When I told people I was moving to Paris last year, the reaction I got (besides the equally popular “That’s awesome!” and “That’s insane”) was largely the same: “Oh my God, Jenna, you’re going to fall madly in love and marry some French man!” It seemed expected that within a few months’ time I should find my soul mate wandering the streets of Montmartre and have a whirlwind, cinematic Paris romance. After all, Paris is the setting of countless love stories and the destination of perhaps thousands of honeymooners each year. But is the myth of a romantic Paris all it’s cracked up to be?
Cultural guides and blogs alike prepare women to be met with an onslaught of male attention when they come to Paris. They make it seem like French men are constantly, obnoxiously forward—as though if you accidentally make eye contact with one, you will be hounded by him to no end, having to firmly deflect his advances until you either beat him off with a stick or run away (or cave). And alongside that, you should expect to be continually surrounded by Parisians in love, kissing on bridges and entwining fingers over coffee and madeleines. “Everywhere you look, people are practically having sex with each other in public,” one college-age girl complained to me when I first arrived.
Maybe she comes from a smaller town than I do, but I haven’t found myself ensconced in a Paris of love. Of course Paris has an innate sensuality—the people are beautiful and well dressed; the language forces you to focus on pursed lips and the sound of a moistened throat; and a good glass of wine and some French cheese have been known to send me into fits of ecstasy. But what of the love-drunk Romeos who are supposed to be wooing me at every corner and café? There was once a waiter on the rue de Rivoli who told me I was pretty. Does that count?
Perhaps it’s my rebellious streak that causes me to be immune to the romance of Paris. When everybody tells me I should do or like something, I immediately, fiercely want the opposite. Surely, it’s a lot of pressure to fall in love in, or even with, the City of Light. But to me, Paris is not a dream—it’s a real city, a breathing metropolis where those well-dressed beauties still get pissed off on the metro. In missing out on a romantic Paris, I had to ask myself: Is there something wrong with me? Why don’t I feel the thing that everybody else seems to feel? Am I doing it wrong?
A girlfriend of mine wrote to me around Valentine’s Day and asked, “Have you made any love connections yet? I remember feeling strangely asexual when I was in Paris.” It made me feel better to know that perhaps I’m not the only one who’s had a wonderfully solitary experience in this city. I asked my mom what she thought.
“I don’t want to sound bitter,” I said to her on Skype one night. “But I just haven’t found Paris to be this love-crazy city. I adore Paris, but it’s just not the way everyone says it is.”
“Try thinking of it in a different way,” she said. My mom, a former English teacher, pointed out that the word romance has an etymology based on Janus, the Roman god of doorways. Yes, they had a god even for that. “So maybe the idea of romance isn’t being in that next room, not in love,” my mom said. “Maybe it’s looking toward it, being on the threshold of passing into it.”
I started thinking about that as I wandered around Paris (and certainly every time I stopped in a doorway). One day I went to Shakespeare and Company, the old English bookstore near St.-Michel that’s seen the likes of Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin pass through its doors. In the upstairs reading room, I sat in a big comfy chair and listened to the quiet, the room nearly silent but for the tickling of piano keys and the occasional turn of a page. The air was thick, nearly white with the dust of decades being rearranged with the removal and replacement of used books. In the next room I could see an old typewriter, and beyond that, a window looking out to the rue de la Bûcherie and the dark blue dusk settling over the Seine. I felt an immense assurance that I was in a place, a city, a culture that was meant for me. For the first time in Paris, I felt the rapturous contentment of love. I swooned.
Maybe that sounds silly, to be in love with a bookstore. But after that I started to notice other little things that would clutch my heart, small moments that made me feel perfectly alive. Getting lost and finding my way home in the hills of Montmartre; attempting to joke in French with my neighborhood fromager, and succeeding; dancing in a crowd, freely, fearlessly, at a rock concert; listening to the heels of my boots echoing on empty cobblestone streets, wet with late-night rain, the moon bright above.
Paris may be a city of love, but as I realized, it might also be the best city in the world in which to be a woman alone. One evening I sat at a brasserie, my coffee and some postcards in front of me, a lively pianist creating a jovial atmosphere behind me, the throaty language of Parisians bubbling all around me. I caught my reflection in the plastic rain shield across from me, hanging from the café’s awning. There was my face, a half-lit silhouette staring back at me against the early dark of a winter night. And etched on her face, I saw the romance within: a woman on the threshold, looking out to the next chapter of her life.
Editor’s note: Looking for a romantic hotel? We like the Hôtel Récamier, La Belle Juliette, the Hôtel de l’Abbaye and the Pavillon de la Reine. Each has a special price or VIP upgrade if you are a Passport to Paris club member.