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I never tell anyone this, but the first four days I lived in Paris, I didn’t leave my flat. I was 22, had never really been outside Canada, and, in the third year of my undergrad, had flung myself across the ocean into what felt like a movie set. I didn’t speak the language and knew no one.
I had enrolled to study at the Sorbonne – and before I left, had visions of eating all the baguettes, drinking all the wine in the Jardin du Luxembourg, with all of my French friends. But then I got there, and did nothing. I remember those first days with such clarity: the feeling of being frozen, the constant self-doubt. I was an imposter. Who did I think I was? Why did I do this?
I’m Amberly McAteer, an editor in The Globe’s Opinion section. I went to Paris because I thought saying that I lived there would be the coolest thing. But did I really want to be in Paris? I wasn’t chic enough, wasn’t cultured enough, wasn’t je-ne-sais-quoi enough. I was a small-town girl from St. Thomas, Ont. – and surely didn’t belong in the City of Light.
This week, when the Notre-Dame burned, I felt frozen again. The possibility of it being gone forever, as so many watched around the world, was horrifying. That city – and that place – shaped who I am. The Notre-Dame is the beginning of my relationship with a city that taught me how to be an independent. I’d learn how to speak French, but I’d also learn how to live French: très confident.
I did, of course, finally set foot into the Parisian world – around 6 p.m. on day four. Mostly because I had run out of the food left for me in the fridge by my roommate, who was away the first week. I stood at the red front door of our apartment in the 5th arrondissement for about 20 minutes, talking myself into motion. When I finally opened it, I made a beeline up the Rue Saint-Jacques. I headed for the Notre-Dame.
More than any other Parisian landmark, the Notre-Dame seemed like it would make me feel like I was really there. I hoped that climbing its towers would, finally, push me into my new Paris life.
“How do I get to the top?” I said to the first person I had spoken to in about 100 hours.
“Ferme,” the ticket man responded and stared.
My eyes welled up. It was the first of countless times the city would initially shock me with coldness, only to reveal incomprehensible beauty. “The south tower has closed. But if you’re not too long, go up the north. Quickly," he said.
When I got to the top – already breathless from the stairs and the claustrophobia of the ancient, endless spiral staircase – I gasped. The sun was just setting behind the Eiffel, the city cloaked in gold. As I peered out the window, the gargoyles were at my ears – with similar facial expressions of wonder. I snapped a photo on my digital camera (the one above). I was all alone, but suddenly didn’t feel like it.
Of course, being a Parisian isn’t as easy as that. Of course, I never ended up being a Parisian.
A week later, I was on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, buying impossibly high-heeled – and stupidly expensive – shoes: chocolate-brown suede with a magenta bow. I wore them out of the store and, about nine blocks later, was face down on the pavement of a busy crossing.
“Merde,” mumbled one woman in a group of others, all stepping over me – who, I noticed then, wore trendy, comfortable flats.
I told you: Paris doesn’t give it away easily. Nor, for the record, can a pair of shoes cure insecurity.
But that first real day in Paris, in that tower in Notre-Dame, was the beginning of the end of my imposter syndrome. The city, over time, would teach me the only way to be truly cool – and that is, cliché as it may sound, to stop comparing myself to others. Stop trying to be someone I’m not. And to stop looking for love – which, now as a 35-year-old woman, admittedly, sounds ridiculous. But tell that to 22-year-old me, standing on a bridge over the Seine, watching proposal after proposal.
That’s not the only thing I’d like to tell her. Instead of feeling embarrassed at falling down, or ashamed that I didn’t arrive on the streets of Paris like some française Mary Tyler Moore, I should be immensely proud. Stepping outside your bubble is a hard thing to do for anyone – let alone as a young woman, in a country where you can’t yet speak the language.
Over the school year, I went back to the Notre-Dame countless times. All alone, on purpose. Once, I inadvertently attended mass in the cathedral, the organ booming. I remember lighting a candle for my grandfather, who had passed away years before.
Now, and especially this week, it’s easy to find the symbolism: the Notre-Dame is resilience. She is “no innocent bystander to history,” wrote Globe columnist Konrad Yakabuski. She stood proudly in the literal centre of the city through revolutions, wars, and even a brutal, raging fire couldn’t knock her down.
This past week, much has been made of the fact that everything in Paris is numbered by its distance to Notre-Dame, point zero. In some very real ways, it’s my own marker, too.
What else we’re reading:
Since the fire, I’ve been feeling even more romantique about the city, and have started to reread my two Parisian favourites. Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six months that changed the world. And a beautifully descriptive memoir, written by former Paris bureau chief of the New York Times, Elaine Sciolino: The Only Street in Paris.
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