Lonely in the City of Lights: Commentary
HOST INTRO: Moving to a foreign country can be daunting. But it wasn’t the language or culture that commentator Eleanor Stanford struggled with when she moved to France. It was finding herself alone.
STANFORD: I moved to Paris when I was 18. It was January. And very cold.
This was my first time living away from home. I found a room on Craigslist in an apartment with a rotund French widow and her cat. During the day I worked in an advertising agency where I understood – pretty much nothing.
One Friday evening the widow and the cat left for a weekend in the country. It was my first month in Paris and I still felt like an outsider in the city. Like an IMPOSTER in this new role of adult.
And when my landlady left I realized I was going to spend the next two days alone.
I FELT LOST. Horrible, panicked loneliness enveloped me.
I tried to shake it off – I had DREAMED of living in Paris. I had left the village in the south of England where I had grown up IN ORDER to surround myself with millions of strangers. I could not fail at this simple task. I was going to enjoy my independence.
The next day I watched chic Parisians while I sat in a cafe.
Walking along the Seine, I pretended to be Charles Baudelaire. Alone, I felt increasingly detached from the city around me. The numbing effects of his opium habit started to seem appealing.
On the Sunday morning I spotted an American family on the Metro and sat down next to them. DELIGHTED to find some English speakers I struck up conversation:
“Hello! Are you on holiday?”
“We are,” the father said.
“Oh that’s lovely, lovely! I just moved here actually. Yeah, from England. It’s a great city, isn’t it? A bit cold though!”
They looked freaked out. And then they got off at the next stop. I sank back in my seat, red-faced.
By the afternoon I felt desperate. I remembered a fellow ex-pat I had met the week before at a party. She was performing along with a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. She had expressly told everyone NOT to come and see this first performance. But I went anyway.
I sat in the second row. She caught my eye. Underneath the false eyelashes her eyes widened. I cursed my stupidity and selfishness. I waited for her after the show to apologize.
“What a lovely surprise! Darling, it’s SO wonderful to see you!” she said. She enveloped me in a bear hug. “How was I?”
And suddenly everything clicked into place. All I needed was a hug. I could have kissed her. I think I probably did – ON THE CHEEK. This was France, after all.
And we went off into the night to drink some wine.
Now I live in New York – the second big foreign city of my life. And some of the things I found difficult in Paris don’t bother me at all. I TREASURE moments of quiet solitude. Taking long walks alone through the city is one of my favorite indulgences.
But that feeling of personal triumph at surviving in a foreign environment has never gone away. I guess however “old” and “adult” I’m supposed to be, a part of me will still be that 18 year old, lost and lonely in Paris.
Eleanor Stanford now lives in Harlem, where she talks to everybody who strikes up conversation on the subway.