It’s 7:54 a.m. as the sluggish commuter train clunks and wrenches me out of the capital’s buzzing nucleus and into the sprawling suburbs, shattering any early morning reveries. Away from my adopted home, where 35m² of floor space suffices for three individuals, the nearest supermarket is a one mile stone fling away and 5€ is the going rate for a mediocre chocolat chaud.
For nine months, I found myself wrapped up like a battery hen, living and working, in this idyllic unreality - undoubtedly the most beautiful city in the world - where people live in impossible confinement and nothing comes for free.
At first, being a young person living in a bustling, foreign city is like being party to a dream, an onlooker, who is unable to participate. You find yourself rendered to an infantile state before you could speak – suddenly, startlingly voiceless; desperately urging yourself to pitch into a conversation, but the effort is futile when you don’t have the vocal fluidity of a native.
It is comparable to an underwater experience that chokes, stifles and steals your voice meanwhile you dream of resurfacing to breathe the same air as everyone else. Initially, the background chatter is white noise, a loud silence to unaccustomed ears, which I subconsciously blanked out until gradually it started to make sense as my ears fine tuned the new words and phrases.
As the days were penned off on my calendar, I began to develop my voice, albeit a slow and painful progress. I became aware of the pleasure that comes with the ability to communicate in a foreign tongue; an overwhelming sense of achievement flooding me with every painstakingly crafted and mastered phrase. I enjoyed trying out new things and surprised myself when they were met with understanding and response.
With this acquisition of a voice came a gradual acclimatisation to my foreign milieu, the ways and customs so different from the country in which I grew up. Having never lived in a place of more than 70,000 inhabitants, a capital city was daunting and alien. However, despite the 384 miles of rock and water that separated me from home, there were aspects of the city that I grew to love to hate, and hate to love. I came to find their irritating behaviour amusing and endearing, preferring the food they eat and taking up their unusual habits. I found myself greeting strangers in the street with a familiar “good morning” or an over-gracious “you’re very welcome”.
Yet, despite moments of wanting to flee the chaos of this magical city, I always felt a magnetic pull drawing me back to my adopted home and an overwhelming sense of ‘welcome back’ every time I stepped off the plane after a sporadic return trip to England. The difficulties and challenges I faced in my professional life here were reconciled by the enjoyable times I spent among friends, the positive experiences I faced and my bond with the city and its language.
To me, it will always smell like the gut-churning sulphuric iron of the RER and second-hand cigarette smoke; taste like warm, buttery croissants and mouth-wateringly bitter coffee; look like fur-festooned women, black ornate railings and impeccably smooth vanilla stone. A backing track formed from the calm hubbub of the day-to-day and punctuated by the odd comical siren or the provocative rev of a sleek moped. I find there’s an addictive electricity about the city of light that makes it feel good to be alive; an exciting, life-changing opportunity waiting around every cobalt blue-signposted street corner. A chance celebrity meeting, an opportunity to attend an industry-only show or a lingering glance from a stranger that leads to romance.
Each day, I glutted on the visual feast that was laid out for my aesthetically sheltered eyes; the impossible beauty of the city, its people and its art. I soaked up its magical history and secrets, revealed through the stories it told in my day-to-day life. A beautiful building with its history engraved on the door, the booksellers that take up their positions every day beside the river or the buskers and bohemian artists that could be centuries old.
And step by baby-like step, as though cured of deafness or blindness, I understood, communicated and lived. My memory of the year spent as a foreigner in this city is an eclectic patchwork of experiences, snapshots of moments in time, a beautiful jigsaw that came together at the end with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.
This city will always have a hold over me, like an item I’ll never let myself throw away, an addiction I’ll always fail to give up, a friend I’ll refuse to say goodbye to or a love I’ll never be able to let go of. After all, Paris, je t’aime…
(This is a piece I wrote for the Vogue Talent Contest.)