The city of love, alone

Arts abroad

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Months before I arrived in Paris, I bought a single ticket on a whim to see a French disco band called L’Impératrice in March 2022. I didn’t know the music well, but I figured once I got to the city, I’d find a huge group of friends who also wanted to go. We’d drink wine on the metro, laugh together in the security line and dance our hearts out. Unfortunately, that didn’t exactly happen. 

In my first week of living abroad, I saw an ad on the metro for the Comédie-Française, the oldest active theatre company in the world. Its 2022 program celebrated the 400th anniversary of the birth of Molière, the 16th-century playwright famous for his frivolous comedies of wits and equally pompous hair. In a desperate attempt to absorb French culture by osmosis, I rushed home and bought a single student ticket to see “Le Misanthrope.” 

I barely knew anyone yet in this big wide city, but I consoled myself with the ridiculous notion that I might strike up a conversation with a handsome stranger sitting next to me and make a new friend. But walking into the Palais Royale, surrounded by elderly couples and bourgeois millennials, I felt horribly out of place. 

As the curtains rose and Act I began, I realized I had made a far more fatal error: a gross overestimation of my French language comprehension. Written in Middle French, Molière’s plays are the equivalent of Shakespearean drama in terms of intelligibility, and Berkeley’s French Department had not prepared me in the slightest.  

To make things worse, no one was laughing. I couldn’t make out any faces in the dark theater, but I pictured the crowd smiling wryly and silently exhaling in that annoyingly reserved French way. Alone and embarrassed, I followed the exodus of audience members taking a smoke break and made a silent exit at the first intermission. 

After that brutally humbling experience, I became a bit of a hermit. I was afraid to go to any other performances or exhibitions by myself. I either went out with the small circle of friends I met during orientation week, or I didn’t go out at all. My first month studying abroad was nothing short of lonely.

One day, though, I spontaneously decided to take a different route home from class. I came across an art gallery at 59 Rue de Rivoli unlike any other I’d ever seen, with huge abstract shapes protruding from the 18th-century walls. A bright green papier mache noodle beckoned me forward, and I entered.  

Inside, I was met with floor to ceiling murals, hanging sculptures and dizzying music. No single inch of space went wasted. The place began as an artist squat in 1999 but now harbors 30 different studios. Climbing the spiral staircase and peeking into each workshop, I didn’t feel like an unwelcome voyeur or an awkward outsider, but rather a silent observer in the creative process, watching the artists at work. 

I even bought a small print from one of the artists, an older woman surrounded by sculptures of robots made out of old Marlboro cigarette packs. She thanked me warmly, and I left feeling much lighter than before. 

I started taking myself on small dates around Paris, and the city of love didn’t feel quite so lonely anymore. From pop-up exhibits and street markets to student theatre shows and bookstores, I learned how to experience art by myself. When March finally rolled around, I was fully prepared to see L’Impératrice alone. 

But as it happened, a few weeks before the sold-out concert, I found out that a friend of mine – another exchange student – had also purchased a single ticket without any expectation of going with friends. We went together and had a great time, but there was peace in knowing that we each could have done it alone. 

After all, it’s not so hard, so long as you fake the confidence of a French 20-something dressed in all black, glaring at people on the street and walking like she really has somewhere to go.

“Arts Abroad” columns catalog Daily Cal staff members’ arts and culture experiences while studying or traveling abroad.
Contact Asha Pruitt at [email protected].