I took French for seven years, but before this weekend, my mental images of France were limited to the pictures of teenagers wearing berets and ’90s clothing who filled the pages of my textbooks and of scenes from my favorite Disney movie, Beauty and the Beast. I knew that neither was probably accurate to Paris, the city of lights. The city of love.
If you’ve never been to Paris, you might imagine it as a city where people wear black berets, take long drags from cigarettes and carry around baguettes. In your mind, the joy and debauchery of the 1920s might still be present, with writers sitting in cafes and meandering the streets as they searched for inspiration.
In reality, you might not be too far off. To me, it seemed that Paris did try to maintain its chic, ’20s-era image that fills black and white pictures. It was a time of new excitement after the war when anything was possible, but when a certain longing and sadness hung in the air.
Paris is expected to be perfect. My friend Celia recently posted an article by a British journalist that talks about how there’s an unspoken agreement to always paint Paris in a positive, dreamlike light. “Oh, you’re going to Paris!” people will say with jealousy when they find out you’re going. And it’s true. People don’t speak of other cities that way. After all, no one tries to hide the fact that London can be grey and dreary.
As I stepped off the chunnel after a two-hour ride through the French countryside and under the English Channel, I expected a city full of people wearing chic clothing while riding bicycles. Maybe even a sighting of Pierre, the stereotypical French teen from my textbooks.
I, too, expected the dreamlike Paris.
Instead, I saw a very different Paris.
Am I allowed to report what I saw? Don’t get me wrong; Paris is beautiful. If you just look at the buildings, Paris is tres belle. Most of the architecture seems to embody a French-Classicism style and living spaces are lined with intricate wrought-iron gates. There are also spacious parks paved with large gravel pathways and endless cafes lining the streets.
Look a little closer and you’ll see graffiti. There’s graffiti everywhere. Not street art, like in London (although we do have graffiti, too) but tags with the names of rebellious vandals who made their mark on the otherwise picturesque city.
We took a cab to our hotel because the metro overwhelmed us (the metro is a whole different story, but I’ll get back to that later), and were ripped off by a cab driver who overcharged us. (We didn’t find this out until the next day). Bienvenue a Paris! He was actually very friendly, but it’s probably because he was riding the high of ripping off American tourists.
We first walked to Notre Dame. I think my entire family was slightly disappointed. This year is the 850th anniversary and the entire front of the cathedral is blocked by a huge row of stadium seats where people are supposed to sit and admire the building, but are instead talking on cell phones and eating croissants (hey, I don’t blame them for the last one). Because of this, it’s impossible to take a picture of the front of the building while getting the whole cathedral in the frame.
The inside was very dim and dark and surprisingly enough, there were TV screens inside. They were put there to help people see the service that would otherwise be blocked by the tall pillars, but having TVs seems to take away from the ambiance of the old church.
The workers also ask for silence, but then charged for audioguides to hear about the history of the church. I know that audioguides are a convenient way to give information to the masses, but it seems a little hypocritical to have noisemaking objects in a place that asks for silence. (Notre Dame isn’t the only church to do this, so I can’t single it out). On top of all of that I didn’t see Quasimodo or Esmeralda!
Afterwards, we walked to Saint Chappelle, which was originally built to house Jesus’ crown of thorns. The crown has since been moved to Notre Dame, but the chapel remains and has the most beautiful stained glass windows in the world.
We then took a long walk to the Louvre. Inside, we saw the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory and a Sphinx. You would not believe the number of people who race up to these famous pieces, snap pictures and dart away. Or the number of people who take selfies by the works.
And, of course, we saw the Mona Lisa. It was one of Da Vinci’s favorite paintings. He loved it so much he carried it with him until he died. Imagine, being so proud of something you can’t bear to let it out of your sight. And just like the movie says, the most fascinating part is her smile. There’s something about her smile that’s really calm, but seems to hint that she’s thinking about something in particular. Of what we’ll never know.
We spent the evening meandering the streets. We noticed that all of the chairs in the cafes face outward so that you sit next to the people you’re eating with and can people watch. People sit to see and be seen. I personally loved how all of the seats were next to one another. It means that even if you are eating alone, you aren’t really alone. You might remember that people eating alone makes me incredibly sad, so the café set-up really touched me. Maybe it isn’t exactly that amiable in reality, but the Paris café situation seems lovely in my mind.
The next day we went to the Musee d’Orsay, which features works from 1848-1915. We mainly went to see all of the Monet pieces. Monet is my favorite artist, and in my advanced art class in eighth grade I recreated one of his water lily bridge scenes on a shelf. It turned out pretty well if I do say so myself.
I have seen a lot of incredible paintings in my time abroad, but none of them have meant as much to me Monet’s. I’ve seen too many naked women in my time here, and the flower scenes have always made me feel the calmness and tranquility that Monet tried to capture in his Parisian landscapes.
That afternoon we went on a tour of Paris with a guide. We spent quite a lot of time in the car listening to her teach us more about the city. We saw all of the main sites (including the Eiffel Tower for the first time in our visit), Les Invalides where Napoleon is buried (well, some of him. His penis is supposedly in New Jersey) and the beautiful Sacre Coeur, which is on top of a huge hill.
I didn’t speak too much French while I was abroad. I used basic French to help ask for directions and to order a few times, but I felt surprisingly panicked most of the time I tried to use it. My heavy American accent showed through any type of pronunciation I tried to use, and it made me feel really embarrassed. I give a lot of credit to my friends studying abroad in Paris, because it isn’t an easy city to be a foreigner in.
That night we had our own midnight in Paris adventure (I know, how many times am I going to make that joke) and went to the Eiffel Tower. Unbeknownst to us, the tower had been evacuated because of a bomb threat just three hours before we got there. It reopened just as we were stepping off the metro to walk towards it.
I think everyone in my family said “ooh” “ah” and “wow” dozens of times as we looked at the tall beauty when it was all lit up. We didn’t go all the way to the top, but the view was still amazing. While standing on the platform, I could see why Paris is called the city of lights. Tiny glowing dots were peppered in the blackness. I felt almost out of my own body and partly removed from the world as I looked down. Of course, the romanticism didn’t last too long because it was cold and windy and I was surrounded by middle-schoolers taking selfies. Still, it was nice to be momentarily removed and thinking of the world passing by underneath.
The next day I was Belle. Just kidding. I didn’t read a book while walking through the streets, but I would have if I had one. We went to the Sunday Markets where locals were buying huge baguettes, pieces of meat and fresh produce for their Easter meals. It felt quintessentially French, with the specialized stores for fromage and charcuterie.
At this point, we had been taking the metro for a full day. We knew that it would be smelly (think urine) and filled with endless graffiti. Unlike in London, lots of homeless people take up residence in the metro stations. There are homeless people in London, but they are far less visible than they are in Paris. I unfortunately saw homeless people more than I saw any baguettes or hand-holders. I realized that I was disillusioned about Paris when I saw a mom sleeping in a phone booth with two children. I also realized how fortunate I was to be on a Parisian holiday with my family and not jammed into a small rectangular space.
Back to the metro, which was, like London, very crowded, but incredibly dirty. We stepped on to go to the Arc de Triomphe, and all of a sudden, I was hit with a wave of the smell of number two. It was so strong my eyes started to water.
“It smells like poop,” I said to my sister, and started giggling because I inherited a little bit of my mom’s 12-year-old sense of humor. All of a sudden, my sister looked down at the row of seats in front of her and saw, well, you can guess.
Shall I spare you the gory details? Yes. You’re welcome. Needless to say, after trying to hold our breaths and stifling our gags, we jumped off the metro and switched cars at the next stop. I’ve never been so thankful to gulp in the smoggy metro air, and would never take it for granted again. I’m also thankful for how clean London is.
Paris is much more gritty than I expected. A huge cloud of smoke lingers above graffiti-tagged buildings, and when I think of Paris, I’ll now always think of the smell of cigarette smoke. And maybe of another smell, too.
Afterwards, we went to the Arc, which has a tomb to the Unknown Soldier. We climbed to the top and enjoyed views of sunny Paris, once again above the world.
We left the city Sunday night with stomachs full of fondue. I really enjoyed my time in Paris. We ate well and saw beautiful artwork and architecture. I felt transported in a cloud of smoke (quite literally) into a city trying to hold onto its 1920s-past.
That’s good and bad. The ‘20s are over, obviously. And the graffiti and obvious sights of poverty show that Paris isn’t the dreamlike city it’s often painted to be.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful. It is. It just means that even the most beautiful things have blemishes.
I recently read Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast,” which might be why my visions of Paris are so skewed towards the ’20s. He sums up the city pretty well though when he says, “Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong…”
Nothing is simple when you describe Paris. Even more, he writes, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
Now, I haven’t lived in Paris and I’ve obviously not a man, but the memories of the city will remain. Paris is a moveable feast for me, but I know that if I should ever return, a haze of smoke will transport me back.
Until next time,
Allison, whose moveable feast was mostly crepes