Before it was popular in movies, and way before Airbnb, I swapped my apartment for a few months with a complete stranger practically halfway around the world.
I was lucky enough to be living just a few steps away from the infamous Boardwalk in Venice Beach, California. It sounds magical—and some of it was. But, I was also met with sudden unemployment, which lasted longer than I anticipated.
Facing constant rejection from job applications, I was at a particularly low point emotionally, in relationships and personally, and was tired of finding out that the “bottom” in “hitting rock bottom” kept moving lower and lower. I needed a change and since my apartment was the only collateral I had, I figured I’d use it.
I knew I needed to make a hard right in my life and get myself going in a direction where I led my life instead of letting it lead me.
It was 2008, and the recession was in full swing. My inability to land a job meant that I began to consistently question what I was doing, where I was going, and what I wanted. I took skill assessment quizzes and in the end, decided that I’d go for the dream: I would go away to get my head on straight and become a writer.
After scrambling for ideas and trying to figure out a plan that could actually work, a friend told me about apartment swaps. That same afternoon, I logged onto Craigslist and started surfing for answers. When I saw, “My Paris for your L.A.,” I knew I’d found what I was looking for. I responded to the ad, and within a few weeks, was off to Europe for the first time in my life.
Let me describe how I felt as soon as these plans began to materialize: I could hardly sleep.
Things like dates, money, and people were coming together—I had no choice but to take them as signs. I didn’t know what to pack, but romanticized the idea of having to buy new clothes in Paris.
I tried not to bring my upcoming plans into every conversation that I had, but inevitably, they came up. Most people got stuck on the apartment swap part of the story and I was happy to oblige with details. My daughters were living with their father and the last year had been emotionally grueling.
I spent the previous 18 months feeling like life was kicking my butt and every time I stood up to regain my dignity, I was sent to my knees begging for forgiveness. But now that I was taking control of my life and making plans, for the first time in almost a year, I was happy. I was giddy. I was smiling. And, I felt guilty for being happy and I felt guilty for the moments when I didn’t feel guilty.
I arrived in Paris in early May. The sun was shining and the sudden flow of adrenaline that came from feeling like I’d escaped the rat race of working to pay bills and paying bills to work rushed through my body, helping me to ignore my stiff back, sore legs, stringy hair, and puffy eyes.
My fellow apartment-swapper agreed to stay in Paris a few extra days to show me around. She taught me how to use the metro, how to order a half-baguette, where the closest grocery store was, how to use her coffee maker, and where she kept her toiletries.
Before I left Venice Beach, I took extensive photos of my apartment and after I’d completed my two-day Paris intensive with her, I began my own presentation of the neighborhood, friends, as well as a virtual tour of my personal belongings. Our conversations were never forced and we stayed up until the wee hours of the night sharing stories of our childhood and laughing until our stomachs hurt. We were like old friends who had finally reunited after many years.
Before I knew it, I was waving goodbye to my fellow apartment-swapper as she walked through the security gates at Charles de Gaulle airport. I turned and walked in the opposite direction, realizing that I was now alone and would have to remember everything that I’d been told in the last few days.
In an effort to not feel overwhelmed, I decided to grab this moment and just go. Armed with a copy of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and a blank journal, I set off for the first time on my own in Paris. I’d never traveled alone so there were actually a few zones of discomfort that I had not anticipated: being alone, finding a purpose, finding a purpose on my own, having no one to talk to because I was alone, all while looking for that empowerment that was supposed to be waiting for me when I arrived. I would start by visiting everything local.
It took no time at all to realize that my three years of high school French weren’t going to cut it. My backup plan—Spanish fluency—fell flat on its face also. Turns out, Spanish and French aren’t as closely related as I thought. Well, they are, but when you hear native French speakers speaking at their normal pace, it doesn’t matter that both languages have Latin roots. I felt my high school teacher should’ve emphasized dialects a little more.
Museums and other touristy spots could wait. After all, I was now “living” in Paris so I didn’t need to run off to the Eiffel Tower right away. I didn’t need to visit the Louvre first thing either. I most certainly was not going to walk around with a camera or take a tour lest I be confused with the average tourist. So, I found a café and sat by a window and began to write. Day One of my “unofficially official” writing career.
I was excited, but the waiter was impatient and “judgy,” and the venue turned out not to be as romantic as I thought. It was noisy, the tables were too small (the book practically took over the table and I had to put my journal on the chair to glance at notes, sending a crick in my neck) and I couldn’t read the menu. I was feeling a little overwhelmed and the thought of blindly ordering from the menu was too much. The romance of café writing turned out wrong and much more expensive than I thought.
I think I even saw the waiter roll his eyes at me. His lips did not move but his eyes told me everything I needed to hear: “Oh, another one. Must be American. Yep. A book and a journal. How sweet. I’ll leave her alone.” I think I only had water there.
Not to be discouraged, I kept on my track to fulfill my fantasy of “being a writer in Paris.” This time, I took my laptop. It was immediately apparent that this had been a bad choice because no matter where I sat, the glare from outside prevented me from seeing my screen. The glare wasn’t coming in through the windows—no, it was coming straight from the sun because I was sitting outside. It was a beautiful day and I wanted to take advantage of the weather. Since I couldn’t see, I put on my huge, tortoise-shell sunglasses and started typing.
I wish that would’ve been all it took to solve the problem but it wasn’t. I still couldn’t see so I had to have my face about two inches from my computer screen. What’s more, there was a slight breeze so I was constantly looking for things to weigh down my papers and books. This table was just as small as the last and within no time, I had no space to do anything comfortably. I was feeling pressure to order something off the menu but seeing that there wasn’t any room left on the table, I packed up my things. I ordered a coffee and went home.
By this point, I’d been in Paris a few weeks and I’d made some new friends and whenever I said I wanted to be a writer, no one flinched. They didn’t seem surprised, except for the idea that the whole “American expat in Paris” thing had not yet died out. More and more, identifying with the expat role felt more and more silly and inauthentic so I vowed never to use it again.
Fine, maybe it didn’t matter if I identified as an expat in Paris, but I wasn’t ready to give up on being a writer, so I went out again. This time, I went to a park because a park would almost guarantee some point of inspiration. I got a few pages in but Paris has strange weather, and it’s just as likely to be raining one minute and sunny the next. I closed my notebook so it didn’t get drenched, I ran to the metro, and took the closest line to another part of town.
By the time I reached Montmartre, it was sunny again so I found a spot on the steps in front of Le Sacre Coeur. That didn’t last long because the concrete steps hurt my butt. It looked like the French already knew this because when I took a good look, no one in Paris sat on the steps for too long. So, I sat in the grass. It was wet. Feeling defeated, I packed up my things and went home.
I tried writing in the subway but every time someone entered with an accordion, I felt I should savor the moment and listen to the music instead.
Little by little, my ideas of running off to Paris to become a modern-day Hemingway began to fade. I decided instead, to read while I rode the metro, people watch when I sat at a café, and take my camera with me on my outings so that I could share the beauty around me with my friends back home. This was before the smartphone boom; moments weren’t shared immediately as they are now. I made a friend who gave city tours. In a show of moral support, I played tourist several times on his four-hour walking tour of the city. I visited the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, climbing over 700 steps to the second level more than once.
But something didn’t sit well. I felt I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t. I wasn’t a local and I wasn’t a writer. In fact, I’d hardly written at all. I only had a few scribbles in a journal. Most of my time so far had been spent observing the masses of people coming and going. I read a lot. The more friends I made, the more comfortable I felt with the truth: I was visiting Paris for an extended period of time. The friends I made—they lived there, I did not: I had not exactly packed up and moved to Paris, just like I had not exactly become a writer.
I shared my story with my new friends and they all encouraged me to write about how I got to Paris. What’s more, they encouraged me to have more adventures and just say yes to whatever the universe brought my way so that I could have something to write about. They gave idea after idea, and I nodded and walked away wondering how to make this all work.
Eventually, forced to stay inside because of the weather, I plugged in my laptop, placed it on the coffee table, and sat on the floor next to it. For the first time in weeks, I wrote for hours. The words flowed as I described everything I’d experienced on this trip so far: the weather, the people, the buildings, the colors, the smells, the tastes, the language, parties, art, the tourists. I wrote about everything: my fear of traveling alone, the friends I’d made because I was traveling alone, the cultural differences, my language breakthroughs—everything. And, it felt good.
I laugh when I think about this time because I remember feeling so ridiculous so much of the time—trying so hard to fit in while I perused books in Shakespeare and Company, a local bookstore made famous by Hemingway and other aspiring writers in the early 20th century. And then it hit me.
I realize that I did live there, and I was both a tourist and a “pseudo” local. After all, I was in Paris long enough to pick up the language. I was in Paris long enough to have a few romantic flings. And, I was in Paris long enough to host a few friends passing through; I even took them on tours and shared some of the nifty details my tour-guide friend shared with his groups.
And, through these experiences, I developed an appreciation for the tourist sites that I so fervently avoided at first, realizing that they had become top tourist destinations in the world for a reason. Most of all, when I learned to slow down and be in the moment, I had no choice but to be myself, and it was only when I was my authentic self that I was able to write.
Along the way, I’ve realized a few things. If you want to be a writer, here are some tricks that might help:
1. “Just do it,” like the Nike slogan says. Too many times we get caught up in our own words, feeling like we shouldn’t bother saying it unless it’s going to come out just right. There’s a huge difference between saying you’re a writer and actually writing. Trust me on this one (I’m still working on it myself).
2. Edit. It’s more like, “don’t be afraid to edit.” This comes back to number one but the truth here is, often whatever we’re writing is going to change between the first and final draft. It’s important to change our paradigm from “editing is for losers who don’t know how to write,” to “editing is for winners who understand that a good piece was edited in order to be good.”
3. Don’t wait for inspiration. This was something new to me. I’ve always been someone who felt like there was no point in writing unless you felt the words bubbling up inside you. I joined Elephant Academy in January 2018, and one of the lessons that came up time and again was that we should not wait until we feel inspired to write. They encouraged us to learn to treat writing like a task, a job, or a project. If we hope to one day be paid for our words, it’s important to become disciplined and to be able to write about things that aren’t always the things that make our hearts race.
4. Don’t force it. This is sort of related to number three. I’ve found that when I experience writer’s block, it’s usually because I’m forcing the story along. I’m not saying that I don’t get caught with trying to find the right word or the correct way to phrase something, but for me, writer’s block happens when I’m purposely trying to push the story in a direction rather than let the story develop on its own. It takes a little bit of relaxing and a lot a bit of letting go of our egos, but once we learn how to do this, we can get the story to progress a little bit at a time. This little bit is all we’re able to see but before we know it, there will be a whole story behind us. Don’t know how to start? Try going into more detail about something, a character, or an event, and watch where it takes you.
5. Actively fight insecurities. Writing can take a toll on the soul, ego, mind, and our self-confidence. Famous writers doubt themselves even after having written best sellers. Self-doubt and rejection come in many forms and it’s an active effort to battle these inner demons, but battle we must otherwise we will not write, and that’s when opportunities fall through the cracks. Plus, some of our best work comes when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Listen to Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on genius and creativity or Brene Brown’s TED talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” and you’ll feel better knowing that you’re not alone in your insecurities.
6. Meditate. This helps a lot with number five above. Through mediation, we learn to be more focused and can write with a clearer mind. There are many apps now that will help guide us through meditation, if you’re not sure how to start. Even a few minutes right before we begin writing is enough to help us feel centered.
7. Stay away from drugs and alcohol. Hemingway is often quoted as having said, “Write drunk, edit sober.” Despite conflicting opinions on whether or not he actually said this, the truth of the matter is, if we get into that habit we’ll eventually feel like we can’t write unless we’re under the influence of something.
8. Be authentic. People can tell when we’re being phony. They can tell in real life and they can tell through the written word. It might not be the case that someone can detect that this isn’t the real you, but it will affect the people we connect with and most of all, it will affect us. Plus, if writing is something we care about and are going to give it an honest go, why not do it from a place of authenticity?
By the time I returned from Paris to my little apartment in Venice Beach, I felt like I definitely had a before Paris and after Paris plot point in my life. I returned less depressed, more focused, and the time alone had helped me to grow in the direction of being the woman I wanted to be. Overall, I was more comfortable in my own skin. When people ask me what I did there, I tell the truth, “I played tourist and wrote.”
“Oh, so you’re a writer?” they say.
Author: Ruth Cuevas
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Lieselle Davidson
Copy Editor: Nicole Cameron