The Paris of today is no longer your parents’ Paris, Midnight in Paris Paris—the city of Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and later Julia Child, of 20-franc hotel rooms and 5-franc bistro lunches. Paris has grown up, learned English, globalized, and gotten expensive.
a lot of things happened on and around my laptop the past couple of weeks. well, not things so much as essays that made me think a lot about migration, big cities and why anyone even bothers to live anywhere other than detroit these days. (where, by the way, they’re giving houses to writers. just giving them away.)
this happened first: “An expatriate’s memoir explains how this is no longer your parents’ Paris.” it’s a review of a book about an american in paris written by an american in paris about why paris is not how americans think it is.
then this happened: “I Am Not My Job: Why I Left New York City.” it’s about a person who leaves new york because it’s expensive and it’s hard to get a job there.
then I started to think about the cities where I’ve lived. as an adult, I’ve really only lived in new york (for about a year) and the washington, dc area (in the city for a total of like three years and in two different suburbs for a total of like four years, including college).
the thing is that every place that is desirable to live—jobs, lots of people, lots of cool things to do, public transit, etc.—is crazy expensive. after a while, every place starts to suck a lot. I routinely asked myself, after forking more than 50 percent of my take-home income to my landlord each month, why I chose to keep living in dc. it rains a lot and I really couldn’t afford it. but then my car would make a weird sound and I’d just hop on the bus for three days and still be able to get almost anywhere I needed to go. and then I’d go to an exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American History for free. or I’d have an amazing conversation with any of the amazingly thoughtful, educated and progressive young people that fill the city. and I’d remember that’s what I loved—this special place full of special people doing special things.
new york was different. I initially moved to new york because I told myself—in a very 22-year-old sort of way—that whatever was going to happen to me post-college would probably happen in new york. but, much like paris, new york isn’t new york anymore. it isn’t the place where madonna moved with just $5 or where people who didn’t have jobs could barter for their rent and create art. it’s full of really rich people, or really rich people’s children, and people who don’t mind living among rats. it’s a great city, but I wasn’t willing to keep scraping by without a job just to be able to say that I was living in new york.
people put a lot of stock these days in cities and which one you choose to call home and what that says about you. there’s a whole website dedicated to cities. (theatlanticcities.com and it’s awesome, btw.) hippies are supposed to go to ‘frisco. the stylish head back east to new york. the world changers go to dc. the beautiful move to la. and so on and so on. but what if a beautiful person could do cool things in birmingham? or a stylish person could make a good living in miami? or if a hippie could find a community in akron, ohio?
big, famous cities with storied pasts—like paris, new york, dc, la, london, whatever—are draws for a reason. they’re big and they’re famous and lots of cool people have made their homes there. but with the world being what it is, it’s going to be harder and harder for people without a ton of cash on hand to survive, let alone thrive, in these types of metropolises that have such high costs for admission. moreover, it can be difficult to see the benefits of living there right away, which is why I ultimately left new york after 11 months without a full-time job.
I’ve built paris up in my mind, which is the first, fatal flaw of migrating to any new place. (I know this from my nyc experience). so, instead, I’m prepared to hate paris. I’ll hate the rain, and the people who will appear rude to me, and the metro system which won’t make sense to me because it’s not like new york or dc. I’ll be homesick and lonely because I won’t understand the language. it’ll be too expensive.
but, maybe, if I’m lucky enough to stick it out for long enough, I’ll have one of these moments:
Gradually, Baldwin’s fantasy Paris is replaced by reality, and he finds he loves that city, too. As in falling in love with a person, true love with a city only comes in accepting its faults, and for those of us who tough it out, the irritants of Paris can become badges of honor, and small triumphs.
that happened for me in dc. yes, I had to engage in a four-month long email tag with the city’s department of transportation because my car was illegally towed. yes, I resorted to just paying for repairs to my (rental) apartment because my landlord sometimes out-and-out refused. but, once I found people of my own kind and began to engage more with my interests—something that I couldn’t do in new york because I was still figuring out what I wanted to do—it became a city that was a lot of fun to be, most of the time.