I had seen it before when I visited with family, but this time was different. I lived here now. This was my home, at least for the next year. On my first day in Paris for my junior year abroad, I made a point to walk to the Eiffel Tower, which was a short and scenic 20 minutes on foot from my new home. I sat on a bench and took it all in.
The tower was majestic and overwhelming. It was nothing but thousands and thousands of tons of iron, but it overlooked the city and the people below with a certain grace that only the French could muster. I spent awhile on that bench, watching Parisians walk by and watching tourists take pictures. I spent that time trying to adjust my thinking: I was not a tourist, and I wanted nothing more than to blend in and be mistaken for a French person. I was hoping someone would approach me and ask me directions or a question (the answer to which I would most likely not know) because it would confirm that I didn’t look like an outsider, that I looked like I belonged here.
My grasp of the French language was pretty good, and that year it became fantastic. I lived with a French family, and the oldest son in the household was an opinionated 18-year-old who loved to argue about women’s issues and Americans at the dinner table. It made for sometimes-uncomfortable meals, but my French was second to none after a year of debating over tarte à l’oignon and camembert night after night.
On weekends and during holidays, my friends and I traveled throughout France and Europe. I was able to go from one country to another (usually by train), learn about local customs, eat scrumptious food, and see some of the most beautiful things human beings have ever created. Every day I charged myself with finding one thing that was perfect, whether it was a view or a simple moment with someone. And every day I found something awe-inspiring and better than what I had seen the previous day.
My year in Paris transformed me. I arrived an eager, daunted kid and I left a mature, well-traveled woman who was fluent in French. I had no choice but to grow up while there. The city, with all of its charm and beauty and sophistication, lured it out of me. My adulthood was just below the surface, waiting to be revealed.
I gave birth to my son just last year, but I have known since living in Paris over a decade ago that I wanted my future children to have the same experiences I had. I want my Jake to know what it’s like to arrive in a foreign country and then call it his home. To be able to debate in another language as well as he does in English. To eat sausage in Bavaria and pizza in Italy. I want him to learn how to travel solo, and how to make a tiny, college student budget last for a week in Dublin. Most importantly, I want him to be able to travel and experience life and survive. To do so without worrying that someone might shoot up his train or the café where he is on a date with his new girlfriend.
I know that these things were possibilities when I was living in Paris, but they simply did not happen. Not like they do now. Our world is changing and I fear for where it is going. I fear for my son – not just for his life, but for his ability to live.
The French embrace love and life. Their passion and heart changed me in ways that I do not think would have changed had I not lived there. My hope is that my son has the chance to be touched by the light that emanates from Paris, and to grow up in a world where he can feel that anything is possible.