A Move to Paris Brought an Unexpected Refuge
A sliver of sunshine made its way through the gap between my curtains, and I was roused out of my morning snooze. My daily sojourn through guilt about sleeping in unfolded as I lamented the hour, 10:30am. I had been up earlier, 6:30, to feed my cat, Ruby. But, unlike in Brooklyn, where glimmers of the morning sun show themselves at that hour, in Paris, the sky is still dark. So, after Ruby is fed, I usually steal a few more hours of sleep under the lingering twilight.
Waking up to darkness was just one of the many details of life in Paris that I did not anticipate. My life as an educator and a mother had always been defined by the early morning hustle of pre-work CrossFit workouts, breakfast smoothies, and reminders to brush teeth. Now, free of the demands of parenting and a boss, I still struggle to accept the liberty of my life in this glorious city. It’s a crazy blend of incredulity, amazement, and gratitude as I try to comprehend this reality of my life.
On this particular morning, I have an errand to run to pick up some cookies that my son, Emmanuel, had ordered for my birthday. It’s been almost three years since he went to live with his father for what was supposed to be “my year on Mombbatical.” Now, his sweet gestures sometimes get lost in translation — what he thought would be delivery was actually a pickup. I didn’t mind. The beauty of Paris and its compact spread meant only a 30-minute trip to get across the city.
Descending from my 6th floor perch, outfitted with Juliette balconies and large paned windows, I was immediately met by the sounds of Paris — scooters revving, horns blaring, the melodic rhythm of the ever-complicated language that stumps me daily — and I begin my trek to the 15th arrondissement to get my cookies. It feels a world away from the bustling city center of Le Marais and Le Bastille. But it sits nestled at the feet of la dame de fer — the Eiffel Tower.
The grandeur of the Eiffel Tower and Les Invalides — Napoleon’s burial place and home to Le Musée de l’Armée, are always my draw to the 15th arrondissement. I fondly recall a trip to the museum with my Emmanuel. A self-proclaimed nerd, Emmanuel has a particular old-soul passion for the World Wars, and during a holiday visit, le Musée de l’Armée seemed to hit the sweet spot in his 14-year-old psyche. We passed hours as he nerded out on facts about military strategy that scanned the breadth of history. I scored some big mom points.
Les Invalides was also the backdrop to a romantic dalliance with an energetic Sicilian who made his home in Paris. I hadn’t officially moved here at that time, but a chance meeting at a mutual event sparked a connection that warranted a follow-up. One of his favorite places, he escorted me by scooter to Pont Alexandre III — the bridge that extends from the sprawling esplanade at the base of Les Invalides. Like something out of a movie, we strolled along the Seine, stealing smiles and kisses while Paris’s summer commotion swirled around us. I had even tipped him to the water fountains that deployed eau petillante — sparkling water. Ah, only in Paris. . .
The pandemic and the subsequent rounds of lockdowns have certainly changed life in Paris for me. The absence of cafés, restaurants, museums, and cinemas are lamentable, but the city still has its charm. Our most recent lockdown has been particularly puzzling. Macron’s mandate is that we can be outside as long as we want, but nothing is open and there is nothing to do. Meandering around Les Jardin des Plantes with a friend, he noted that we all looked like zombies, masked figures roaming around with little purpose or destination. Of course, French zombies have a cigarette in one hand and an espresso in the other.
Amidst my own version of the Walking Dead, I am longing for the return of the enchanting Paris of my dreams. What I love about Paris is that it seldom feels like a place I have to negotiate, like my native New York City, which often requires a guerrilla-trained special forces type of focus to get from point A to B. Paris simply unfolds in front of me, asking only that I honor her language and culture.
For me, Paris is the old Frenchman in a frame shop who upon hearing that I am New Yorkaise rushes to show me a photograph of Basquiat and Warhol together on a New York sidewalk. It is the eclectic group of ladies at the gym planning lunches where we can practice our French and English together.
My Paris is the Senegalese man who saw me waiting for my UberEats and asked if all was okay. When he picked up on my American accent, he proceeded to ask me if Biden’s election was certain — tu es sûre? — as he, too, wanted to finally be rid of Trump. My Paris is the old woman who stopped at my table outside of a restaurant, and as if talking to herself, spoke of how lovely my grey locks were lining the crown of my head. It is the gentleman who smiled and gave me a thumbs up as I took a photo of an Angela Davis poster hanging prominently on the side of a newsstand.
There is something to being a Black American in Paris. James Baldwin knew it. Josephine Baker did too. Like them, I feel liberated from the weight of Blackness in America and its constant juxtaposition to the brand of white privilege and supremacy that stresses daily life. In Paris, I have found a refuge, not without its flaws, but still, markedly different in how it lets me exist in my own skin.
On another day and with another errand beckoning me, I descended once again to my Boulevard Voltaire. On this day, I passed a tall, skinny Black man walking briskly with a baguette in one hand and an open package of Comté cheese in the other. In step with his gait, he alternated bites between the hunk of cheese and the bread, perfectly satisfied with his delivery system. I would have been really impressed if he had managed a bottle of wine in the process. I laughed out loud, enchanted once again by Paris and its people.
It’s no wonder one year on mombbatical has turned into three. I have lived in some of the greatest American cities — New York, San Francisco, Washington DC — each giving me something that I needed throughout my life. But no place enchants me as much as the “City of Lights.” There is no telling what forces my pull me away from her in the future. But for now, it is home.
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