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We’re so excited to publish this piece by Tory Henwood Hoen, who was an early team member at HiP Paris. Back in the day, she wrote about her misadventures as an expat in Paris, and now she’s written her first novel, The Arc, which comes out February 8. Below, she reminisces about finding her way as a young writer in Paris. Stay tuned on our Instagram and Facebook for a giveaway in the coming days. – HiP Paris
I moved to Paris at 24—bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and ready to write the next Great Expat Novel. I didn’t actually have an idea for a story, but never mind. Paris would provide the inspiration; I was sure of it. It was the summer of 2008, and I had arrived, notebook in hand and visions of literary salons dancing in my head.
I know what you’re thinking: I had it coming. And don’t worry—Paris quickly humbled me, as it does with so many audacious Americans (especially the aspiring Hemingways among us). I quickly learned that you can’t just waltz in, get inspired, and then run off with a book deal. Oh no. Paris was going to put me in my place, and I’m grateful that it did.
My naive fantasy involved languorous afternoons spent in cafés, my pen flying across the page, stopping only so I could take a thoughtful drag of a cigarette (I don’t smoke). In reality, however, I spent my first few weeks in Paris just trying to figure out how French door handles worked.
Before long, the city forced me to slow down, observe, and let go of my expectations. And once I relinquished my idealized vision of literary life, the real magic began to happen. I didn’t write a book in those years, but I did learn how to see, to live, to surrender, to scrap the narrative I’d planned and open myself up to surprise. (I also helped start the HiP Paris blog!)
Now, over a decade later, with my debut novel (The Arc) about to hit shelves, it’s clear that my years in Paris did make me a writer—once I was able to get out of my own way. Here’s how.
- The gift of aloneness. Have you ever moved to a city where you knew no one? Or just spent hours (or days) alone in your own head? My early days in the city were often lonely—but luxuriously so. I finally understood what Virginia Woolf meant by a “room of one’s own”: a mental/physical space to plumb one’s own creative depths. During my first few weeks in Paris, my journal kept me company, and I cultivated a tolerance for aloneness that is essential for all writers.
- The power of the aimless walk. Another way to fill the time when you’re alone in a new city? Walk. For miles. Without a clear destination. The French have a verb for it: flâner. And flâner I did. Afterwards, I always brimmed with ideas begging to be written down. There were days when I traversed the entire city, contemplating: Who is this Sébastien Chabal, and why is he in every fragrance ad? Why are there so many French cops on rollerblades? Am I starting to look French yet?
- A new cast of characters. Eventually, I did make friends. I promise. And while back in the United States I tended to stick with my usual like-minded pack, in Paris, I was open to hanging out with almost anyone. As a result, I befriended a beekeeper, an astrologer, a handful of aristocrats, a fondue tycoon, and a man who insisted on being called “Uncle Jack.” I’m pretty sure I spent an evening with a group of Serbian arms dealers, though they didn’t self-identify as such. Needless to say, the folks I encountered in Paris gave me enough material to populate a dozen novels—and they were also a lot of fun.
- The thrill of saying “yes.” Nowadays, I say “no” a lot, and there is great power in it (setting boundaries, guarding one’s time and energy, etc.). But for a few years in Paris, I said “yes” to almost everything, and the city offered up so many unexpected gifts: canal-side picnics, a weekend at a friend’s 16th-century chateau, a “sound performance” that consisted of a very-in-love couple screeching like stray cats… the list goes on indefinitely. I’m glad I was there for it.
- Language as a playground. Writers love words. And for me, there was no better place to exist than the murky middle-ground between English and French, where hilarious mishaps abound. I still laugh about the time my friend’s friend called a plumber to come over and “faire le pipe.” (She thought she was requesting a simple repair but was unknowingly inviting him for a sex interlude. Whoops.) And there are so many glorious vocab words to learn. Why call it a walkie-talkie when you can opt for the French version: the talkie-walkie? (See what they did there?) Why play foosball when you could be playing babyfoot? Franglais is a linguist’s paradise.
- Fresh expat eyes. There’s nothing like a foreign environment to make you feel as helpless as a newborn. Almost everything must be re-learned (see: doorknobs), and that’s a good thing. In our home countries, we can glide through life on cruise-control, but life in Paris demands our full attention. From how to dress (make an effort, but for god’s sake, don’t look like you’ve made an effort) to when to arrive at a social event (at least 15 minutes late)—there is a lot to learn. And by the way, there is codeine in that cold medicine you just took. Enjoy.
- Eventual ego death. Some people achieve the death of the ego by taking psychedelics; others do it by spending a few years in Paris. When I first arrived, I was ready to “become a writer” and I thought the city was mine for the taking. I was determined to soak it up and then tell others of my conquest. But as Paris schooled me (e.g., the shoe incident of 2008), my mentality shifted. I no longer wanted to write because I had something to impart, but rather because I had so much to learn. Eventually, writing became the way that I made sense of my new world. I was no longer motivated by wanting recognition, but rather by wanting connection—to be on a journey of discovery with my readers. And if we happen to be laughing at my expense, all the better.
- Missing Paris? Check out our list of the best books set in Paris.
- From personal memoirs to cookbooks, here are the best books on Paris that have stood the test of time.
- Looking for some bookstores for your next trip to Paris? Here are our favourite English bookstores in Paris.
Written by Tory Hoen for HiP Paris. Looking to travel? Check out Plum Guide and our Marketplace for fabulous vacation rentals in Paris, France or Italy. Looking to rent long or short term, or buy in France? Ask us! We can connect you to our trusted providers for amazing service and rates or click here. Looking to bring France home to you or to learn online or in person? Check out our marketplace shop and experiences.