In 2010, I realized I needed to get away from New York City.
I had just ended a relationship, and every inch of my apartment was a reminder of it, as were the streets in my neighborhood, the subway, the pizza shops, the sounds of the Lower East Side—everything. I knew if I was going to survive the heartache, I had to head out of town and recoup in a place completely foreign to me. I chose Paris.
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I had never gone to Europe alone. Actually, up until that point I had never traveled anywhere by myself. On a whim one afternoon, I pulled up apartment swaps on Craigslist. When I saw that a woman was looking to exchange her flat in the Parisian district of le Marais for an apartment in the East Village, I emailed her. Within the hour, I had cashed in my frequent flier miles and agreed to do the swap for the month of January and part of February.
Looking back, it wasn’t the most rational decision to make. I really didn’t think it through; I just wanted out of New York City and I wanted it sooner than later. However, in the words of Edith Piaf, “Non, je ne regrette rien.”
There's Only One Paris
The first time I arrived in Paris I felt like I was in a dream. I couldn’t believe that I had come to the city all alone with nothing but an email agreement with a stranger whom I found on Craigslist. It wasn’t until I got to the flat that reality set in. I had never cried so hard from happiness in my entire life.
The woman had warned me that she had just bought the place, and outside of Wi-Fi and a mattress on the floor, there wasn’t much else. It was perfect. I couldn't have asked for a more romantic situation, and I fell asleep to the piano playing of the composer next door, waking to the bells of Notre Dame. I was in my element.
I immediately took to the streets without a map. I longed to get lost in this city that I would eventually consider my second home. I walked everywhere, and when I did lose my direction—as Paris is not a grid like the New York streets that I’m used to—I asked locals how to get back on my way again. I had taken French for years and didn’t realize how much I was capable of recalling until I was forced to use it—in a very broken dialect, of course.
I sat in coffee shops, ate too many croissants, drank red wine with strangers who embraced my New York status, and smoked French cigarettes in the window of my flat above a trendy art gallery. I was home; I was certain I could stay there forever.
But six weeks isn’t very long in the grand scheme of things, and the day I had to return to New York City, I cried the whole way to the airport. I knew I’d return someday, but just didn’t know when.
My Finances, in France
I know it might sound strange, but I found in the three times I went to Paris (two after that initial adventure), I actually spent less money than I do in New York City. Of course, I’m coming from one of the most expensive cities in the world, but Paris isn’t exactly cheap either.
Some differences in the cultures that made a huge difference were, as you might imagine, the food and its accessibility.
Unlike at home, you can’t get food delivered 24-hours-a-day every day. In fact, delivery is rare, so that right there is a money saver. When you’re forced to go out and get your paper and coffee instead of having it brought to your door just because it’s raining, you immediately start to save. (It may also have something to do with that pernicious rumor about the French not gaining weight.)
Paris also doesn’t have the cabs that NYC has, so when I’m there, I’m forced to walk or take the metro. Again, money that I would normally just drop without the slightest inclination is not being used. Note: I'm not saying I'm a role model for financial propriety in my New York life, just that I tend to spend less while abroad.
With access to a kitchen and great produce, I can easily and cheaply make dinner for myself.
When it comes to actual spending on food, there is also savings to be had. Breakfast usually consists of a croissant for 1€, then I’m on my way. When it comes to lunch and dinner, I also go the cheap route.
With access to a kitchen (thanks to an apartment swap) and great produce, I can easily and cheaply make dinner for myself. Better yet, I want to do so because it’s an adventure to do as the locals do.
I also find I spend less on alcohol. Parisians have a different approach than Americans: They savor their wine, whereas we tend to pound beers and shots as if every night is our last night on earth.
Why I Keep Going
Admittedly, although those closest to me love the idea that I can go off into the world alone and live my life, they are sometimes concerned that I’m not just “getting away” for a bit, but rather escaping from emotionally difficult situations. It’s probably not the healthiest thing, but for me, it’s a coping mechanism and one that helps me heal. Paris is the city that heals me; time away from my great love, New York City, makes me feel whole again.
I realize as a freelance writer I have the advantage of taking my work with me, but the affordability of an apartment swap in Paris applies for two days or two weeks. I have always been lucky enough to find someone great (and sane!) on Craigslist, but I know that there are other sites like HomeExchange, Home Base Holidays and Airbnb for those who aren’t comfortable with the Craigslist scene.
Going off to another country alone isn’t for everyone; I understand that. But I also encourage anyone who has never done it, to do it at some point. Even if you find yourself scared as hell at the notion of such a leap, you should remind yourself that being scared makes you feel alive—as does sitting on the banks of the Seine, alone with your thoughts and feeling that anything, anything at all, is completely possible.
Amanda Chatel is a writer based in New York City.