I’ve spent a total of six months living in Paris over the last four years. What has the experience been like, and what brings me back year after year? Will I keep coming to Paris, or should I go somewhere else for a change? Will I eventually move here??
Note: This post is an awful lot of musing! Scroll down to where the photos start if you just want to see what my life in Paris has been like.
Each year here has had different highlights, but each year has been terrific overall. Of the many pleasures I have found here, these come to mind:
- Friends and Family.
- From my first visit I felt a special bond with my cousin Lisa — whom I previously knew only slightly, from family get-togethers when she was much younger. Different in many ways, we share a zest and perspective that is hard to characterize; it may even relate to our shared genes! Each prior year Lisa and I have found our way to her family’s estate south of Orleans, L’Ejumeau, on a weekend when it wasn’t rented out. The dates didn’t work out this year, and I don’t know for how long it will continue to be available, but it has also been a memorable feature of my visits. I also have sometimes met up with my first cousin Jackie — Lisa’s mom — and other family members as they pass through Paris. And now that Lisa is expecting a baby in September there will be yet another Paris cousin to visit.
- I have made several friends here who it is also nice to see again when I visit. Now that Joël Zhizhong has moved here I have another close friend in Paris. Apart from him and Lisa, however, I’m afraid that my other Paris friends are quite happy seeing me once or twice a year. Catching up with them is an excellent part of a one or two month stay, but would not afford a year-round social context. Each year I meet a few French guys through social networking sites, but the odds of striking up an enduring friendship are low.
- Inviting friends and family to stay with me in Paris has been a treat. As well as creating instant sociability for me it makes the trip more affordable and sociable for them; playing house together is fun for both of us. This does mean that I need to rent a larger apartment, although not necessarily quite so fabulous as the one I’ve rented for the past three years. That apartment, by the way, has just been rented out for a year, so it won’t be available next May or June. I’m friendly with the owners, however, so it may well be open to me in future years, even if they take it off the rental site where I first found it.
- Each year I’ve managed to stir up an event for the Paris chapter of the Harvard Gender and Sexuality Caucus (formerly Harvard Gay & Lesbian Caucus). These have afforded an opportunity to catch up with old friends and to make new ones. This year several of the participants were graduate students who will be back in Boston next year. Getting to know them has been an unexpected fringe benefit of the Paris trip.
- An additional feature of a tourist destination like Paris is people who just happen to be there at the same time. This year it was my elementary school friend Alan and my Cambridge friend Darko, who will also be at the house I will be sharing in Provincetown around the end of July. While each of these visitors is by definition a surprise there have been several each year; in Paris they are expected surprises.
- Food and Drink.
- The food is really good — Parisians demand it. The fresh food is of very high quality; the restaurants are good and often quite reasonable value for money; even the frozen food is quite nice! Good food can be found anywhere, of course, but the standard in Paris is unusually high.
- I’m not a big drinker in general; most days a single glass of wine with dinner. But in Paris it seems that a bottle of rosé is constantly at hand, as well as a friend to help drink it. And if the need arises another can be found… This isn’t particularly healthy; I often exceeded the recommendation of one or two drinks a day. But I never (well hardly ever) got sloppy drunk, and I never have gotten a hangover. The free flow of alcohol has generated a “rosé glow” that has added charm to my visits.
- For whatever reason — and it would be important to know whether this is a function of the limited length of my visits — I am much more physically active in Paris than in Boston. I noticed this in prior years because I always lose weight on these trips, despite eating up a storm. But this year I was able to quantify it using my trusty fitbit. The distance I walk in an average day in Boston is about 3 miles, but I walk more than twice as far in Paris. I climb less than 10 flights of steps in Boston, while in Paris more than 30.
- There’s no great mystery about these difference. In Boston I work at a sedentary job two days a week (though I do stand at my desk now), and the rest of the time I’m pretty lazy. In Paris I am a full-time flâneur, which keeps me moving, as do various day and night social activities. As to stairs, I have been living for the past three years on the U.S. fourth floor, sans ascenseur (without elevator) , which means three flights up and down several times a day. Most of my other flights of steps come from the subway in both cities, but there are just a lot more steps in Paris, both because the correspondences are more complex and many of the lines are deeper. [One detail that some friends may notice: I also walked a lot in Japan, which would have affected the April and May averages but for the fact that I lost my fitbit the day I arrived. The little devils have to be carefully attached to keep them from working lose.]
- There are two obvious questions:
- Would I still be so active if I lived in Paris, rather than just visiting for a month or two? Or would my behavior “regress to the mean?” My activity level in Boston doesn’t show much dependence on the season, but it’s also possible that my activity in Paris is a factor of having been there at seasons which make outdoor activities especially attractive.
- Can I come up with ways — in addition to my fitbit — to motivate me to be more active in Boston?
- The Magic of Paris.
- Don’t tell my Parisian friends about this one! They see mostly problems: bureaucracy, unemployment, homelessness, crime … and tourists. They reserve their particular scorn for overenthusiastic foreigners. But, sorry, the place is still magical to me!
- Of course I’ve seen all the main tourist attractions. There is no “must see” aspect to my visits to Paris, as there is for the first-time tourist. But even familiar buildings and places have their charm, especially when they catch you by surprise, or show a new aspect arising from light or weather.
- The permanent collections of the Parisian art museums can support repeated visits, but that’s more of a rainy-day backstop than — for me — a major draw. I didn’t go through any of the permanent collections this year, for example, though I did see two remarkable special exhibitions, both much larger than one gets in Boston. One was terrific and the other was worthwhile; the availability of such exhibitions is a draw.
- There’s also a ton of other artistic and cultural stuff going on in Paris all the time. The violin recital that Lisa invited me to and the drum performance that Jared and I went to are just a few examples. The website of the city of Paris affords links to a vast range of events and exhibits. I followed up on a few of these in prior years, and I want to participate even more in any future stays.
- In a really good movie there will be a few scenes where some aspect of human life is captured so beautifully that it takes your breath away: the actors and their performances are simply perfect. In the Parisian-dominated areas, such as rue Montorgueil, just walking down the street or people-watching from a café can give me that reaction several times a minute. Why is this? People just seem to have so much character, whether young and beautiful or old and wizened, families, street urchins, whatever! I can’t really explain this, but I know it when I see it, and I know it when I don’t see it, back in Boston. I admit that it’s odd for this to be so important to me, but it is actually one of the chief attractions of Paris!
- Boston is one of the most historic cities in the U.S., partly because not too much has happened since the Revolution. But our history pales into insignificance in contrast with the rich layers of history in Paris, much of which is reflected, to the practiced eye, in the buildings, streets and topography of the modern city. I enjoy this tangled story and the way in which facets of it can be teased out from the city itself, even though much Parisian history is bloody and brutal.
So why not just move there and live out the rest of my life in this paradise?!! Not so fast. There are good things about Boston, some downsides to Paris, and several questions about how much living there would resemble my one or two-month visits.
- Friends and Family. My brother’s household near Chicago is my closest family in the U.S. Apart from being a longer flight it would be perfectly feasible to see them as often as I do now. My brother doesn’t fly, but it would be possible for Andy and Noree to visit me in Paris (and Steve could come by cruise ship); in fact they might be more likely to visit me there than in Boston. The real issue is my friendship community in the Boston area. This includes several friends from school and college days as well as many gay friends I have made in recent decades. Several have visited me in Paris during my stays there, and I’m sure that some of my friendships would remain warm despite the distance. The fact is, however, that I would be uprooting myself from a fairly rich social environment and transplanting myself to a sparser one. While there are reasons to hope that I could eke out a reasonable social life in Paris it would never be as broad or deeply rooted as the one I would be giving up in Boston.
- Work and Sleep.
- I have a robust biological clock, which typically wakes me up within a few minutes of the same time every day. This is often a convenience, but it also makes it hard for me to”sleep in.” The consequence is that I get sleep-deprived if I stay up much later than my usual bedtime. That makes me groggy and I suspect may contribute to catching colds.
- In Boston I work two days a week at FreshAddress. The office starts at 8 am, and is a half-hour commute, so I get up at 6 am on work days. To get a good night’s sleep I go to bed on work nights between 10 and 11 pm. The wrinkle is that this sets my clock for the entire week. I can stay out later once or twice perhaps, but at the cost of running low on sleep.
- My first year in Paris I replicated the 10 pm / 6 am schedule, after navigating jet lag. This got me started bright and early but it precluded just about any night life. In later years I shifted my schedule progressively later until this year (2013) I typically got to bed at 1 or 2 am and slept until 9 or 10 am. That still wasn’t late enough for the most fabulous clubs — Cud or Club 18 — but it enabled me to experience Paris at night in a way I had not in prior years.
- Boston’s after-dark charms aren’t as compelling as those of Paris, but I think I would shift a couple of hours later if I weren’t anchored to my work schedule. And I expect to take the later shift as well in any future visits to Paris.
- In Boston my work days — few as they are — provide a structure and discipline to my week that I would otherwise lack. I don’t seem to miss this in Paris for a month or two, but perhaps I would if I stayed there longer.
- The Charms of Boston. I like living in Boston. Cambridge in particular is a wonderfully liberal and civilized, and I love my apartment. My particular neighborhood of Central Square is rather down-market, with a lot of drunks and homeless types on the street, but it’s very convenient, and living here is my choice; there are plenty of lovely neighborhoods elsewhere. To prove the point, here are some photos I’ve taken in the area:
- Weather. I like Boston weather — fall in particular — although winter can be gloomy and summer sultry. The weather in Paris is generally similar, except winter is milder — with little snow — and summer is less humid, and usually not so hot. I have the impression that the weather in Paris is at least as pleasant as in Boston. The trap for me, however, is that my stays have been in April, May, June and September — arguably the four nicest months. Some significant part of my enjoyment has been due to the relatively good weather. It’s an open question how much I would like being there over the winter, or in July or August.
- Hiking. While I am discernibly slowing down, hiking has been a chief form of outdoor recreation throughout my adult life. My walks in and around Paris haven’t really qualified as hikes, however, since Ile de France is basically flat. This is unfair, however, since I have to drive two or more hours from Boston to get to a proper mountain and I’m sure there’s good hiking to be had within that radius of Paris.
- Internet. Like many of us, I’m something of an Internet addict, especially Facebook and the gay social networking sites. I try with some degree of success to prioritize personal interactions, but when I’m alone I often check my iPhone. One distinctive aspect of my Paris trips, however, has been the fact that data roaming is prohibitively expensive. Consequently, I almost always set data to wifi-only. There are lots of wifi hotspots in Paris, including nearly all parks, so this isn’t a big issue, but it does preclude checking my iPhone at any random moment. I found this rather relaxing, although I’m sure that I would spring for data if I moved to Paris. [Three location-aware apps that don’t require data to work have been a big help: TripAdvisor City Guides, CityMaps2Go and Time Out Paris.]
- I have never needed coffee to get going in the morning, but a few cups do help keep me alert. I can’t drink coffee after about 3 pm, though, because that would keep me awake at night.
- In Boston I typically have a Starbucks Grande Nonfat Latte at some point every day, sometime after breakfast. (I usually do a crossword puzzle while I sip it.) Sometimes I’ll have an additional cup of coffee, at work or before volunteering. But I rarely make coffee at home in Boston and rarely have more than three shots a day.
- In Paris, however, I never go to Starbucks (even though there’s one across the street from where I’ve been renting). I always brew a pot of coffee at home, and have several cups with breakfast. Then I will have several additional cups — typically noisettes (an expresso with a touch of steamed milk) during the day.
- I enjoy both coffee-consumption patterns and I happily toggle between them like flipping a switch. Go figure!
- The “Language Barrier”. My French has not gotten better in a formal sense — I make as many errors as ever. But I have gotten more confident, and faster, and more playful. It’s awkward to use the wrong gender, or the mangle the subjonctif, but for social and practical purposes it rarely matters. Add to this the fact that so many French people now speak excellent English and there really isn’t much of a “barrier.” Language would be a more significant issue in Italy or a Spanish-speaking country, but it doesn’t worry me in France. On the positive side, the challenge of making oneself understood in a different language makes daily life more interesting.
- The Examined Life. One of the key features of my trips to Paris has been — believe it or not — this blog. In Boston I post occasionally to Facebook, and I have a little-used LiveJournal blog called Gently Row, but I make no attempt to systematically document my life. I write in a paper diary only a few times a year, usually when I’m leaving on a trip or really depressed. My first year in Paris, however, I blogged almost every day, and on subsequent visits every couple of days. This discipline motivates me to get out and do bloggable stuff as well as requiring me to account for how I have spent my precious time. The blog also calls for photographs, which inspires me to use my camera much more consistently than I do in Boston. The consequence is that my life in Paris is more mindful than my life in Boston. My guess is that this difference would evaporate sooner rather than later if I lived in Paris, since the novelty would inevitably wear off. This factor, while an important inducement to future visits, could be illusory as a reason to move.
- Immigration, Tax and Bureaucracy. There are a lot of issues with changing my legal residence to France, not least of which is a confiscatory wealth tax. The bureaucracy there is by all accounts Kafkaesque, though as a tourist I never encounter it. As a practical matter, it would make a lot more sense to shoehorn my trips into the 90 days allowed for a tourist visa rather than applying for residency or a long stay visa.
I don’t have a definitive answer to the question of why I keep going to Paris instead of trying somewhere else. From one perspective the Paris trips simply “ain’t broke” so why try to fix them? The pluses and minuses of other cities remain much as I outlined in 2010. There would be in most cases be an advantage in novelty and the challenge of a more unfamiliar language, counterbalanced by fewer local and predictable-surprise friends. A conservative aspect of my personality is probably the main reason: I often find it hard to think of myself being happier in some new place or situation, while I find it easy to imagine problems that would make me less happy if I made a change.
All that said, there are actually even deeper issues at play here:
- Novelty and Absence. One of the motivations for my first Paris trip was to shake things up. I enjoyed my simple routines in Boston but found them lacking in drama. I wanted to take advantage of being a novelty in Paris, and conversely perhaps let “absence make the heart grow fonder” among my friends in Boston. This worked to some extent, but my extended absences have also had the effect of loosening my regular connections with Boston. In most cases I pick up the rhythm of my friendships after a bit, but I’m not as reliable a presence, so it’s not as natural for friends to look me up; they often assume that I might be away. While my trips to Paris are by now hardly novel, the very fact that they are so short has kept an element of novelty alive at that end. It’s been a net gain in the richness of my experience, but my ties to Boston have been weakened rather than strengthened.
- Age and Change.
- At several points in my life I’ve felt the need to develop new strategies to keep life interesting in the next phase.
- The first big change was discovering hiking when I was in law school. I had been almost totally sedentary before that time, and my first day trip — up Lafayette and along Franconia Ridge — was thrilling and transformative. The second change was being diagnosed with testicular cancer, in 1984, then — as a reward for having survived — going to New Zealand for the first time, which is a hiker’s paradise.
- Coming out as a gay man, in 1989, was a third major change, precipitated to some extent by the fact that my straight friends had gotten married and started having kids, so weren’t interested in going hiking any more — Henry and my other New Zealand friends being notable exceptions. Chiltern Mountain Club, Boston’s gay outdoors club, gave me a new cadre of hiking friends, who were also potential lovers. Gay life had several phases, chiefly marked by my leadership of Chiltern, then of the Harvard Gay & Lesbian Caucus.
- My zest for serious hiking is fading, however: my last trip to New Zealand was in 2007, and my last multi-day backpack was in 2010. I am still attracted to young men, but now mostly as social friends and travel buddies; I long ago gave up the idea of looking for a partner, and the appeal of one-night-stands — never strong — has also faded. With two central elements of my personal drama on the wane I need to turn the page!
- Work has had its rewards, first in the practice of law, then as an I.T. administrator for the same law firm, and finally as co-founder and now part time “senior technical advisor” at FreshAddress.com. The mostly unpaid project of developing MemDir.org — a site that still hosts half a dozen non-profit membership groups — has also been rewarding. All of these have ended or are winding down, however. They are pleasant enough but really just something to do.
- I have taken an interest in video production at several points, but never beyond advanced amateur. My biggest project with a gay-themed drama called Trail Mix (1995). Two other fairly polished projects are The Way to Hua Shan (1994) and In Their Own Words: The Islamic Society of Boston (2005). I might want to do more in this vein, but I haven’t for several years.
- Recently I took a run at developing a Harvard Humanist Alumni group, but abandoned the project due to differences with Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard. I still run a Humanist Discussion Group every few weeks; fun, but of limited scope.
- Travel continues to be a significant source of pleasure and interest. In addition to my 14 trips to New Zealand I’ve been to most of the safer countries in Europe, South America and East and Southeast Asia. Now also Morocco, though I still haven’t nerved myself to visit my cousin Jackie’s safari camp in Kenya. My first trips were with family and school friends, then the New Zealand hiking trips and Earthwatch scientific expeditions, and most recently either solo or with gay friends. I’ve found engaging with a different culture and language to be enlivening – the experience wakes me up and leaves much more vivid memories than my daily routine. Most of my travel has been as a tourist, staying in hostels or hotels, but the Paris stays have demonstrated that living in an apartment for an extended period can be an even more engaging way to relate to a different cultural milieu. Apart from being health-dependent, travel can be enjoyed at any age.
- Meaning. The basic challenge we all face is how to make our lives meaningful. Although two common sources of meaning are inaccessible to me — religion and children — I’ve done a fairly good job of spinning up meaningful activities at various phases of my life. I am acutely aware, however, that it is up to me to create the meaning I need; I can’t rely on others to provide this. Being an occasional flâneur and bloggeur in Paris has become a meaningful part of my persona in this phase of my life, and I see no reason to stop at this point. This rôle is lacking as a full-fledged raison d’être, however, and it does little to enhance the greater proportion of time that I spend in Boston. Yes, I will probably come back to Paris next year … pourquoi pas? But my petits séjours don’t satisfy all of my need to make the next chapter of my life meaningful. How I will manage that remains to be seen.