It snowed in Paris today, and as I was walking around the Latin Quarter to find a book for one of my literature classes and to head to the library at the university that I now attend (I switched to the Sorbonne for this semester), I couldn’t help but to be enchanted by the beauty of the quiet, chilled, and snow-filled air encompassing the historic buildings around me. It was magical. It was, dare I say it, romantic.
To be honest, there are very few moments where my life in Paris actually feels romantic. First and foremost, this is due mostly in part to the fact that I have a daily routine. I go to work. I go to school. I eat. I sleep. I hang out with my friends. My life is normal. It’s not like I go traipsing about in the most iconic parts of Paris every day. (Though I’m trying to explore Paris a little bit more on the weekends when I have free time.) My commute is anywhere between 40 minutes and an hour (yes, it has sometimes taken me an hour to get to work! You can thank the metro randomly stopping for that), and I spend about 30 of those minutes underground. I cross about half of the city every day, twice a day, underground. So, even though I technically pass through some of the “romantic” and iconic parts of Paris, I don’t actually see them. Even if I did, they would become normalized just like anything else.
Secondly, and most importantly, my neighborhood is literally the exact opposite of the iconic, cliché, romantic Paris, the opposite of the Paris that literally 99.9% of people think of when I tell them I live in Paris (or when I told them I was moving here). There are reasons that I live in this area of Paris, some of which I’ve discussed on this blog before. I’m not going to go into details about it, but I’ll summarize it here: money and time constraints, fickle landlords, and a severe disinterest in being homeless in a foreign city. I did not exactly choose this neighborhood willingly. You can’t afford to be picky when you cross an ocean with your entire life to live in a foreign city. So, I settled, and even though there are days where I still hate where I live, it’s growing on me.
So, where exactly do I live? Well, my friends, I live in Porte de Clignancourt, a section of the city that is on the very north end of the 18th arrondissement, and the 18th arrondissement itself is on the north central end of the city more towards the west side. I have provided a screen shot of google maps to help those of you who don’t really know Paris that well. (I threw in a reference to where the Notre Dame is located to help with your bearings). So as you can see, I’m literally nowhere near the “Paris” that most people in the United States know and love and think of. (Though I am about a 20 minute walk from the Sacré Coeur. So, it’s not all bad). Not to mention that my building is literally right in front of the Boulevard Périphérique, which is the main highway that separates “Paris” from the banlieue (the suburbs). So, if I were to walk a couple of minutes north, then I would no longer be in Paris proper but would be in the suburb of Saint-Ouen.
In addition to the location, where I live is quite opposite of “romantic” Paris for a myriad of other reasons. Graffiti where I live is the norm and part of its character. It wouldn’t be Porte de Clignancourt without it. In fact, I don’t think there’s a single building that doesn’t have some sort of graffiti on it. When I first moved here, I couldn’t help but to think “oh geez, this is kind of the ghetto. Isn’t it? oh dear…”, but truthfully, it’s become so much a part of my everyday life that I don’t even register it anymore. Some of it is actually quite entertaining. My favorite graffiti is on the building next to me right next to a bus stop. Just look at it. You’ll see why.
The graffiti is beautifully complimented by the endless amounts of and variety of trash strewn about on every sector of this entire area. Some of it makes you question how it even ended up there. Like, what was that person doing to leave a singular sock lying in the middle of the street? You know, the kind of questions that make you ponder your entire life, right?
Let’s also not forget the massive amounts of construction. Not only is this area being massively gentrified by the installation of new buildings, and it’s also getting a new tram line soon (which I’m sure will actually be quite lovely once it’s actually finished. Though with the way things go in France, I doubt it will be anytime before I leave) but all of the construction causes traffic chaos. It’s like people around here have no idea how to drive around construction, especially during rush hour. I would not consider it a normal day if there weren’t endless amounts of blaring horns and dumbass people having no idea how to back up or pull off to the side to let an ambulance pass (So much facepalm). The construction itself is also exponentially obnoxious, especially because the pedestrian walkways are too small for the amount of pedestrians, especially during rush hour. Since I live right behind a university, across from a high school, and on the way to a middle school, the mornings are filled with massive amounts of annoying and idiotic students, who don’t know how to be aware of their surroundings and lack politeness. It’s like a jungle just trying to cross the main street to get to the metro. Thankfully I only have to fight morning rush hour foot traffic two days a week.
I’m also a minority here. I don’t mind being the minority. In fact, most days, I don’t even recognize it, but it definitely was a shift in environment for me. Most European cities function differently than most large cities do in the United States. In the States we talk about inner-city life, which usually involves poor, underprivileged neighborhoods, with minorities and often-times immigrants. In Europe, especially in France, these poorer communities, which are usually heavily laden with minorities and immigrants are actually on the outskirts of the cities (exactly where I live) and in the surburbs, the opposite of what it is in the States. So, I’m surrounded by many an immigrant. However, this is actually kind of fascinating a good majority of the time because I hear varieties of French spoken that are intriguing to hear (actually I don’t even know if they are technically French. Maybe they are creoles or just thick accents. I just know that I hear a French word here and there). There are also a lot of Asian and African students that live in my residence. So, I definitely picked up being one of the only few white people around.
Another benefit of living close to the banlieue means that the cost of living (though it’s still rather expensive, because, Paris) is a bit cheaper. The grocery store I go to is similar to Aldi (Lidl, and it’s also a German company, much like Aldi), and I never spend more than 30 euros max on groceries every week.
Even my apartment itself is quite the opposite of what you would think living in Paris would be like. First, I live in a student residence, which means I live like a student, basically in an overglorified dorm room. The only real furniture I have is my twin-sized bed (boy do I miss my queen-sized bed in the U.S.), two desks, and two desk chairs (which are strictly metal chairs and thus extremely uncomfortable). Now, I still live in my own studio, with my own bathroom/shower and “kitchen.” I put kitchen in parentheses because well, you can just see for yourself.
Now, you are probably wondering why I’m telling you all of this. Maybe some of you might not even have an interest in hearing about any of this, especially because it’s not the “beautiful” Paris that people want to hear about. However, that’s even more of a reason to talk about it.
To be honest, when I first got this apartment, my first reaction was just to feel a sense of overwhelming relief, as it provided a solution to the whole possibly-being-homeless-in-a-foreign-city debacle. Then, once I started settling down, I started to hate it. Though I can mostly thank culture shock for my depression that first month to two months, my living situation was massively contributing to it as well. Firstly, the commute is so long, especially because I live so far from most of my colleagues and friends. Secondly, the neighborhood itself is not what I envisioned when I first learned that I was moving to Paris. I dreamed of a cute studio overlooking a perfectly Parisian street complete with cafés on the corners and flowers on my window sill, with cute Parisian men driving by on their mopeds as the whiff of fresh baked goods came into my apartment from the bakery near by. *sigh* We all dream of that life, right? Well, this is definitely the opposite of that. My apartment is also such a student apartment. Coming from having my own place in downtown Milwaukee complete with full kitchen (it may have been small, but at least I had an oven and a microwave) and walk-in closet, I hated that I was being thrown back into a student life that was resembling my times in undergrad without the roommate situation. Aren’t I getting too old for this?! I’m almost 26 years old. I may be a student, but I’m a graduate student. I’m not any 18 or 19 year old just excited to be on their own for the first time. I actually enjoy a full kitchen and a tub that can fit my whole body. So, yes, my expectations were my down fall, and I learned from them.
Now, I’m starting to embrace this place, at least to some degree. I still have moments where I hate it and where I can’t wait to get out of here. However, there are some benefits to this place.
- I’ve made it my own. Even if I had the choice to leave, I’m not sure that I would because I’m settled in now. I’ve made this place my own complete with my clothes strewn about and my pictures on my desk and my wall. Moving would mean completely undoing all of that, not to mention that it would be a massive logistical pain in my ass.
- It’s all mine. While I was looking for apartments, most of those which I could afford closer to where I worked would’ve meant that I would’ve had to have a roommate. Now, I’m not necessarily against having a roommate, but now that I’ve lived on my own for the last two years before coming here, the idea of having a roommate was extremely unappealing. Being a massive introvert, I enjoy having my lair to come back to after a long day of work and school. Secondly, I’m not so sure that I’m completely hip on the whole idea of living with someone that I don’t know.
- It’s cheap, for Paris. Not only do I have access to cheap groceries, but my rent is also quite cheap. I pay 500 euros a month all utilities included (even internet), and I didn’t have to set up anything (the one good thing about living in a student residence). This is a bargain compared to other studios that I was looking at. To get the same size apartment (20 meters squared = about 65 square feet), with all utilities included closer to where I work and go to school would be anywhere between 850 and 1,200 euros, because Paris. Additionally, living in a student residence means that I won’t be subject to the taxe d’habtitation (living tax). We don’t have this tax in the States. Here in France they tax on everything, including just living. So, this tax applies to anyone who doesn’t own the property they live in (though people still have property taxes), and this includes basically most people, as most people live in apartments in Paris. This tax is usually calculated based on your rent and some other factors, like whether or not you have a roommate, etc. To be honest, I actually don’t know that much about it, because I didn’t have to pay it the last time I lived in France either. However, I do know that I don’t want to have to pay it.
- It’s teaching me the difference between need and desire. I think you can all relate when I say that sometimes I get lost in my own desires. I desire comfort and stability and freedom so badly sometimes that I forget that there are certain things in life that are just simply luxuries. Living in a great apartment in Paris that is affordable is not a reality for me and the majority of people who live in this city. Paris is just too ridiculously expensive, and so I’ve had to give up many luxuries for the sake of just having a place to live. As my mom told me when I first got here, at least I have a place to lay my head at night and am not lying under a bridge somewhere. I’m remembering what I actually need to survive. I have a stove to cook (and actually not having an oven or a microwave means that I’ve become more creative in my cooking endeavors). I have a shower, even though the tub is awkward and small (that’s a whole other story. haha). I have a bed to sleep on and desks and chairs to sit at to do homework and lesson plan. It sucks not having a couch and a coffee table and a microwave and an oven and actual real counter space, but it works. I’m taken care of. All my needs are being met, and I’m learning how to be thankful for just that.
- I’ve been able to get a lot of my pleasure reading done. I love reading for pleasure, but obviously being a grad student that’s also working means that I don’t always have the time for it. Well because my commute is so long and because when I read for class I like to underline, highlight, and write notes so that I’m properly prepared for discussions and papers, I get a lot of pleasure reading done on my commutes. I’m only one and a half books away from completing the books that I brought with me from the States when I first came here and have acquired a decent amount of additional books since I’ve been here (Would I be me if I hadn’t?).
- Lastly, and most importantly, I’m really learning about Paris. When most people say they’ve been to Paris, they mean they’ve been to the touristy, beautiful, bourgeois parts of Paris. Reality check. Most people who live in Paris don’t actually live in these areas. Though these are absolutely stunning and worth seeing (I get hit by the beauty and history of it all sometimes, I’ll admit), this is not what Paris is actually like. As I’ve shown you, a good majority of Paris is dirty, inconvenient, overcrowded with people, and definitely not romantic. The metro is not a romantic venture, no, it’s a pain in my ass every damn day. haha. Dealing with Parisians is not fascinating, no, sometimes, it can be gloriously frustrating (as they really don’t have any sense of their surroundings nor do they give a shit. Plus, they have no problem blowing their cigarette smoke in your face or assuming that you don’t speak French because you didn’t hear them the first time). The beauty of the annoyances of my life and the un-romantic side of where I live is that I get to see how a good majority of Parisians actually live. I’m learning so much about this city from the perspective of a sudo-local. I get to see the everyday nitty-gritty, and this aspect of my time here will always be more fascinating in the end. I revel in the fact that I get to educate people about what Paris is actually like and how to respect the locals while being a tourist (believe me, even I as a non-Parisian get overwhelmed and annoyed by the numerous and stupid tourists that flood the city.) I get to see a side of Paris that no tourist will probably ever see, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Besides, how boring would it be if my life here in Paris fulfilled all the stereotypes and expectations that you have? Not only is following the cliché not who I am, but my life also never tends to go in that direction, so why start now? Especially because at the end of the day, the ridiculousness that is my neighborhood actually puts a smile on my face from time to time ’cause you can’t make this shit up man.
I’m hoping this post has shed some light on your own world perceptions and the realities of the misrepresentations that romanticizing a culture or a people or a city can bring.
A plus mes amis!