I came to Paris with a few coppers in my pockets and hope in my heart. There was precious little hope at home. Departing, I thought, I might at least leave a little behind me.
'I'll go to Paris,' I said to my parents. 'I'll make you rich. I'll make you proud.'
I wonder, now, if they believed me. I wonder if they're still waiting for me. I wonder if they're still hoping.
It was not so bad at first. I found a room, a bed. There was work to be had, if I wasn't fussy. Work, yes, but never enough of it, and work that paid so little that even had there been twenty-four hours of it for each day of the week, there would still not have been enough.
Always the same. A day's work, two days'. Enough to pay the rent, if I didn't eat; or enough to eat, if I walked the hour and a half across the city instead of taking the metro. A day, two days, then nothing. I would stay in bed, to keep warm, until the landlady hammered on the door. She wanted to check that I was keeping the room clean, though God knows I had little enough to make it dirty with. She didn't approve of my being in bed, so I would get up. Then I would go out, and walk, and walk, to keep from thinking about food. When it was so late that there was nothing to buy, had I had money to buy it, I walked home again.
No. Not home. It was never home. Not with the hostile stares, not with the distrustful tone that came into people's voices when they heard my accent. Not with that gorgeous, slippery language that was too fast for me. I was always one, two, words behind, and the sentence would slither away from me in disgust.
Did I ever wish to go back? Every day. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, isn't it? Even when you remember the parched, grey dust that was really there, you think, perhaps a tiny little bit more rain fell in that field I first came from. And yet I knew that home could never compare to Paris – or, at least, home could never compare to what Paris could be.
Paris was never home. I wished it could be. I wanted to belong. Before that, though, I wanted to live. To work, to eat, to sleep. Was that so much to ask?
Every day brought it closer: the moment when there would be no money left at all, when I would lose the roof over my head, and everything. She knew it. She didn't like me. She tolerated me for as long I could pay my way. When I couldn't – well, she was waiting for an excuse to turn me out.
In the end, she didn't need one. She only waited until she knew I was too tired to fight back. Too tired even to ask why, why me. Too tired to do anything but walk.
I climbed. If I might have no roof, then I must climb above the rooftops. Higher and higher, through deserted streets, up deserted steps. All through that chilly, blustery afternoon, all into that vicious night, I climbed.
I looked out over you, and I wept. Paris! O, you lovely city, scattered so carelessly like jewels spilt from a box! Cruel city, who called me and cast me out! How I wanted you! How I wanted to be part of you!
The feeling could not be mutual, I thought, or you would not have destroyed me. You had never wanted me. I was not welcome. Go home, everyone said to me, and now you said it to me, too.
I had no home to go to. Only you.
I offered myself, but that was not enough. You took everything I’d thought to keep: my pride, my name, even my memories. You stripped me bare and showed me your soul.
Paris, I am yours. You have claimed me.
The rain fell, gentle as a kiss, and I curled up as best I could, half-on and half-off my suitcase, and went to sleep. I had not thought that I would be able to sleep; I was too cold, I thought, too scared; but exhaustion and despair between them muffled every other feeling.
The rain fell, softly, insistently, until it soaked inside me and my cells came apart at the seams. It washed me down between the cracks in the pavement, down the steep steps of Montmartre. I rose into the clouds and dropped into the Seine. I soaked into parched ground in the Tuileries; I dripped from umbrellas and awnings; I ran down the backs of people's collars and hammered on their windows.
Let me in, I called. Nobody heard me, but Paris laughed, and I found my way in.
What now? I asked.
And, from somewhere, perhaps from within myself, came the answer: Remind them that they're human!
They forgot that you were human. They didn't see you when they passed you in the street. Remind them. Remind them about the earth and the sky, the water and the wind. Remind them that they're made of the same stuff as you.
Remind them that they can't sit out this dance.
I understood, and I laughed.
I raced through the streets, hurtled between those high elegant façades, dashed past and over the stationary traffic. I tugged at expensive coats, snatched important paperwork, scattered newspapers in the street. I slammed doors and set curtains billowing.
You are human! I cried. You are frail, you are weak! I am nothing but air, and you run from me!
Perhaps they heard me. I don't know. They couldn't ignore me.
I don't care. I danced.
I danced with the dust and the falling leaves. I danced with the sweet wrappers and the handbills. I danced with the birds, and they danced with me, soared broad-winged on my wings, showed me my city.
Paris, you are mine.
I am the wind. I am the rain. I am the dust that swirls in the streets on the hot summer breeze.
There's a solitary figure walking towards me, too tired to turn her face away from the stinging grit or the sharp rain. I know her.
I see her laden shoulders and your weary feet. I see the tear that prickles her eye. I race down the kilometres that she has trudged; I claim them for her, and for you, and for me.
I cry to her: you can be free. Come, be one with me.
I cry to her: it's your city.
I cry to her: Take it.
She looks up into me, and she laughs.