wasn’t until Chris and I were on the plane that I could start to relax and think objectively about this past year and what it took to get us one step closer to our dream…

Sunday, September 11, 2011, British Airways flight to Paris (via London)

There is no better feeling than being on a plane bound for Paris.

I feel guilty though because I wasted the better part of this past year waiting for Paris. In a lot of ways, I feel like I accomplished nothing. I have gone from being a woman who obsessively records her exercise minutes and writes a detailed list of her five year goals to being a woman who just wants to hit the snooze button and dream about Paris.

I have no one to blame but myself. The absolute worst thing about this past year is I didn’t write. I wrote my Blog, though not frequently, but I didn’t even come close to fulfilling the promise I made on my 34th birthday. I was going to have a book drafted by the time I turned 35. My 35th birthday is less than three months away and all I have is an outline that even I don’t find interesting. My Blog is over 50,000 words and there are those kind readers (and not just family!) that say it “would make a good book”. Well if the publishers of Julie and Julia at Little, Brown and Company ever happen upon it, please feel free to contact me.

But Paris isn’t nothing…

The most difficult part of this past year has been feeling me, and Chris, withdraw into our separate ways of missing Paris. At different times this has made us distant, cranky and downright miserable depending on our respective moods. I think partially because we both feel somewhat ridiculous admitting just how much we miss Paris. We know that missing Paris is not a real problem and I think we both fight against being perceived as the-couple-who-travels-to-Paris-every-year-but-it-still-isn’t-enough. Poor us!

We both know that as strange as it may seem to other people, and to even our families, that Paris has become such a presence, such a power and such a personality in our life together that we are coming to the point where Paris can’t be ignored. We have to consider the impact that not being there full-time, or at the very least actively working towards our goal of full-time Paris, is having on our life in Victoria. It’s scary because embracing Paris from this place deep in our hearts will likely result in substantial change.

I am often frustrated because I feel paralyzed by the weight of Paris. Sometimes I feel as though I am being held hostage by a dream that will never come true. Decisions, financial and otherwise, are measured against whether or not it helps us achieve Paris. It is a struggle to find a middle ground between living a full life in Victoria and planning for our eventual life, including our yearly pilgrimages, to Paris. There have been so many times in this past year when I have felt like giving in and embracing the life we could have in Victoria. We could buy a two bedroom, two bathroom, new construction condo in the suburbs and fill it with designer furniture. I could learn how to cook and we could throw dinner parties for other couples. Their children would be welcome in our house (Aunty Erin!) and we would talk about camping and Costco. I bet we would be happy for about six months.

We are nearly there now. The plane is starting its descent which always prompts me to ask Chris, “Is the plane ok?” Soon we will negotiate Heathrow, undress for security and eat our traditional Heathrow lunch of Pret a Manger tuna sandwiches. In less than five hours we will be in Paris. I am ready for the wait to be over. I am ready to be overcome by Paris.