“We ought to try, by the example of our own lives, to prove that life is love and wonder.”
- James Baldwin
We tell stories about where we came from to make sense of who we are, but whichever story I tell about what brought me to Paris, the answer invariably returns to the most cliché but honest of answers: love and wonder.
I first traveled to Paris as a young student in 2008 to immerse myself in French culture, literature, and philosophy. Not six months into my journey, I fell in love with a Parisian; naturally, I moved to Paris as soon as I could, found a job as an English teacher, and wrote my first novel. Not surprisingly, the job was uninspiring, the novel was lamentable, and the relationship ended. But I stayed because home had become Paris.
Over the next decade, I worked several jobs (the shortest of which was a one-day stint at the Hard Rock Café, where I learned how to squirt ketchup into a ceramic bowl and was robbed by a co-worker). I earned graduate degrees in social theory and creative writing, wrote a second novel (it was published), fell in and out of love again, got a job teaching literature at the Sorbonne, moonlighted as a rock star, and met an American photographer in a bar five-days before a global pandemic—she’s now my wife.
All of these experiences would be reason enough to stay, but I keep returning to a seemingly forgettable memory to explain the unique sense of love and wonder that Paris continues to give me after all these years. It was one of those late summer days when the sun starts to set earlier than you’re used to, and I was sitting on a bench listening to an American couple disagree about how to get somewhere in the city. Their daughter was with them, and though she couldn’t have been more than ten years old, she was confident in her gait as she wandered from her parents’ bickering towards the Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis Church that towers over the Marais.
Standing in the grey-blue shadow of the magnificent white stone sanctuary, the girl’s jaw dropped, her arms hung at her sides, and she craned her neck upwards to admire the royal red doors and turquoise blue clock with gold motifs that mark the year of its inception, 1627. When the girl’s parents finally looked up from their map and saw the September sun glowing orange on the white stone of the church, they put down their map and joined their daughter in her amazement.
There is a different version of Paris that vibrates just beneath the surface of what the guidebooks tell us, a Paris that can’t be discovered in maps or postcards or Instagram cliches. The Paris which the young girl witnessed in front of that church is the kind of magic that still stops me in my tracks on most days. It’s the way the sunlight hits the cobblestones of Montmartre along the Rue des Abbesses, a neighborhood where the most important French revolution you’ve never heard of, the Paris Commune, first took place. It’s the profound quiet within the stone walls of the Village Saint Paul, a medieval hamlet tucked into the Marais, just across the river from the watering holes and literary haunts of Voltaire and James Baldwin and Simone de Beauvoir.
Through my Context Conversations and during my walks, I strive to provide a piece of the wonder that stops so many of us in our tracks. So whether it happens in the Luxembourg gardens as we read passages of Gertrude Stein’s influence on Ernest Hemingway, or during an online seminar when we discuss James Baldwin’s love affair in the shadow of the Alps, the reason why I continue to live, breathe, and teach in Paris is simple: there is proof of love and wonder in front of every building and on every street corner, and all you have to do is look up.
Samuél is a writer and musician who has lived in Paris since 2008. He holds an M.A. in European Society from University College London and an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Samuél teaches creative writing at the Sorbonne, and is also a pianist and singer in the American indie-rock trio, Slim & The Beast. Visit his Substack for more writing, and follow him on Instagram. Learn with Samuél Lopez-Barrantes online or in person.
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