In the weeks before I left for Paris, I read four essays by James Baldwin: Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown, A Question of Identity, Equal in Paris and Stranger in the Village. I read Baldwin’s essays simply as an idea of a black experience in Paris, not a guide to one. But I was also convinced these essays would provide some critical insight into a topic I have been interested in, since I noticed the plethora of black artists who have, during their respective times, flocked to Paris.
I was trying to understand, first, why these artists went to Paris; second, the relationship to the city and treatment by others, that, for some reason, seemed to provide a relief and escape – compared to the relationship and treatment they’ve experienced in the United States. In short, I was curious about the stories I have heard, and for some, envious.
Thus, I came to Paris with questions. These questions stemmed from assumptions, from secondhand assertions and from the image of Paris in American cinema. But out of all the questions, the underlying one was, “What was this great city? And, most importantly, “Why do so many seem to claim it?”
And now, it was my turn.
I cannot speak accurately to how tiring and long the process of obtaining a visa was. My mother did much of this process by herself. However, when I went to the consulate to apply for a visa, I was the one who caught that I was missing a final page — knowing they would not accept incomplete applications — and went to print it, quickly, so I would not be late to my 2 p.m. appointment. At least I was useful for something.
Once I had been approved for my visa, two months passed, and soon, after a two-hour plane delay, seven hours passed in the air. Next thing I knew, I was descending into Paris. My anxiety had flared at a horrible TSA checkpoint at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, when one machine broke down right when I was about to place my items through the scanner, and TSA agents would not allow us to leave the line. It got even worse when the lady next to me on the plane took one look at me, then never came back — instead, she sent another black girl, similar in appearance to me, to take her place. So, when I was making my way to passport control, I knew I was going to go into full panic.
There was no panic, however. Despite all the horror stories, passing through passport control, for me, was a breeze, even though I accidently stood in the European Union line rather than the foreigner line. It took less than 20 minutes, as the EU line was moving faster than the other line, and in some ways, I felt I had accidentally cheated the system.
My mother prepared me with a million answers to the supposed million questions passport control agents were going to ask me. This was also my first time ever leaving the United States, and she wanted me to be more than prepared. Instead, when I finally got the agent, he simply smiled and asked what was wrong with my hair — a fair question, as the day I had my passport photo taken, I was having a terrible hair day. It wasn’t until after I tried to leave the airport with my bags that I was subsequently stopped and then questioned about my motives for entering the country and if I had anything to declare.
After retrieving my luggage, I waited for the rest of my group to arrive so we can be taken to the hotel. I was desperate for a shower and coffee. Spending the night on a plane was not ideal, or, at least, not in coach class. But soon, as I was in the shuttle traveling from the airport to the hotel, I began to miss the United States.
I missed the United States because it was familiar to me. Things like my bed, my bathroom, my kitchen. Even New York City and Los Angeles — two alternative places I call home — were familiar to me. My mind could not even begin to fathom what Paris would be like, and how I would survive here at all.