Á dix-huit heure trente, I look out the window of the kitchen to see — rising above the rooftop of our neighbouring buildings — the dome of the the Panthéon National. It is astonishingly beautiful Roman architecture – the evening sunlight richly soaks the stone in yellow gold, and set against a deep blue sky the proud dome could elevate the standard of the most dismal of Instagram accounts. Indeed, walking around Paris on a daily basis is learning to stop yourself from raising your camera and posting yet another reminder, to yourself as much as others, that yes, I live in Paris, and I can barely restrain myself from lathering my feed with photos of the city. Please bear with me.
And Paris, in return, makes it as difficult as it possibly can – the city is built around an impressive, often ridiculous number of landmarks. Wandering through the streets, you will simply stumble upon them. Sometimes quite literally, as I tripped on the steps of Palais Garnier Opera House, which lead up to columns blossoming in gold leaf. As boulevard meets boulevard, another landmark looms over you; but usually with a babble of excited tourists along with it. So if you want to enjoy your time walking, you’re better off taking to the side streets. It’s where the real beauty is, anyway.
Paris is a walking city, the way the streets curve around and up invite you to wander between the Haussmann-designed buildings. On your first time out as an enfant Parisian, you start tentatively, Google Maps in hand and a close eye on how far you are from home. It starts as a maze, impossibly similar, confusingly large, but, with practise, you learn the twists and turns like words to a song. My phone regularly tells me I’ve clocked up 20,000 steps per day – the Parisian labyrinth, like Pan’s, keeps calling me back in.
There is a French word for someone who wanders a city, without reason, simply for the pleasure of being there: a Flâneur. It is a word that (unlike the vast majority of French adjectives) originally did not have a feminine equivalent until it was coined in a book, by Lauren Elkin – Flâneuse. I encountered this book just three weeks into arriving in Paris, when I attended an event for its release at the famous bookshop Shakespeare & Company.
I went with two recent friends, forming a collective of excited early 20s English literature students at their first literary event, full of anticipation for the year ahead in a brand new city. As it turns out, the author was once herself in the same position as us, as so many people are when they arrive in Paris. It is a unique experience, and everyone wants to come and discover it.
Paris has always been known as the centre of arts, of writing, of philosophy and more, a reputation that has enticed thousands towards it for centuries. Many writers I study today – James Joyce, Ernest Hemmingway, Simone de Beauvoir, F. Scott Fitzgerald and more – have plaques, dedicated to the time they spent here, littered around the city that you find as you walk the streets – flâneuse-ing, of course. As I read Elkin’s book, I learned of women who walked Paris just as I did. George Sand lived five minutes from where I live, above a bookshop where I bought her novel Lélia. Jean Rhys wrote, like I do, in her bedroom in Paris, and Virginia Woolf got lost on her way back to Hôtel de Londres, just as I have gotten lost in my own neighbourhood, with great shock and a little pleasure.
My walk to university (which I rarely get lost on, unless I want to) passes the Panthéon. Even though I see it daily, the grandeur acclamation to the French Revolution never once becomes less spectacular. Although sitting by the Seine is without a doubt, the best place on earth to drink a bottle of wine; a close second is in the plaza, under the monstrous gaze of Le Panthéon. Especially given you paid less for the wine than a trip on the metro, it couldn’t taste any better. Well admittedly, if I’d splurged a bit more it probably would, but I’ll have to wait until the future when (read: if) I’m not financially restricted from luxuries. There’s no denying that Paris is painfully trop cher.
Nevertheless, coming to Paris is an experience I would not take back. It must be said, Erasmus is difficult. To move away from the little island teetering on the Atlantic where lies all the faces, food brands and forecasts you know better than anything is hard, and as the weeks go by it often doesn’t get easier. Sometimes, moving country is curling in a ball on your floor because you didn’t think you would be this lonely. It is realising life still goes on without you, you can’t meet your friend’s new boyfriends or just go for drinks on a Wednesday night – catch ups now are rescheduled Skypes, and you start to feel like you’re leading two lives.
Unless they come to visit, it’s hard to convey how different your life is when you’re immersed in a new place, a new language, new friends. But the charms and turmoil of a year in Paris are something you, selfishly, get to keep forever. In the future I expect to return to Paris, definitely to visit, and maybe to stay. And sure, I can speak French now, and wouldn’t it only go to waste if I didn’t?