How social media makes moving countries harder

Sitting in a café in Montparnasse, in the shadow of that hideous tower with the roller rink on the roof, with waiters wearing cheap boaters advertising the new-vintage Beaujolais, I feel part of the scenery. Scarf, coffee, laptop, check.

Pushed up against the doors of a packed métro carriage, I’m just another body in a city crowded with beings, schmooshed shoulder to shoulder in a tunnel, buried in a book that is itself partially buried in the backpack of the bloke next to me. My arm is thrust through a gap to grip the back of a seat, so I’m not flung, when the driver stamps on the breaks, into the lap of the person sitting on the fold-down seat. I’m glaring at the person sitting on the fold-down seat.

Running through the park, I blend in – another body in motion in a stream of black Lycra.

I’ve gone native. On the outside.

On the inside, expat life remains as perplexing as ever, and I often wonder if it is sustainable. I’m not a joiner, I’m happy enough in my own company, but I’m not sure I’m cut out for life as a perpetual outsider, either. As anyone who has stood on the edge of the school playground dressed identically to everyone else knows, looking as if you belong does not always translate to feeling part of the gang.

This week, an article about the trials of expat life has got me thinking. Among my many, many misconceptions about what life in France would be like was the idea that the feelings of being an outsider, lost, adrift from a previous cherished life, friends and family, would diminish with time. In fact, the opposite is true. Five years after arriving in Paris, I float through this limestone fairy tale untethered as ever.

Yes, many aspects are now as familiar as my apartment, or moving in that direction, at least. I have jobs. I have my favourite hangouts (not in Montparnasse, although it’s a perfectly charming quartier). I have good friends. Language is easier. Navigation. Etiquette. Dress codes. Annual rhythms such as the mass summer departure from Paris and its corollary, rentrée. Yet the troubling irony persists: the deeper your knowledge of the unknown, the more profound the alienation.

It’s a bit like learning a language, or swing dancing, anything with a degree of complexity. I was complaining (again) about my lack of French progress to a buddy recently. She gently pointed out that we continue to move our own goalposts, placing them ever just out of reach. The objectives change. I used to dream of executing a simple exchange without saying bonjour when I meant merci. Now I want to feel at ease in a group conversation. The more you know, the more you understand the enormity what you don’t know. And, in the case of language and culture, there is a creeping realization that you might never achieve mastery.

This raises the question: how long can I stand being an outsider? Must I adjust my thinking about belonging? Can I go full Schrodinger on the situation and be simultaneously both in Paris and somewhere else entirely? Is this, in fact, the key?

I spend a lot of time on social media. Not as much as I would if I had a smartphone, but hours daily nevertheless, many of which are taken up following news from Australia, what my friends are up to, what the newspapers are saying, Rachel Maddow. The usual stuff.

Now, social media is a curious variable in the expat-adjustment equation, it seems to me. It’s useful for finding out what’s on, places you might meet people who share your interests, language exchanges. Pretty much any blog or newspaper article that addresses expat life suggests meet-ups, and the like, as a way to settle in.

But social media adds a complication to the bubble. Thanks to a stream of news and messages on Facebook, I can maintain one foot in my old life. Multiple outlets like Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest would surely only magnify the problem. I can’t imagine being without it, but I do wonder if this split attention is prolonging my settling-in period. It has allowed me to ignore real-world loneliness by burying myself in television from home and the UK and indulging in the FB gossip mill. On low days, faced with a choice between sitting alone in a café, even one where I’m recognized and greeted warmly, or watching just one more episode of The Katering Show or Have I Got News for You, it’s easy to trump for the latter.

Now, in my defense and in a protest-too-much attempt to dilute the impression that I ungratefully lead a hermetically sealed life, I must point out that I often undertake my freelance work in a café, surrounded by the buzz of human activity. I do the things the articles advise: running group, swing-dancing classes, repeated appearances in the same place to develop familiarities with other habitués. I’m tackling French. I’m avidly inhaling the culture.

And I’m not complaining. Although I wish I knew how to get through this better, I’d never have forgone the experience. My life goals have long including living in another country, learning a language, becoming a fiction writer. Check.

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Run, run, run

Throughout May I have been running six days a week. This is a considerable step up in frequency from my usual two to four sessions, and along with the increased fitness and bragging rights come good secondary effects: getting up earlier, drinking more water, more time to manufacture vitamin D, better mood. I plan to continue.

I’ve also been showing up for my running group, Let’s Run Paris (LRP), more regularly. Joining scores of like-minded sneakered, Lycra-ed pavement-pounders has been a reminder of the benefits of running with the pack. As attested by countless newspaper and fitness-magazine articles, group running is motivating, supportive, better for safety, community-building and provides accountability and “social facilitation”, the phenomenon where the mere presence of others results in better times and distances. Running in company makes the minutes pass faster if it’s one of those days when your legs weigh a tonne and energy is lacking. Plus it offers occasional French practice and a chance to meet new people.

Initially, though, I was skeptical. I’ve been a regular runner since my early 20s but always alone. I’ve long found enormous joy in the meditative nature of focusing on strides and breathing. It’s unassailable time to think, away from screens, phone and other demands for attention. I retreat to my interior world. I write stories and poetry in my head, dream up travel plans, organise my budget.

But, stuck in a solo-running rut about 18 months ago, I saw a notice on the Meetup website, with the rendez-vous point in my arrondissement. I decided to give the group thing a go, even though it seemed intimidating, rigid, and perhaps too fast or too challenging. I needn’t have worried. LRP – which was started by an expat American and draws an international crowd – is a friendly bunch, run by a dedicated core of volunteers. It doesn’t cost anything to join, and you just show up. (You can signal that you’re coming on the web page but it’s not essential.) Even if you hover silently about the edges, like I did the first time, there’s a good chance someone will notice a new face and introduce themselves.

The group, which by my rough estimate is usually about 40 people, spiking in spring, divides into three pace bands on Mondays (four on Saturdays, when LRP does longer routes from near Jardin du Luxembourg in the Latin Quarter). I stick to six minutes per kilometre (the middle band), which is now about the speed I run on my own. A group photo is mandatory at the beginning of each run, as is a rundown of the rules: stay behind your pacer (a group leader who sets the speed), stop at traffic lights, and tell someone if you stop early so the rest of the group doesn’t go looking for you. There is a pacer at the front and one at the back so no one gets left behind.

The spirit is welcoming and inclusive, and the runners have a range of ages and abilities, from newbies to hardcore marathoners sporting the T-shirt from their latest event. Some live in Paris, some are just passing through. The wonders of social media have created a global network whereby runners in town for a day can find company in a click.

If there are downsides to group running, they are mostly practical. It takes a while to learn to maintain the right distance from the person in front of you so you don’t clip their heels. It’s tricky not being able to see bollards and other footpath hazards until you’re on top of them. Generally, though, the pack looks after each other, signalling potholes or other trip traps. After 10 minutes or so a rhythm is established and on good nights, the group is like a single organism, feet drumming under a hum of good-natured chatter. It’s a good way to get training tips, find out about events, network, commiserate the difficulties of Paris life through the buzz of endorphins.

A few social graces (keep right, single file in narrow passages) are required so the group doesn’t monopolise the pavement. And we are often greeted with cheers (“Bon courage!”), sometimes jeers, as we pound past. It’s all part of the experience, part of blending into the landscape, streaming through the city.

The summer-night circuit is about 11 kilometres from Place de la Nation, to Parc des Buttes-Chaumont (pictured) – with steady inclines along Père Lachaise cemetery’s high wall and north to the park – then down past halal butchers, Chinese restaurants and budget boutiques to Goncourt. The park is the highest point, and the top path, on these steamy lengthening evenings, offers a dusky view across picnickers to grey rooftops and the high rises of the north-eastern suburbs. You barely notice the fatigue in your legs from the climb.

 

 

 

 

 

Cacophony of calm

Wet bitumen underfoot, birdsong in my ears, an unfurling canopy above. My mind plays a relentless loop of anxieties, real and imagined. I run, naming the things I pass, like an insomniac counts sheep. Mental effort pushes back against white noise. French nouns, verb conjugations, imagine the world in the subjunctive, grapple with the future anterior.

Another day. Another run. Spring. Almost cloudless sky. I pass through a portal of tarmac and traffic to carpets of greenery, under huge trees already decked in new leaves. Runners, other runners, are they also looping the past week through their brains? Walkers, gardeners, prams, dogs, smokers. The morning air is softly cool. Crows squabble metres up. Courting pigeons, honking geese, distant cars, beeps from reversing vehicles, conversation, steady breathing and rhythmic footfalls, squawking seagulls, forest birds, quotes from A Few Good Men. Who can handle the truth? English. French, Russian, Mandarin. Cascading water, scraping gravel.

Over years now and months and weekends and precious minutes of solitude, I have found myself in Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. I come here for my own tranquility and yet it is never quiet. That’s the beauty of the thing. Perfect silence would only induce further madness. Instead, a garden dripping loveliness and community allows me to still my thoughts among a succession of soothing moments. The people pass. Time passes. It all passes, eventually. And none of it has anything to do with me. The parade is my meditation.

Anxiety meets park.

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I pause to read the plaque on the Japanese pagoda tree whose branches twist in a million chaotic directions towards the water of the lake. It was planted in 1873. You are not allowed to climb it.

The park has 47 types of trees, many exotic. Many date from its inception in 1867. Many call to mind landscapes by Hubert Robert, whose idealized vistas are on display at The Louvre.

In the 21st century, the park is lovely at all times of the year. Right now, when flowering trees pitch pinks and yellows and white against celestial blue, it is at its photogenic best. But bare in winter, under snow when skiers and cardboard-borne tobogganers take to its vertiginous slopes, it is worth an Instagram post. Through ongoing renovations, I have measured the world in green plastic barriers and barren beds, pedestrian detours, mourned potholes lost under spanking new pale grey asphalt. The information board tells me that changes to the circulation between the artificial lake and the waterfall will save a million litres of water a year.

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This treasure atop the 19th arrondissement feels timeless, but of course that’s the romance of wishful thinking. Even the most natural beauties have an architect. A former gypsum and limestone quarry and later general dumping ground, the “bald hill” was a sorry, desolate site before Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann and engineer Jean-Charles Alphand turned it into a rambling 25 hectares of Chinese-Anglo landscape, all grassy slopes, nestled sculptures and wooded corners. The Île du Belvédère with its miniature Temple de la Sibylle, after the original in Tivoli Rome, is the centre of the fifth largest public park in the city.

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Dusk. I round the upper trail, past Rosa Bonheur, haven of tapas and disco. Golden light. I think of a key scene in L’Avenir. Philosophy teacher Nathalie (played by Isabelle Huppert) takes refuge from her disintegrating life on the slopes of this very park. Stretched out on the grass, life flowing around her, she slips into herself. It’s calm in all its many agencies. (And few embody frenetic stillness like La Huppert, who needs no grand gestures to convey frustration, heartbreak, intelligence and Parisienne insouciance.) Mid-reverie, her phone rings. Life intrudes again.

Finally, I turn for home. Descending rue de Belleville, the northern border of the 20th, affords a potted tour of this diverse arrondissement, the narrow thoroughfare into the melee of Paris’ second Chinatown, past fashionable wine bar La Cave de Belleville and coffee-toting neighbour Cream. Layers of routine on replay. The creamy, fruity, bitter noisette (for a princely €2,80) is a porcelain cup of pure joy. Onward, past pho joints and dumpling palaces, the pastel-coloured offerings at Bonjour Patisserie, the nose-wrinkling deliciousness of Délicatessen de Caire, laden with nuts, baklava, spices and cheeses from the Near East and Africa. I recall the veiled assistant who offered me a perfectly fresh pistachio.

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A tall guy on rollerblades hurtles down the steep hill past me at a speed that must surely be illegal. The terrace at Café aux Folies, one-time hangout of Edith Piaf, Jean Cocteau and other postwar luminaries, is heaving. The late-afternoon sun has brought out the masses, tables filled with wine, beer and overflowing ashtrays. Around the corner, in rue Denoyer, graffiti artists are spraying their thoughts onto a wall already inches deep in paint.

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A Sunday afternoon and Belleville Métro station smells musky as a stable. Hashish is my best guess but who know what wafts from the bodies that press themselves through these corridors?

The daily grind of Paris can weigh heavily but simple things – sunshine, trees, birds, caffeine – are reviving. It helps to step outside the confines of the mind, to put the body into action, to breathe, to smell, to listen and to live. No moment is the same, all are lost beneath those that follow, but really they are all we have. Soon, the leaves will set into their summer dark, and that will be a whole other wonder.

Reasons to love obstacles

I got to thinking about obstacles during a recent morning run. Jogging in Paris is always a dodge-‘em course. He who hesitates, loses. The streets are narrow and busy. I run on Sundays, which is market day in my part of town, so you can add shopping caddies full of fruit and vegetables, people with armfuls of flowers, kids on scooters and the markets themselves to the items to navigate on the footpath.

About ten minutes into my usual route, which takes me north past Père Lachaise cemetery up to Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, I realized there was a vide grenier underway around Jourdain. A vide grenier is like a car-boot sale and they’re held regularly around the city. The name means ‘attic emptying’ and generally it’s casual sellers getting rid of everything from second-hand clothes, electronics, vinyl records, furniture, toys, kitchenware, posters, books and shoes to miscellaneous junk. We’re not talking antiques here, or objects of even minor value. The brocante or antiques markets cover all that. Of course, your chances of finding an actual treasure at an actual bargain price are practically nil, unless you get in ahead of the dealers and before the beardy, bicycled armies of twee have finished their flat whites, especially in the eastern enclaves of cool. But that’s not the point. Trash or treasure is in the eye of the beholder. That said, I once picked up a Le Creuset saucepan for €20. Score.

This particular morning, it was shoulder-to-shoulder, as is usual at these things. The crush of the crowd can add a charge of adrenalin to the shopping hunt, but it also makes running impractical, uncool and impolite. I could see that the market stretched for several blocks from the top of Ménilmontant to just south of the church St Jean-Baptiste de Belleville near the Métro station. An alternative course was required.

I have learnt that sometimes the best tactic when confronted with a roadblock is evasion and that an obstacle can be an opportunity to test your ingenuity. So, I simply took another route up the hill and found myself at the summit of Parc de Belleville, which enjoys one of the best views across the city. It was a clear day, and the Eiffel Tower, Panthéon, Les Invalides (with sunlight glinting off its golden roof) and the Arc de Triomphe were all stark against the bright blue sky. Magic. I think there might be a point to be made here about obstacles and perspective. The terraces of the café/restaurant Moncoeur Belleville (formerly O’Paris) and the Le Panorama Gourmand boulangerie were both full of people sipping coffee or tapping at laptops.

After my circuit of Buttes-Chaumont, which is just donning its autumn finery, I walked back through the market, noticed some new street art and rued not having tucked a fiver into my jacket pocket for a slab of homemade carrot cake.

Life puts obstacles in our path. It just does. But each one is a challenge to see how high we can jump. Or a test of our ability to find another way around. Or simply a chance to prove that we can get through it. Even when defeat looms, there’s never any going back. The only things to do are breathe, embrace the challenge and discover what emerges on the other side, and enjoy the view.