One of my favorite shirts is a tank top with a broken heart and the phrase “Paris is overrated” on the front. It’s one of those hipster racer backs I picked up at Urban Outfitters a few years ago, and every time I wear it, without fail, someone comments on it. “So you don’t like Paris?” They ask. “Bad experience?” I smile and shake my head. “No, no, quite the opposite. It’s a rather poor attempt at irony, you see, because Paris is my favorite city in the world. But… she always breaks my heart.”
I first fell in love with Paris when I was 14. My mom took me on a tour of France the year before I started high school, and it remains one of my most cherished memories of our relationship. So many of my passions in life can be attributed to her- art, reading, movies, food – and on this three week trip she transferred her lifelong love affair with France to me. The Musee d’Orsay, Versailles, the Eiffel Tower, prix fixe lunch menus, cathedrals and chateaus- she squeezed as much in those few weeks as possible. I fell for the country quickly, of course, being at that age where the heart longs to know more than it can yet understand. But it was a kind of puppy love, the love of a burgeoning adolescent still much too unsure of her own self to truly appreciate the beauty and depth of another.
It wasn’t until a decade later when I chose to do a summer session in Paris that I really fell head over heels in love with Paris. After my grandfather passed, he’d left his grandchildren a tidy little sum of money, and I wanted to do something special with it, something I would always remember, rather than paying rent or grocery bills (also important, but not quite the tribute I had in mind.) I had always wanted to study abroad in France, as my mom had, and I needed the language credit to graduate UCLA. It all seemed to line up perfectly, and so with no hesitation I booked the French class and my flight. It was the best decision I ever made.
It’s almost impossible for me to describe those two months in 2010, living in the 15th arrondissement with Lara Dvorak, one of my female soulmates. It was a kind of extended joy I’d never known, a restless excitement that never seemed to dull. The closest thing I’d felt to it was my first real boyfriend in adulthood. The romance, the sensuality, the heightened reality, the late nights and blissful mornings. It was the type of high one had to eventually crash from. I couldn’t believe people actually lived in Paris, spent there whole lives walking her streets, breathing in her energy. Did they look at her the way I did, with fresh hungry eyes? Or had the relationship evolved, moved past the lust and the dizzying thrill of the new and into something deeper, or more settled, or, God forbid, complacent? I wanted to know what happened after the honeymoon period was over, but I didn’t get the chance. My last day approached right around the time you say “I love you” and mean it. I cried the entire way to Charles de Gaulle, staring out the window of the RER, my heart in pieces. I’ll be back, I tried to comfort myself, it’s not over.
As I write this, four years after that summer, I feel the same heartache again, having just left the city of lights. Like my last visit in 2011, our time together this go-around was painfully short. Four full days, five wine filled nights. I didn’t try to cram everything in as I had done in London a few weeks prior, but rather, having learned from that experience, enjoyed the city with a more relaxed patience. That’s not to say I didn’t maximize my time, but instead of trying to see everything in the Louvre in two hours, I meandered through one wing slowly, maybe even just a room. It was the gentle, meaningful kiss, not the hurried, sloppy deed, performed like a chore.
And what a kiss it was. I’d almost forgotten how it felt to be embraced by Paris, wrapped in her beauty, her taste, her smell, the scent of freshly baked bread curling through the streets on my morning runs. I savored every bite of tuna tartar, beef filet, macaroon, warm chocolate cake, baked goat cheese. I found respite in the cozy spaces, the restaurants and bars with ten seats, the antique shops barely large enough to fit a trio of trim girls, every inch covered in hats and shoes and purses telling a thousand stories. It’s not that I don’t appreciate wide open spaces and large homes and yards and vast dining halls that don’t require a reservation, but there’s something about the scale of Paris that really registers with me. There’s a reason I’ve lived in my tiny Hollywood cottage built in 1919 for 8 years. I like things small and intimate and full of history and character. In Los Angeles so much feels transient, here one day and gone the next. But in Paris there’s a sense of permanence I find profoundly comforting. History adding to itself instead of subtracting. Even the night clubs can last for decades, enjoying fresh permutations like the famous Raspoutine.
And then of course, there’s the art. During that first summer of love I had made an effort to visit a museum a day, and had nearly succeeded in my goal. This time around I made no such attempt, spending just a few hours on a rainy afternoon in the D’Orsay, but one need not visit a museum to experience art in Paris. All you have to do is step outside. Every street, every park, every way you turn you are bombarded with the artistic spirit. It’s almost too much, like that unbearable moment right before release. The little death. Perhaps this is what I love most about the city, why I fell in love in the first place. Truth, beauty, creativity – these things take time to develop, to build up, and Paris has been working on it for centuries. She is a master, and I a willing apprentice, wanting desperately to learn from her.
Riding the train to the airport this morning, I cried once more, overcome by sadness and longing. I didn’t want it to end, I wasn’t ready for the breakup. I needed more time, there was still so much to do, to feel, to experience. Why did it have to be over already? And then I realized, it didn’t have to be. Yes, I would be boarding my plane in a few hours. Yes, I needed to get back to Los Angeles for work and for other reasons. But it wasn’t actually the end, the affair wasn’t actually over. Unlike the on again off again lover who may eventually leave forever, Paris isn’t going anywhere. In fact, she is waiting for me, ready to take me in when I am finally ready. It’s up to me to someday make the commitment and put together the pieces of that broken heart.