I lived in Paris for six months as part of my degree. I arrived in January, it was very cold and I struggled to make friends. I was staying in a weird Catholic hall of residence run by nuns, but it was what I could afford and it was in the prettiest corner of Paris, just a short walk across the Luxembourg Gardens to La Sorbonne where I was studying comparative literature.
Emily in Paris, the whirlwind Netflix series where an American woman falls head over Louboutins with the beautiful city, has been described as shallow by critics.
I agree that it is cheesy and that Emily’s outfits belong in Clueless, but the way she is drawn into taking romantic risks and making decisions that she would never consider as a marketing executive back home in Chicago struck a chord with me.
When I first arrived, I matched other people’s frostiness with my own – if people tried to practice their English with me, I pointedly spoke back to them in French. If strange men approached me on the street, I crossed the road sharply. But I started to relax more in the Summer – this was my time in Paris and I wanted to have fun.
There’s a theme running through Ian McEwan’s novel, The Comfort of Strangers, that I sometimes think about. The two central characters, a married couple, let their guards down. After all, they’re on holiday. But we are reminded that this is the most dangerous time to take risks – you are your most vulnerable and exposed when you are in a strange city.
One starry evening, Emily is sitting outside at the Cafe de Flore, when a man at the next table starts making conversation. It all seems so natural and spontaneous, but he’s almost definitely done it many times before.
His name is Thomas and he is a professor of semiotics and he is all too happy to explain to the wide-eyed American tourist that Jean-Paul Satre used to drink there. She would never normally do this, but she invites him back to hers. She sees him again, but she gradually realises that there is no wit behind his pretentiousness.
Coincidentally, I also had a fling with a French man called Thomas, and probably uncoincidentally, he also started speaking to me out of the blue when I was sitting alone. I used to spend hours reading on a bench in the Luxembourg Gardens. Almost every single time I was there, I would get chatted up by somebody different.
It was flattering, but I was aware that it wasn’t necessarily an unusual experience. They don’t mention this in tourist information booklets, but I’m sure that the park is notorious for male pick-up artists.
I had turned down a lot of people before Thomas started talking to me, but he seemed different – for a start, he was my age (Emily is also hit on by a lot of older men) – and he was friendly and straightforward.
Our “relationship” was always teetering on the edge between being romantic and very creepy. But I gave it the benefit of the doubt because it was Paris.
He took me on a midnight tour of Parisian landmarks. I was in love with the French language. Everything he said about love, sex, and life sounded incredibly profound. It was only when we met up years later in London and we spoke in English that I realised that his theories made no sense.
As a modern career woman, Emily has her boundaries – no relationships with clients – but she gets worn down. When she is asked out by the nephew of designer Pierre Cadeau, she gets carried away by all the excitement – a love affair! In Paris!
But as she starts to make exceptions to her rules (kissing your friend’s boyfriend doesn’t translate well in any language), she starts to lose part of her identity.
You want to say, Emily, enjoy Paris, but it’s not a magical city in a parallel universe.