The first time I came to Paris (2013) it was after an early morning train ride from London on a Eurostar. We left from the fog of St Pancras station and arrived at the blistering sunshine of Paris du Nord. I remember walking out of the station as if I was Dorothy walking out of her sepia-toned Kansas home into Technicolor Oz.
Paris was all at once everything I imagined it to be and so much more. The sprawling cream colored buildings, the cloudless skyline were so romantic that I hardly noticed the hairy man sunbathing in a speedo on the balcony above me or that fermented pee smell that happens in all big cities. Our tour group was immediately thrown into the city; We walked down the Champs-Élysées and then took a metro to the Louvre.
The second time I came to Paris (2017) was less like that. I spent the entire plane ride realizing I knew less French than I thought I did and anxiously worrying about how much a taxi to my Airbnb in Aulnay-sous-Bois would be. The first day I spent sleeping over the covers of my bed thankful to have found wifi and sweaty from anxiety rather than heat (although there was some of that too). The second day was filled with more anxiety and somehow more sweat even though it was raining and cold. I chickened out of looking for the Metro station and headed back to my room after buying some strawberries. I hid in my bed the rest of the day watching all of Kimmy Schmidt season three and frantically texting people at home that I loved them.
Some notes on Aulnay-sous-Bois. From what I’ve seen of it, Aulnay-sous-Bois is very suburban but somehow distinctly Parisian. It could really be any European town if it weren’t for a few touches. For the two weeks I’ve been here, I’ve noticed there’s a baby living across the street that is having trouble sleeping. There is a market in the square that happens every Tuesday or maybe Thursday, where—out of sheer, unadulterated homesickness—I almost bought a bootleg copy of Mrs. Doubtfire before I realized it was probably dubbed in French and I wouldn’t have any way of playing it. There are not one but two Chinese restaurants and a kebab/pizza place, one bakery, a couple of groceries, several real estate agencies, one designer glasses warehouse, one discount shoe store, one tabac and one vet.
Night here is less terrifying than I initially assumed it would be. It is usually quite quiet except for what is turning out to be a weekly house party in an apartment two blocks away from me. Occasionally a car will pass by playing loud, usually American music (with the welcome exception of 'Despacito' by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee). Once instead of the usual giggling voices of the neighborhood’s French teenagers, I heard a Russian sounding man say, “well you’re a mother fucking liar then,” in English. I’m not curious to figure out the story behind that one. Usually all I can hear is that colicky baby and constant hum of police sirens from Paris several miles away.
For all its quaintness there is still no shortage of men smoking cigarettes outside of shops watching your figure as you pass by (or making kissing sounds at you from a moving car: really man?). Speaking of cars, in Aulnay-sous-Bois just as in Paris, drivers scrape by just narrowly missing you as you walk through crosswalks or across streets. Customer service is distinctly Parisian, which I actually admire until I’d forgotten the word for change for the third time that day and the cashier refuses to repeat it so we just stared at each other.
Some of my favorite things about Aulnay-sous-Bois. The houses in my neighborhood have roses growing in vines over their doorways and fences. Because of this, my walk home smells like a rose garden, somehow without the built in smell of manure and earth. It’s heavenly. Sometimes, if I get home early enough or if I’m just plain lucky I get to see the elderly couple two houses away who stare lovingly at their own plants and never notice me passing by. I usually wake up to the sound of children at a nearby school playing and doves cooing from a tree by my window. Although I am not there often, the home I am staying in is so incredibly lovely I hardly believe it’s fully real. My room is a large, spacious and well-furnished with a lovely window I usually leave open. My hosts are kind and accommodating and I am so lucky to have them.
On the third day, I finally went into the city and after almost immediately getting lost/confused by the Metro I went to the only place I could clearly identify on the map (and the one place I suspected would have wifi), the Cathedral of Notre Dame. That is when being here felt real.