Struggling to keep my eyelids from submitting to the exhaustion, I sit in the taxi on the way into Paris from the airport. It’s August 1st, and the summer sun radiates through the windows of the cab which pulls me into a light slumber. A few minutes into the ride, I muster the strength to look out the window at the skyline of Paris opening out in front of me.
Only that’s not what I see. We’re on a highway, and on both sides, warehouses and box stores stretch as far as the eye can see. Ahead of me, cars are honking as their brake lights glow through the traffic.
Gradually, as we enter the city, the scenery changes. The highways are replaced by boulevards and the warehouses by Haussmannian apartment buildings. As we head towards the 6th arrondissement, the roads narrow and become lined with cafés and storefronts.
“7 rue Corneille,” the driver calls, and we look at him confusedly for a few moments before we realize he’s telling us that we’ve arrived. He gets out of the car and unloads our luggage onto the sidewalk and leaves us as we at what will be our home for the next twelve months. The apartment building looks old, but in a cute way, with a café nestled on the ground floor just next door.
I cautiously enter the building code into the keypad next to the gate, and push it hard, but it doesn’t budge. I’m not strong enough to force it open, and my dad has to do it for me.
To our surprise, the gate doesn’t open into the lobby of a building but into a courtyard, paved in cobblestone and partially covered by an ivy awning. It’s a simple open space, not a tower, not a statue, nor an arch, but something about just seems like Paris.
It’s the fastest year of my life. I go to school and make lifelong friends. I travel all over Europe. I try the cafés that line the streets, I duck into the bookstores overflowing with used books. I learn that it’s not as hard as I thought it would be. Slowly but surely, I learn French. I learn my way around the neighborhood, then the metro, then start exploring the whole city. And before I know it, it’s summer again.
It’s August 8th, but this time of 2018. We stand in the courtyard with all of our luggage exactly as we had done a year and a week earlier. But it isn’t the same at all.
I lug my suitcase out to the curb, bag in one hand, holding the gate with the other. As the taxi pulls up, we look on in disbelief. For there is no mistaking it: the driver is the same one who had made the same journey with us the summer before. It seems like a fitting coincidence.
As he helps us load the car, he talks to me in French.
“Alors, vous partez aux États-Unis? Ça fait juste un an, n’est-ce pas?”
“Oui. Un an à Paris.”
“Et tu parles français!”
“Ouais, je l’ai appris à l’école.”
(“So you’re leaving Paris,” he asks. “Just a year, right?”
“Yeah,” I respond. “A year in Paris.”
“And you speak French,” he exclaims upon hearing me speak for the first time in a year.
“Yeah,” I say with a smile. “I learned it at school.”)
It would seem like we have so much to say, but everyone is silent the whole ride back to Charles de Gaulle Airport. As we drive over the Seine, into the 4th arrondissement, and eventually over the Périphérique, I wonder how these streets could have ever looked foreign to me.
Knowing that the city I have come to love is far behind us, I sigh as we pass by the IKEA to the right of the highway. But I have to squint in the face of the bright noontime sun as I look out the window, and I understand why Parisians flee to their country homes in August. The oppressive Parisian heat followed by torrential thunderstorms can be somewhat intimidating. Sadly, we won’t flow back into the city come September as they will.
Before I know it, we are left alone in front of the departures wing of airport. I stand in front of the door, unable to open it. My dad reaches around and pushes it for me.
“It wasn’t heavy,” he says.
By Kate Ellison
*Ellison’s parents, who are professors of economics at MIT, took their sabbatical in Paris last year, so Kate studied in France for a year. She moved to Paris knowing only the French she had learned in middle school. This is a reflection of her experience.