You can never return to another time in your life. Not the way you imagined it, not the way you hoped. Most of you probably have memories in which you were a different person, living a life unrecognizable from your current path. It’s not bad, it’s not good, it just is, and I believe our waves of nostalgia depend on how happy we are with our current circumstances.
And every once in a while, you need to give yourself time. Time to breathe, to move on, and reestablish balance in your life before flinging yourself towards a future you wish resembled the past.
And if a physical place represents a certain time – a collection of emotions and experiences – returning to that place could disappoint you.
For me, that place is Paris, my former home. I’ve missed Paris since June 6th, the day I landed in the Chicago O’Hare airport, uncertain of what would come next.
I’ve missed indulging in a 4 euro bouteille de vin. I’ve missed wandering through unexplored corners of the arrondissements, alongside Belleville street art, or beneath the shade of perfectly arranged flowerpots. I’ve missed the mosaic of art and culture and life and music – the face of Paris.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that when I left Paris a year ago, I had no direction. Nothing but a vague dream of writing and living in Europe. No idea where to go, what to do, how to feel – the life I understood ceased to exist, and I was left searching for something I didn’t understand.
For most of this past year, any desire to live in Paris directly correlated with a nostalgia for the previous year.
So when I moved to Scotland, I specifically chose not to travel to France. I could have. It was an option. And yet, even without admitting it, without acknowledging that I would rather live in the past, I knew myself well enough to wait – to hold off on a return trip until I had truly left the previous year behind me.
For a brief few months in Scotland, my French dreams faded into the background noise of my life, replaced by unpredictable Scottish winds, valleys of blooming heather, and drives along the North Sea, or towards swirling lochs.
But lately, I’ve been dreaming of Paris again. My complicated love affair with the French has guided my decisions, shaped the trajectory of my life. And while nibbling on a croque madame, sipping wine, and watching Paris, Je T’aime the other night, I realized my desire to return to France had returned with such force, I was left feeling winded.
I can’t quite say what my future travels have in store for me; apart from dividing my time between Edinburgh and London next year, I have no idea where I’ll end up. Greece at some point. Jordan, certainly. But Paris – that will be my first trip.
Because finally, since June 6th when I left the dazzling city, I’m ready to go back and have an entirely new experience.
Why exactly do I need to return to Paris? Here’s a sampling of reasons, though truthfully, the list is endless.
Pastries (and all the food)
Many of my favorite memories in Paris involve food. I remember stopping for kebabs after a late night of drinking, nibbling on birthday croissants and pastries in the lazy Parisian sunlight, and indulging in red wine and rich coq au vin sometime after midnight, watching the Eiffel Tower dazzle tourists underneath a quiet balcony.
I’ve already written about where to eat in Paris, but more than the food itself, dining in France (and Paris) is a true experience.
Understanding history, walking among vestiges of the past, has always mattered to me. I’ve read more history books about France than I should publicly admit, and bother all my travel companions when I stop to read each and every museum plaque. All of Europe caters to my long-held fascination with the Middle Ages, but I’ve been addicted to the tales and poems of France for as long as I can remember.
Just kidding. Love can be really complicated in a place as romanticized as Paris, but there is a certain amount of passion imbued in every moment. Sometimes, the emotions can overwhelm and suffocate you, but when taken in small doses, loving someone in Paris, or simply loving Paris, can be the most wonderful feeling in the world.
The art of doing nothing
I miss the carefree, careless existence Paris offered. The art of doing nothing. I may not have felt carefree and careless every day, but there’s something seductive about living in a place that allows you to lounge in the sun, drinking rosé with your friends for hours upon hours.
Even at school, the teachers would indulge in “récré” smokes, or complete lunchtime meals of home-cooked pasta and fresh baguettes, washed down with glasses of wine. I remember marveling at the novelty of it all. We have a 15 minute break? The kids will be fine, let’s all drink our espressos. Protest today? That’s okay, we’ll just shut down school.
For the first time in years, I just…breathed. Granted, my life in Paris was far from easy or simple, but I finally embraced the side of myself desperate for a structureless existence.
One of my last nights, I met up with some people for drinks along the banks of the Seine. My mind was lost somewhere, detached from the conversation, when one of the girls turned to me, her cigarette smoke blowing in the wind. “These will be the nights you remember,” she declared. “The Paris nights, you know?”
The Paris nights. At the time, the spring air hadn’t quite lost the crisp unpleasantness of winter, so we huddled in our jackets, pretending we were warm.
My close friends had stayed home, and I barely knew the girl speaking to me, bathing me in smoke. So it was with a vague smile that I agreed, curling up closer into my jacket, warming my fingers in my scarf.
Living there, I felt like I understood Paris. I understood that the glittering lights could only momentary alleviate your worries. That the Champs Élysées was nothing but a crowded, vast street most Parisians avoided at all costs. I understood that in order to make it from my teaching job to my au pair job, I needed to quite literally sprint the 15 minutes from the elementary school to the train station every day. (It seemed fine in the beginning. Logistics have never been my forte).
I understood the complexities of Paris. Of romanticizing a place. Nothing more than a place, nothing more than a time, nothing more than an age, and a piece of life.
But that doesn’t mean I didn’t love it. That doesn’t mean I didn’t fall in love with Paris, and sob the entire way home.
I hope I can go back now, with different expectations, but a profound appreciation for the city I once called home.
Living in Paris wasn’t easy. But that girl was right. We could just…lounge by this ancient, beautiful, winding river with the rest of the Parisians, drinking away the night, as if immortalized in a painting. Even with morning jobs and deadlines, the pressures of my American existence lifted, floated away. Paris allows people to just “be.” To exist, and find love and life in that alone.
Now, in my mind, I’m exploring Paris once more, but this time, I’m picturing adventures to come. Experiences I haven’t yet had. Food I haven’t yet tasted, people I have never met.
For the first time since June 6th, I’m ready to return to France.
Who’s with me?