Free Man in Paris

“I deal in dreamers
And telephone screamers
Lately I wonder what I do it for
If l had my way
I’d just walk out those doors and wander
Down the Champs Elysees
Going cafe to cabaret
Thinking how I’ll feel when I find
That very good friend of mine.”

I.

I fell in love with Paris long before I’d ever been there.

The year was 1999. I was eight years old and like every red-blooded American boy, I had could perform just about any scene from Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s filmography from memory. So when Passport to Paris (the first of a series of movies in which the teenage Olsens chase adventure and romance in various foreign cities) came out on video that year, I of course rushed to store to purchase a copy on VHS the first day it was available. From the jump, I was obsessed—with the iconic 90s fashion choices, the playful hijinks, and the 13-year old French boys on the back of whose mopeds the girls got to ride around, but also with Paris itself, with its grandeur and mystery and charm. It seemed so classy and exotic to me at the time, the epitome of elegance and culture, and far, far cry from the swampy backwoods of southern Louisiana which, at that point, were about all I knew of the world. I’d certainly known that Paris existed before then, and perhaps even been intrigued by it as a result of all the “Madeline” books I’d read, but Passport to Paris really crystallized whatever it was about it that had appealed to me, and instilled in me a burning desire to see it someday myself. I’m not sure if I believed then that it would open itself up to me the way it did for Mary-Kate and Ashley and change me the way, by the end of the film, it had changed them, but I knew I needed to go there and find out.

As time went by, my obsession with with city sprouted and grew, in my high school French classes and through far too many viewings of French Kiss, Funny Face, Gigi, An American in Paris, How to Steal a Million, Sabrina and Paris When It Sizzles. So when, during my freshman year of college, the opportunity arose for me to study abroad in the south of France, I of course said yes. It wasn’t the easiest decision—after all, I had just settled in and made friends was happy with the way things were going, but something in me knew I had to go. I had no money and if I didn’t accept the scholarship my university was offering me to participate in the exchange program, they would have given it to someone else, and who knew if an opportunity like this would arise again. So I said goodbye to my new friends and hoped they would still be around when I got back the following year and I got on the plane and I went. It wasn’t Paris, but it was close.

II.

My semester in France was the most formative and transformative of my life. I grew up in a working class family in a very Catholic, very conservative community. We weren’t poor, by any means, and by all accounts I wanted for nothing. But there weren’t a lot of luxuries, and I did want for things. I wanted for a lot of things, desperately. Not material things (though those too, of course) but in a broader sense I wanted so much more for myself than I life I saw laid out before me. I wanted to get out of Louisiana. I wanted to go to a university and read books and see plays and watch films and make art and fight injustice and be surrounded by smart, interesting people who wanted to do the same things. And more than anything, I wanted to travel. I spent hours as a child laying on my stomach tracing my fingers across maps and atlases and reading National Geographic and teaching myself how enormous the world really is, and what multitudes it contains, and dreaming about exploring as much of that world and experiencing as many of those multitudes as I could.

As corny and melodramatic as it sounds, I remember, vividly, waking up that first morning in France and knowing that, starting then, my life would be different.  I remember lying in bed in a French hotel thinking “This is the beginning. This is where it begins.” And it was. As a child, I had always believed I would get out of Louisiana and into the world and see things and feel things and know things my parents and grandparents never had. I had too many dreams and too much ambition not to. But it’s very different to believe something than to know it. Different to want something than to do it. Once you do it, it’s real, often more real than you could ever have anticipated, and somehow that surprises you. No matter how long you have waited for that moment, or how painstakingly you have planned it, or how confidently you have expected it, when the moment arrives, you are shocked. That’s how France was for me. I was, at first, shocked—truly shocked—that I had gotten myself there, that I had crossed the threshold from dream into reality and was standing on the other side. But then, almost immediately, that shock subsided completely. It seemed the most natural thing in the world that I should be standing on the balcony of a small French hotel watching the sun rise over a bustling pink city, as the scent of croissants and pain au chocolat wafted upwards from the boulangerie below. And in that moment, I became a different person. I was no longer just someone who had dreams. I was someone who achieved them—who was capable of achieving them. Like Geena Davis in Thelma & Louise, something had crossed over in me, and I knew I couldn’t go back. And believe me when I say that to my 18-year old self, that was some real Aretha Franklin / George Michael-style “freedom!” shit.

III.

Because I didn’t have a lot of (i.e. any) money at the time, I didn’t get to travel much while I was in France but I did, of course, toward the end of the semester, make my way to Paris for a weekend with two friends from my study abroad program. On the brief plane ride there, I had tried to prepare myself to be disappointed. How could I not be? My expectations were far too high. Since my initial viewing of Passport to Paris ten years prior, Paris had taken on a kind of mythic status to me–it meant so much more, and represented so much more, than any single city, even of the of greatest, most beautiful cities in the world, could possibly live up to. But somehow, impossibly, it did. From the moment I stepped out of the metro and into the city for the first time, I knew it wouldn’t let me down. And it didn’t. And it never has. And discovering that was one of the most wonderful surprises I have ever gotten.

I’ve been back to Paris and to other parts of France several times since that magical first time, and the thrill has never gone. When I studied abroad in Italy in law school, I spent three weeks in Paris and grew even more attached than I already had been. I very nearly missed my finals because I could not bring myself to leave Paris and get on the plane and go back to Milan to take them.

Going back to France now is always an emotional experience for me, in a very different way than it was that first time. My time there when I was eighteen fundamentally changed the course of my life. It gave me the space and the freedom I needed to realize and accept a lot of things about myself and about the world that I might not have otherwise, at least not then, and it inspired in me so many new things–new feelings, new appetites, new ambitions, new longings–that I could not have acquired anywhere else, in any other way. My first time in Paris was a coming out, literally and metaphorically, in more ways than one. Now, going back, it always feels like a coming home–which I know sounds strange to say, since I don’t live there, and never have. But in a way, it is my home. It’s where I, whatever incarnation of the “I” I am now, was born. I learned more about myself, and certainly more about life, on those cobblestoned streets than I ever did in the world I grew up in. And I’m just so grateful for that.

IV.

Throughout my life, I’ve often felt a Jay Gatsby-style shame and fury about where I came from, and the hand and cards life dealt me. I’m not proud of that, but it’s true. In almost every circumstance I have found myself in in life, I’ve been surrounded predominantly by people who I felt had so much more than I did–more money, more opportunities, whatever–and who, in my opinion, deserved it less. From the time I was very young, there was a hunger inside me that no one around me understood. I just wanted so much. And I was bitter because no one else I knew was dreaming as big or as hard or as desperately as I was, and yet everyone, it seemed, was better situated to get themselves where I wanted to go than I was. In honesty, this is still something I struggle with, even though I’ve achieved so much of what I wanted, and have gotten myself to so many of the places I’ve wanted to go–because I got what I wanted, yes, but I had to work hard for it, and I had to sacrifice for it, and the price I had to pay for it was high. And it’s a price I’m still paying. Quite literally. And that weighs on me enormously. It often makes me feel claustrophobic, like I’m trapped in some Tina Arena-style chains (but less sexy).

But when I’m feeling like that, I try to remind myself just how fortunate I really, and how much I have to be grateful for. And when I start reflecting on all of those things I have to be grateful for, the very first image that pops into my head, without fail, is of the Eiffel Tower. Because I didn’t hustle my way into that semester in France. I didn’t earn it. It came to me, out of nowhere. And I was lucky it did, because it opened my eyes, and it opened the door to everything my life is now, and that I am now. Maybe that’s more luck than some people get in a lifetime. Maybe it’s more than I deserve.

V.

Over Presidents’ Day weekend, partially because that is not a holiday I wanted to be celebrating in America in 2019, and partially because I had been missing my best friend, who I’ve known since I was 8 and who now lives in the U.K., fiercely, I flew to Paris to spend a couple of days with her. I took the red-eye from New York on Friday night and arrived early Saturday morning. On the train from the airport into the city, I watched the sun come up over Paris and cried. Like a child. It was embarrassing. But it really was that emotional, because it felt like it always feels–like I am eighteen again and discovering the world, and discovering myself, for the first time.

2018 was a good year for me–I made a number of bold, liberating choices that have brought a lot of fulfillment and gratification to my life. But at the end of the day, I’m still not where entirely where I want to be, and a lot of elements in my day to day life can feel very constricting, especially those related to my career. So nothing, truly nothing, could compare to the freedom I felt when I stepped off that train in Paris–the literal freedom of not having to work or worry about work for the next couple of days, and of being re-united with the person who knows me best, but also the nostalgic sense of of broader freedom that I associate with Paris. It hit me like a ton of bricks. And it was exactly what I needed.

The weekend was perfect. The weather was gorgeous, and everything just worked out in a way it rarely does when I am traveling, as so many things are liable to go wrong. But they didn’t. In Paris, they never do. Not for me anyway. We ate gelato and croque-madame and drank wine and sat on the banks of the Seine in the sunshine and walked arm and arm around the city, talking, laughing, catching up. It was a real Linklater moment. The best re-enactment of “Before Sunset” I could have imagined.

And then it was over, and I cried again and I got on a plane and flew back to New York. But I was satisfied. To have seen my best friend, to have been with her in a place that is so special to me, to have felt reconnected to her and to myself, and to have been re-inspired, the way Paris always inspires me, reinvigorated and reminded to never stop going after the things I want, or chasing joy, because the world is so wide, and so remarkable, and there is so much of it to be had.

VI.

On the plane ride back, I tried to sleep, but I never can. I tried reading, but I couldn’t focus. So I did the only thing I suppose there was to do–I put in my earbuds and turned on Joni Mitchell (like Paris, another of my true Norths) and tried to quiet the hunger inside me that still there, always rumbling, always crying out “more, more more.” And unexpectedly, for a moment, it worked.

I’m still dreaming very big, very hard, and I still have miles to go before I sleep. But for now, for two days, I was a free man in Paris, and in that moment, just that one, that was enough.

xx

JB