Allow me to disabuse you: being broke in Paris is not romantic.
When you look at your bank account and the euros in your wallet and realize you cannot make rent and still eat, there is nothing romantic about it. When you wander around the streets for hours on end in search of nowhere in particular, just because you have nowhere to go, and you can feel neither your fingers nor your toes nor your nose, and you gaze through the cafés frosty windows and imagine how warm it must be inside, but know you shouldn’t spend even a euro-ninety on an espresso, that is not romantic. When you walk into a pole on such a walk because you were looking up, trying to enjoy at least the architecture in this famously beautiful city that you love that is its signature monochromatic grey in the depths of winter, and you burst into tears, you’re not just crying because your face hurts. When you go for a nighttime walk with your flatmate after another sad Greek salad dinner – at least it was accompanied by a fresh baguette, which makes everything better – you peer into each bustling bistro and brasserie you pass and discuss all the places you’re going to go when you have money. When you run out of salad fixings and can’t take lunch to work, you wander around the cheap grocery store – no Monoprix for you – just to look at everything before you return to the refrigerated section in the front and get the carrottes râpées (grated carrots in vinaigrette) for two euros, again.
I’ve been reading a bunch of articles lately about Americans romanticizing Paris and the French, and why that is, and so on and so forth. As an American francophile, I have always wanted to believe that I am different, that my love for Paris is pure and unadulterated by my culture, but I know that would be silly to truly believe. We are all products of our culture, much as we would like to imagine that every thought and desire we have is unique and individual.
But I think the difference is that I discovered, years ago, on a hammock in the idyllic backwaters of Kerala, that I can be unhappy or happy nearly anywhere, and a place is just a place. It sounds cliché, I know, but I took that lesson with me to Paris, the time that I was so painfully broke, when I wrote some truly depressing – and depressed – posts here.
And I was miserable there some of the time. I could be miserable in Paris, a city I loved (and still do) so desperately and passionately that I would move there knowing I barely had enough money to survive. I woke up and cried more mornings than I would like to count, often in beds in other people’s apartments, people who were kind enough to let us stay until their landlords realized they had extra people staying and got angry, or until it just became too cramped for everyone to bear. I knew I’d made a mistake, but there was no going back now.
In the end, it wasn’t a mistake. I learned as much about myself in those months as I did in my months on the road. And I learned how desperately not romantic Paris can be. Paris is just a city. A beautiful, well-preserved, historic, cultural city, but also a horrifically expensive, cruel, cold, and unwelcoming one. And the one magnifies the other – the more miserable I was in the morning, the more ecstatic I was in the evening with friends as we sat around drinking a two-euro bottle of wine in the apartment we finally found, a studio up to three of us lived in at one time.
The problem, of course, with all of this, is that any story I tell will sound romantic to someone who daydreams of Paris, who read as much Hemingway as I have, who skips into the city on weeklong trips and just wants to wander around and nibble fresh baguettes. I don’t know how to convey to you that it’s not. But just remember, when you read this and sigh and wish you, too, could be a starving artist in Paris, that I am waving my arms in protest.