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Knitting on Busses, the Hazards of Roller-Skating, and midnight at the Musee D’Orsay!

January 20, 2011   I brought my knitting to Paris just in case. Everyone needs a hobby, I thought, something to pass the time in between activities, a project to work on for the semester. Though I was less willing to admit it, I also feared I would spend a good part of the first few weeks alone, adjusting to life in the city and still in the process of making new friends. I had promised Nick and Michael scarves for Christmas; but as the semester drew to an end and mornings of teary goodbyes turned to nights of frantic packing, it became clear that they may very well be next year’s Christmas presents, as I had yet to start. 

When I moved in with my fabulous, gluten-free host mom and began learning how to live in a city, however, knitting seemed the perfect thing to bring on the forty minute bus rides to class every morning (the metro is faster, but I prefer the scenic route whenever possible). Reading was too dizzying, staring out the window too dull, and I, more than most people on earth, need to be occupied at all times. And so, on my first jetlagged and rainy day in Paris, I wound my skein of aubergine merino into a ball, selected a pattern from my handy “365 days of knitting” book and set off on my next adventure. 

I’ve heard from almost everyone who has lived here that the French are a difficult people to befriend. Stoic and intensely private, they are a culture that does not lend itself to easy interactions with strangers, often far more likely to “wait and see” before striking up a conversation. Coming to Paris with this knowledge (as well as about eight different books about life in France, from “the Historic Restaurants of Paris” to “Entre Nous: Getting in Touch with your Inner French Girl,” to Julia Child’s “My life in France), I was apprehensive of how this reserved culture would receive me, a loud and slightly outrageous redhead with a propensity to laugh like a dying seal and get lost on her own campus. I boarded the bus that rainy Tuesday with my own reservations: about the French, about my ability to navigate life in a crazy, cosmopolitan city, about leaving behind everyone I knew and loved and plunging headfirst into the unknown. 

The next twenty minutes both confirmed my fears and gave me endless hope for the next five months. I took a seat in the back next to a French student reading a paper in some Cyrillic language. As predicted, she did not look up when I sat down. The bus filled with rush-hour commuters, and another, slightly older woman came to stand next to me, looking equally impassive. I sighed and pulled out my knitting, determined to get a start on the pattern I had selected the night before. The bus lurched forward and I with it, juggling circular needles in one hand, yarn, cable needle (lost within the first week and replaced by one of my host mother’s chopsticks!) in the other, trying to pull out my map and tuck in my metro pass all at the same time. The bus stopped and my ball of yarn flew out of my hand, rolled down the bus corridor, and right out the door to the street outside. I froze, horrified and panicked, knowing that if I pulled, the string would unravel and I would be stuck holding the tail end as the bus drove forward and my yarn trailed behind it, a lone stripe of purple on the black Parisian streets. There was not time to get up and retrieve the ball from outside. There was nothing I could do. And then miraculously, without missing a beat, a French businessman reached down, picked up my errant ball, tossed it back inside the bus, where I somehow caught it, and tucked it back into my bag. There was a pause while every single person on the bus stared at me, and I looked back, horrified and unsure what to say. Then, the woman next to me began to laugh. Not a single giggle or derisive snort, but a long, reckless laugh, a helpless tumble into mirth unlike any I had heard in weeks. She herself seemed surprised. It was the first time I have heard someone French laugh in public, and in that moment I knew: if I can make people here laugh, if I can be myself and not some toned down, timid version, I will be all right. 

It has been a week and a half since that fateful morning, and life has gotten more wonderful by the day. I am still meeting people on my program (the semester-long Columbia-Penn program, as I did not want to go for an entire year), and adjusting to life in the city (I am remarkably adept at navigation, but got an ATM and a stamp vending machine confused, and almost washed my hair with bleach!). This time of the year, Paris is grey, and rain often makes the black streets slick and slippery. At first, the lack of light depressed me, before I began to embrace this quiet, winter Paris, free of tourists and infused with a subtle, lasting beauty unlike that of the wide, glittering boulevards and soaring monuments (although I did spot the Eiffel Tower from the bus the other night, and stared openly at it’s sparkling mass like a slack-jawed idiot until we pulled away!). This is not the aloof, unattainable Paris of my childhood visit. This is a city with which I can fall in love. 

My first Sunday here, I spent rollerblading with Kylie (one of my favorite people from Hamilton, who also has a journal and who is spending the year here!), in the Quai de la Seine, near where she lives. I learned quite quickly that I am the very person for whom helmets were invented, as my first glide out the front door of the rental shop ended with my lying prostrate on the pavement! We spent the next few hours circling the embankments of the quay, where Parisians keep houseboats, equipped with kitchens, decks, and full trees! It is a breathtaking part of the city, one I had never seen before, and Parisians cheered us on as Leah (a girl from Williams who was learning to skate for the first time) and I scuttled by their game of boule. It has also been a week full of spontaneous discoveries. I woke up on Tuesday morning, decided I wanted to go to the Musee D’Orsay, and was in front of Van Gogh’s Sunbathers in half an hour. The joy of living in a city with so much art and life has yet to sink in, and I wandered through the galleries for an hour, my eyes like saucers as I struggled to take in the simultaneous beauty of the building, the fame of its art, and the quiet majesty of the Seine, just beyond the long glass windows. On my way out, I spotted a sign for “cinema, ce nuit” and learned that the museum is putting on a series of classical films in conjunction with a current exhibit. 

That afternoon, after my grammar class, I returned with Emilia, a friend from Columbia, and together we dashed through rain-washed streets, stopping to buy meringues the size of our faces and salads that we ate on the steps of the museum. We entered and were given cushions by the museum staff, made our way to the main hall, which sits in the gorgeous, art deco interior of a converted train station, and took our seats beneath the glass ceiling, surrounded on all sides by Parisians and art. The film (the 1925 silent version of Ben-Hur) began and I lay there, silent for once in my life, looking from the screen above to the people around me, and finally to the canvasses on the walls. If this is going to be my life for the next five months, I thought, it is something well worth the pain of leaving. Welcome to my life in Paris.