Several years ago, in September, I packed an enormous bag and boarded an airplane bound for Paris. I was 21, and headed toward a job I’d found on Craigslist. For the next 10 months, I’d agreed to be what the French call a fille au pair—an au pair girl—to a family with a 9-year-old and a 10-year-old. Hours later, when my flight landed at Charles de Gaulle, I took a bus to the Arc de Triomphe and a cab to the address I’d been given, hauled my suitcase up a spiral wooden staircase to a tiny seventh-floor apartment, and passed out.
I’d taken the position in exchange for this room—a chambre de bonne, as it's called; a former maid’s room in the building’s attic—and 350 euros a month. In addition to picking up the kids from school, helping with their English, preparing dinner, overseeing their nightly routines, and taking them to museums and activities, I’d be part of the family, the parents said. The interview process had consisted of Skyping with the family twice. They seemed lovely. So I went.
Two days after I landed, I was walking down the street in a cold rain, on my way back from a medical clinic where a French doctor had informed me that I had strep throat and a fever of 101 degrees, when my umbrella snapped inside out in the wind. I turned to my left and saw what I couldn’t see when my umbrella was open: the Eiffel Tower, huge and looming in the fog. It was at that moment that I realized I’d made a terrible mistake.
Not really terrible, of course—there were croissants and the Seine and five-euro wine and Chagall’s dreamlike ceiling at the Opera Garnier and the occasional day where everything went well at work and I had a silly dinner with the kids. I had a place of my own and, well, a year in France. The privilege of this is not lost on me.
Still, that moment beneath the Eiffel Tower exemplified the strange contrast of life in Paris, for me. I felt, much of the time, uncomfortable and out of place, even as I walked around amidst so much elegance and beauty, even as I looked up in some moment of drudgery and saw that I was beneath the damn Eiffel Tower. And Paris didn’t care what I thought: It just kept on, incessantly, being Paris. It felt like a grey, wet world I’d never be a part of, and the city itself seemed intent on reminding me of this fact.
I had more than one breakdown at the post office, where mailing a package became a multi-hour endeavor: I’d get to the front of the line, be told by the clerk that I’d made some grave error, step aside to correct it, get in the back of the line, and by the time it was my turn again, the rules, it seemed, had changed, and the correction I’d made was now incorrect. The family I worked for was kind and thoughtful, much more so than the families of other au pairs I got to know. Still, I worked long hours caring for the kids and cooking and cleaning and grocery shopping for a family I was supposed to be a part of, but wasn’t, not really. Around October, my apartment grew black mold.
Most of all I felt, between the wonderful moments, an acute longing for home like I’d never experienced: For my physical house, a worn-down cottage on a dirt road in Maine, for its linoleum countertops and my trundle bed upstairs, but mostly for a sense of belonging in something shared that I’d never registered until I was far from it.
In Paris, it was the tiny differences of daily life that felt slightly, jarringly off, as though I was living in a very refined alternate universe, where children have fresh-baked choux pastries for an after-school snack instead of Chips Ahoy. I kept thinking of one part in Adam Gopnik’s memoir Paris to the Moon, about the years he lived there with his young family. “This can shake you up, this business of things almost but not quite being the same,” he wrote. “A pharmacy is not quite a drugstore; a brasserie is not quite a coffee shop; a lunch is not quite a lunch.” These were thin fault lines, these differences, but they made the ground unsteady, as though at any moment they could split open and I’d fall in.
The dysregulation I felt shifted into stark relief as November slid into December. After Thanksgiving—which blew by in the City of Light as another Thursday—Paris became as amazing a Christmas spectacle as you’d imagine. The streets were strung with white lights in the shape of snowflakes and stars. Cafes served vin chaud under heat lamps. Florists sold tiny trees, their needles frosted with silvery artificial snow. Bon Marche, the department store, unveiled windows with fashionable pink and gold birch trees and dapper, miniature men in suits riding trains through them. (The theme that year? Not “North Pole” or “Santa’s Reindeer,” but the rather esoteric “Time.”)
It was all incredibly beautiful— irritatingly so. It was as if every element of the Christmas I knew had been extracted with tweezers, dropped into a bucket of antiseptic solution, and plucked out cold and sparkling, stripped clean of all nostalgia—the very things, really, that make Christmas, Christmas. I lay in my attic bed at night in my winter coat, and longed for the tiny, particular, irreproducible—even kitschy, unpoetic, and garish—moments of home.
I expected to be homesick, of course. But I was surprised to find that I longed for something sharper, far more specific: I wanted to drive home from the grocery store with my family in a dark car two or three days before Christmas and sit on my mittened hands to keep them warm. I wanted to hear “Last Christmas” coming through on the local oldies-turned-Christmas station, the snow starting to come down on the windshield, my mom at the wheel, saying, “I’m just going to take it slow—this is the kind of weather where it can get slick really fast,” knowing that at home we’d read in our slippers on the couch and someone would make pasta.
Walking to my apartment after work under Paris’ pristine white lights, I thought of my uncle’s Christmas tree back home, radiating with oversized, old-fashioned multi-colored bulbs. N’existe pas in Paris. There were no carols playing in shops or markets the way they play everywhere in the U.S. When I went to a Christmas concert at the American church, hoping for some familiar “Silent Night” and “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” a French children’s choir sang “It’s the Climb” by Miley Cyrus.
Bizarrely, above foods and even people, I missed fluorescent lights. All light in Paris was soft and romantic and completely lovely. There were fluorescent lights, of course. But they weren’t the same: Even the lights in Monoprix seemed to glow a little hazier and more politely than the ones in the U.S. What I wanted was the bright white glare of a gas station convenience store at night, snow shovels and de-icing salt for sale by the front door, red- and green-frosted donuts behind the Dunkin’ Donuts counter, the feeling of the last stop on a long road trip home for Christmas.
The strangest thing was that what I yearned for weren’t always memories of things I’d actually done. I teared up when I thought about sitting with my cousins on a sectional in a wood-paneled den, watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a foosball table in the corner, a family party going on downstairs. I have never done this, not that I can remember. We do not have a wood-paneled den. I do not like sectionals. And Rudolph freaks me out. Yet these moments were as vivid as dreams or memories, and they seemed taken from some deep-seated cultural nostalgia I couldn’t choose or control.
The last few days before I was scheduled to fly home for Christmas dragged on. School let out for the holiday, and I could see—through the windows in the dark afternoons—families gathering in the apartments on our street, and with every Christmas party I took the kids to I felt more yearning for home.The day before I left, I took them for a walk through the wet Luxembourg Gardens, the allées of trees rain-dashed and grey. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. The next day, I landed at Logan Airport. The lights were blissfully bright and direct. They didn’t fuss around trying to look beautiful. I spent my first morning home getting a haircut and going to Market Basket and CVS, all the places I’d missed. I nearly cried in the CVS Christmas department, with all its cheap plastic ornaments and tinseled garlands. I was so happy, I took a photo and posted it to Facebook. In the caption I wrote, “It's the little things you miss. Like the CVS Christmas aisle.”
I really dragged my feet going back to Paris after New Year’s. At Logan, I was going through the motions of getting on my flight back to Charles de Gaulle—checking my bag, popping a Dramamine, sitting with my carry-on at the gate. A party to celebrate Epiphany awaited me, my French family emailed to say, with Champagne and an almond galette des rois.
But I couldn’t bring myself to get on a plane that would carry me through the black night, where I’d wake up an ocean away from the fake Christmas trees in the terminal, and my mom who was, at that moment, sitting just outside in her warm car, waiting for me to take safely off. I panicked. When they called the first boarding group, I got up and asked the woman at the counter, through tears, if I could wait and take another flight. “It’s no problem,” she said, which still amazes me. “We’ll put you on the one tomorrow night.” The crew pulled my bag from the belly of the plane and I wheeled it back out the Departures door to find my mom at curbside, the radio on, just where I’d pictured, and drove back home by the lights of Route One—past car washes and Hilltop Steakhouse—for one more night.
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