From Sheltered to Shelterless: Losing the Safety Net

    The Basilica Du Sacre-Coeur has towered above the streets of North Paris since it’s construction ended nearly a century ago. The church is a dedicated to lives lost in the Franco-Prussian war. (Photo Courtesy of Rochelle Emert)

    Acold sweat on the back of my neck left me wondering how I was coerced into climbing over 200 steps to see another church with another story, one that read similar to hundreds of others: under construction atop the highest point in Paris from 1875 until 1914, Basilique du Sacré-Coeur, “Church of the Sacred Heart,” was created as a symbol of atonement and martyrdom for the losses of the Franco-Prussian War. On the grassy hill, the white stones of the gothic, domed church float above the backdrop of the bustling city.

    It was during my first few days in this madhouse metropolis that I felt helpless. I had been on the verge of tears the moment I arrived at the airport without anyone to greet me.

    Without friends or family, any French language skills or a place to abandon my 100 pounds of luggage, much less a place to sleep that evening, I panicked. My accommodations for the year evaporated, leaving me homeless. I navigated the metro and called a hostel with the few words of French I learned on the plane.

    I’m not proud to report my naivete as I frantically e-mailed my housing contact, a presumed French student similar to myself, who stopped responding. Not only did I lose the peace of mind of having a place to live in Paris, but I also lost a $1,000 deposit through a Craigslist merchant who stole and manipulated a young French woman’s passport and identity. Sitting in the police station on my third day abroad, as an officer and his buddy looked apologetically down on me, homelessness never seemed more of a reality.

    My unfortunate circumstance challenged me to befriend strangers. In a matter of hours, I added a 25-year-old Canadian woman and a 40-year-old American expatriate to the list of people I trusted in Paris for advice, along with an older Mexican gentleman I had accidentally followed to the Notre Dame. When I recounted my day, my mother was less than pleased.

    On my fourth day abroad I took shelter from the rain under the shingles of the only open business — an Asian cuisine market with a narrow door as the storefront — and frantically searched through my phone for the next landlord’s number. Three days of wandering the streets of Paris looking for housing with Emily, my soon-to-be roommate and Kipp, the host of the floor I’d been sleeping on, had left me frazzled and tested my waning optimism. After calling 10 numbers (all wrong) and apologizing in poor French, I resigned myself to giving up and going home, or rather, Kipp’s home.

    I never felt sheltered at UCSD. Moving away from home seemed like a big step toward independence — never mind that I never saw a single bill and ate at a dining hall. Living on campus with the comforting sameness of each quarter, I acquired a sense of certainty about who I was. I gave up exploring the various versions of myself. I became stuck as the thoughtful and reserved girlfriend, the reliable club member and the rational-thinking roommate, among other things. I embraced my talents and shortcomings with mild enthusiasm. It never occurred to me that I was settling. I never imagined that maybe I decided too logically who to be too early.

    Waking up from an anxiety-ridden sleep on a hardwood floor, I faced another day of apartment hunting in Paris. Emily and I had been waiting to see a particular flat in the cobbled-street neighborhood of Montmartre, where bakeries and cheese shops line the streets and rotisserie chicken tempt passersby on the sidewalk. We had waited four days — days that felt like they ripped years off of my life. Another couple beat us to the apartment’s first showing, but we decided that if we liked it, we’d take it immediately. We signed the lease within the hour and moved in that evening. That night, we triumphantly devoured one of those rotisserie chickens right down to the bone.

    Exactly a week after arriving in Paris and the day after I settled into my new home, I saw the Paris skyline for the first time from the top of the modern art museum, Musee Pompidou. As I posed for a photo with the Sacre Coeur in the background, I had not thought that this church would play any significant role in my present life.

    A short walk from my new front door, the entrance to the Sacre Coeur invites visitors to climb its 200 stairs to the base of the church — presumably one of the best views of Paris. I hate stairs. My issue stems from the idea that with practice, things should become easier. Climbing more than 700 steps up the Eiffel Tower and subsequent basilicas throughout Europe two summers ago, however, did not make climbing to the eighth floor of Hopkins Parking Structure any easier. I struggled up the stairs to the Sacre Coeur a few days after I first saw and posed with it for a photo. Each new set of stairs posed another challenge. My thighs started to burn as I reached the top.

    Speechless, I stared at downtown Paris. This was my home. All I could say to Emily’s proud expression was, “I actually live here?” My memories of the difficult climb, to this point, had disappeared. Calmness finally set in and filled every pore recently vacated by the anxiety of struggling to find a Paris home. I became indebted to the stairs that tortured me a moment earlier. They brought me to the Sacre Coeur, a higher place that revealed Paris and a score of opportunities for adventure and self-invention.

    I now picnic at the Sacre Coeur, smothering my baguette with gooey cheese and sweet jam, with friends I did not know existed two months ago and more importantly, did not know me. I recognize the modern art museum and the place I first photographed the Sacre Coeur left of center. The climb up here still leaves me breathless, but I would not have it any other way.

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