I went to Paris as a grad student over 10 years ago. I was en route to Strasbourg, on the eastern border of France, where I spent one year on exchange. On my way there, I toured Paris for a few days.
The further I am from the experience, the more I can talk about it. It wasn’t all bad. The good parts were the walking around, especially along the river Seine at night. Yes, it’s as romantic as depicted in the movies. I loved that there were parks where you could sit and relax your feet before walking or taking the metro to the next tourist site. I visited the Cathedrale de Notre Dame – and I did see the sculpture of someone holding his own head. I also walked along the Champs Elysees and was struck by the mixture of traditional street cafes with fast food restaurants like MacDonalds. I took the lift to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
But I was alone. And I was lonely. I was lonely not because I was alone, but because I was a young black woman and it seem that that made men want to talk to me all the time. I felt it was an invasion of my privacy, rather than an indication of my good looks. And I did not want to sit at the street cafes because there were no black people sitting in them, and I had heard that French waiters could be blatantly racist and refuse to serve a black customer. I now read that people have complained about the snobbishness of Parisians. If only I knew it then.
The worst of it all was that at that time, there were loving couples everywhere. Walking together. Sitting on the banks of the Seine. In the parks. Kissing. Holding hands. I have never been so aware of being alone. I eventually did eat in a French cafe over a year later when I returned to Paris to interview Fatou Diome for my dissertation, and we had the interview in a cafe.
My experience in Paris for the first time taught me that we Africans must write our own tour guide books. The impression I had had of Paris before I went was what my white classmates had experienced. And I had a tour guide book. I learned quite quickly that when you’re black, and you’re a woman, the experience of Paris is quite different. Especially when your accent makes it obvious that you’re not Francophone.
Back to the loneliness. I eventually figured it wasn’t just me who was lonely. I saw a woman on the Elysees with a notice saying “I’m looking for a husband,” and I felt she was me. That’s why I took the picture.
When I returned to Kenya, I had vowed never to teach French again. But the fun I’ve had teaching this class over the last few years, discovering Francophone culture with my students, has been chipping away at the sorrow. That’s why I can now tell this story.