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DISPATCH | A very Gershwin summer: seeing Paris as it is and as it is not

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Credit: Abigail Rabieh / The Daily Princetonian

Dispatches at The Prospect are brief reflections from our writers that focus on their experiences during the summer

This evening after work, I took the metro to a café near the river by my apartment, where I had an Aperol Spritz accompanied by strawberry sorbet. I made progress in a book for a reading group with a friend, and then accomplished some slightly-tipsy grocery shopping. I never thought I would enjoy anything about living alone, but the moments in between work (where I am expected) and returning to my claustrophobic 11-square-meter apartment (where I remember that there is no one to expect me) do feel uniquely liberating.


I’ve always heard that solo travel helps you find yourself, but I’m becoming more confused about myself by the day. Instead of feeling like I know myself better, I have been learning that it is possible to surprise myself. Who knew? I’ve never considered myself bilingual or thought that I would succeed to such an extent in my language studies, but after five weeks of working entirely in French, giving presentations in French, and chatting over lunch with my coworkers in French, I suppose I may have finally earned the title. Nor would I have ever described myself as adventurous, but after reviewing my SNCF train receipts and scrolling through my camera roll, which depicts everything from carnival museums to dance parties alongside the Seine, I might have earned that title as well.

I thought that getting to see a place for what it really is — going from tourist to inhabitant — would give me a deeper sense of its beauty and delight. But I should have taken the lessons from Baudelaire more seriously: a beauty that is real rather than delusional has its share of despair. The neighborhood I am living in is loud and run down, and I don’t feel comfortable walking back to my apartment after the sun sets. In fact, having the curtain pulled back reveals truths that are ugly and sad. I see drug dealers in my metro station; last week the police cleared out the migrant camp under a nearby bridge; yesterday morning a public bus ran into a tree on the corner of my block. It’s impossible to spend the summer in Paris wallowing in self-indulgence and introspection, pretending I live in some sort of character-building fantasy. Living here means experiencing a share of Paris’ reality, and that reality is far from romantic or pretty.

Yet I remain a visitor here, privileged and temporary, and I am lucky to experience an oversized dose of the idealized life. I have the ability to walk by and go forth to discover more fabulous museums, neighborhoods, shopping areas, and châteaux. I have been to so many châteaux over the past five weeks and I could not be happier about it. From the magnificent painted ceilings of Versailles to the incomparable historic graffiti in the Château de Tarascon to the surprising masterpieces in the Château de Chantilly, I love exploring how other people lived and how they passed their days in ways I cannot possibly imagine. Although now, when I visit someone’s historic home, I’ve begun to think that I’ve had some days here which may rival theirs. 

My perfect formula: grab a pain au chocolat, window-shop until the sun becomes too unbearable, find an air-conditioned museum to explore, wander until a new pastry can be obtained, eat said pastry while reading in a park, and then wander some more until I find an appropriately quiet restaurant where the waiter will probably speak with me in French. Luckily I’m interning in a museum, so these whirlwinds are fairly easy to come by. 

I learned about trompe l’œil in my French classes, an art technique that tricks the eye into seeing a three-dimensional object in a painting on a two-dimensional canvas. I think there is nothing that could be less French than that, for the vitality of Paris is no trick, nor does it attempt to hide. It attacks me everywhere, and there is nothing I can do but be swept along and attempt to fit in as much as possible before my short stint is up.

Abigail Rabieh is a rising junior in the History department from Cambridge, MA. She is the head Opinion editor at the ‘Prince’ and can be reached by email at or on Twitter at @AbigailRabieh.


Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at 

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