Today in Paris, many shops were closed. The streets were nearly empty. But this wasn’t just because of the August vacations, where everyone leaves for weeks at a time; this was what they call a bank holiday, which in France usually means literally a Catholic holy day, and in this case, Feast of the Assumption, August 15th.
It struck me, suddenly, that this same day four years ago, even though I was living in Paris then, too, I was in a very different place in my life.
It was August 2014, and I had left New York and my old career for Paris, to “live the dream” after buying an apartment in the 11th arrondissement two years before. It turned out to be anything but dreamlike. Ousted from my apartment by a neighbor’s epic leak, I was staying in temporary digs on Ile de la Cité near Notre Dame, thanks to a friend. Most people would be delighted to be in such idyllic surroundings—an historic building near the Seine—but my heart was heavy, not just with worry about my home, which was slowly being destroyed by the leak my neighbor refused to fix, but with a deep sense of loss I couldn’t shake. I was still mourning my mother’s passing, and I’d also left everything familiar behind: my career, my life in New York, my family and friends. Expat life was harder than I thought it would be, and I was lumbering around like I was wearing a coat three sizes too big, feeling lost and alone in my new life. Here I was in Paris, and I could not be happy? What gives?
“It’s lonely blazing a trail,” I recall in my memoir, My (Part-Time) Paris Life. You think when you have everything you want, you’ll be magically living happily ever after. But you’re still you—same fears, same baggage. That can make you feel like you’ve failed to achieve your dream, but I would learn that when things feel rough and uncomfortable, you are exactly where you should be.
A new life won’t and shouldn’t feel easy and familiar. It takes time to fill out the larger version of yourself that you’ve created. And until you do, you have to get used to flailing around all loosey-goosey. It’s just how it is when you untether yourself from your old life.
It’s four years later, and I’m now happily installed in my new life, and it all fits just as it should. Looking back, I see how far I’ve come. Pioneering my future, I’d roughed it in the beginning, but now I’ve settled in and taken root. And my life is just now starting to bear its glorious, delicious fruit. I’m glad I stuck it out.
Change is designed to shake up the status quo. It will feel uncomfortable, terrifying, confusing. That’s as it should be. Transition can be painful, but it’s just that—transitional. You will move through it. So as you take those first steps toward your dream life, remember this: You’re already in the new life you’ve imagined, it will just take a while to feel like it. Love yourself through the process, and find the small joys and victories along the way. You’ll look back, too, one day and marvel at all you’ve achieved.
I think I’m going to pop some champagne and celebrate.
READ AN EXCERPT FROM MY MEMOIR, My (Part-time) Paris Life: How Running Away Brought me Home (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press). I wrote this passage in my journal on August 15, 2014, and it made it into the final edit of the book exactly as I had written it that day.
From Chapter 13, “Living in Exile”
I crossed Pont Saint-Louis from Île Saint-Louis on the way to my beautiful island of exile, like Napoleon on Elba. This was now my everyday route to conduct my extraordinary life—the rolling Seine, the flying buttresses of Notre Dame, my everyday, extraordinary view.
On the bridge, an old man with a huge, grey beard recited poetry loudly from a book on a music stand. A few paces down, a young man with bushy, brown hair was singing Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.” Tourist Paris—a concoction of wonder and grotesquery, that both charmed and horrified.
The bells of Notre Dame struck the hour. It was the Feast of the Assumption so they were particularly musical, calling the masses to mass. Storm clouds were rolling in again; threatening the one sunny day we’d had in a while. The sun fought for dominance, the Hôtel de Ville bright orange against the stormy gray-blue clouds.
The bells of Notre Dame clanged louder.
In the large bag on my shoulder, supplies from the Monop’ on Rue de Rivoli: smaller, non-committal versions of everything I had in my own home in the eleventh, a reminder of my circumstance. I still could not settle in, could not rest my soul in this transient place of tourists.
That I was evicted from my home, squatting here, still gnawed at the base of my brain, like the leak still dripped unabated, drawing me away from the beauty around me. But the bells of Notre Dame would not relent. Louder and louder they grew—jubilant, exuberant.
You are in Paris! You are in Paris!
I stopped on the bridge and took a photo of the Seine and the orange Hôtel de Ville, a tourist beside me doing likewise. I drank it in like he did, let it move me like he did. Be happy. There was something to be said about seeing Paris like a tourist, removed from the cares of life. The everyday transmuted to extraordinary. I was starting to forget that wide-eyed wonder, the reason I came here in the first place. So for now, I would stay like this, observing, snapping away. Misty-eyed as I listened to the bells of Notre Dame.
Standing on the bridge suspended over the river, I felt myself in a suspended state, too—my life in Paris not a dream anymore, but not quite real, either. I didn’t fight it; I let myself exist in the space between the two; hanging in the air like the vibrations of the bells of Notre Dame after they’d rung their last.
Reprinted by permission.
Learn more about the journey that led to My (Part-Time) Paris Life in my memoir of the same name, ON SALE NOW! Finalist for “Best Paris Book,” Expatriates Magazine, 2017.
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