A Long Overdue Return to Paris

France was the first foreign country I visited. I was 11 years old, first passport in hand. I was going to Montmorency, a suburb just outside of Paris, for three weeks as part of a student exchange program with about 20 other kids from my school. I was going to live with a family and go to school and just generally live in France.

I still cannot believe my parents let me do this. I was 11! I had just gotten braces and I was awkward and I spoke very poor French and had never been outside of the US before. I think I was pretty excited. I don’t really remember much about the feelings leading up to that trip, though I remember being a bit homesick while I was away. My host family spoke pretty good English and I was surrounded by classmates during the week, but not being able to fully communicate day by day was a bit isolating. Despite being gone only three weeks, my mom wrote me many letters and had tucked a few away in my suitcase. These didn’t help the homesickness.

But I had an incredible time. The woman who is now my best friend was on that trip and we first really connected during an awkward slumber party with our exchange students. I saw Paris! I visited Versailles, went to the top of the Eiffel Tower, spent a day at Euro Disney. I ate sheep and couscous for the first time (and I loved it). I learned the joy that is Nutella spread on brioche for breakfast and wondered what Americans were doing wrong by eating cereal and Eggo waffles and Pop Tarts.

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Paris with high school friends, March 2000

I am confident my love for travel was sparked on this trip in 1993. I loved everything about this little town (famous also for the cherries that share its name, which I ate in jam form frequently) and being in a place so unlike the Chicago suburb where I grew up. After that trip, I stuck with French until my sophomore year of college and went back to Paris my senior year of high school as part of another school trip (this one involved too much drinking and a hangover at Giverny).

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When I returned to Paris in December last year with my mom, I had no idea what to expect. This would be my first time back in nearly 18 years and I would be staying in Paris proper for the first time. My French skills are decent (thanks to some refreshers on Duolingo), though nowhere near as good as the AP French level speaking I did on my last visit.

But the moment we drove into Paris from the airport, I was smitten. I likely had some big dumb smile on my face. It was a sunny, beautiful afternoon and I couldn’t wait to be off this airport bus and bouncing around the streets of Paris. The city is so incredibly beautiful, I had forgotten.

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the view from our hotel room in Opera

I was instantly back in love with Paris, eager to grab a late lunch at a cafe and do a trial run with my French ordering skills and drink some wine and just be in Paris. My mom and I grabbed a quick meal at Buvette and then my plan was to wander up to the top of Montmartre in time for sunset.

This was everyone else’s idea too.

The streets of Montmartre were mobbed with people, my mom and I fighting our way through the crowds so we could claim a good spot to look out over the city as dusk settled in. Paris sprawled out in front of us; we could see the Eiffel Tower looming in the distance and Sacre Coeur sat just behind us, its stairways lined with people just like us. Leaving the area was just as difficult, there were people everywhere and we could see from our hilltop view that some of the streets were flooded with tourists. We went another way towards the Metro stop, also flooded with people.

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Catching the sunset at Montmartre
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everyone is here for the sunset

At this point, just a few hours in, my mother was not impressed with Paris. She had gotten used to the clean and subdued nature of Vienna, and Paris was in sharp contrast to this. I laughed because I loved everything about it. Paris felt familiar. Because Paris is so much like New York. It wasn’t just my love affair with travel that began on my first trip to France, it was also my love of these big, crazy cities.

 

 

As the night went on, I tried to charm my mom with Paris. Despite it being a chilly evening, we went on a Seine boat cruise (these are cheesy but also a really nice way to see Paris, especially at night) and then wandered along the Seine towards the Louvre. It is my nature to plan things in advance in my head and then “surprise” my mom with the intended destination. As we walked towards the entrance to the museum, she was delighted to see where we were – I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid seemed to show up out of nowhere.

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I also had dinner plans in mind; a few blocks up from the Louvre was Ellsworth, which had come highly recommended by a number of friends. We ducked in without a reservation and, fortunately, were quickly led to a tiny high-top in this tiny restaurant. I looked around and felt like I was back in Brooklyn. My mom thought the same.

Even though we had only been in Paris for a few hours, I was adopting it as my city and acting as if I knew these places like my beloved Brooklyn favorites. My mom was quick to let on to my plans, knowing that I had walked towards the restaurant on purpose and somewhat impressed with my navigation of a city I hadn’t visited in 18 years. There would be more of this during our trip to Paris, I seemed to acknowledge as I sipped my wine.

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