“Coming [to Paris] has been a wonderful experience, surprising in many respects, one of them being to find how much of an American I am.” Augustus Saint-Gaudens
Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “I do not know what I thought Paris would be like, but it was not that way. It rained nearly every day.” This is a fairly accurate description of my own experience with the city. For one part, it really did “rain” (Jason and I haven’t agreed yet on what the definition of “rain” is. In this case I mean mostly just gray and drizzly.) for most of the time we were there, but more importantly, I didn’t realize until I got to Paris that I didn’t really know what to expect of the city before arriving. I certainly had some preconceptions about it. Who wouldn’t? But these were ultimately just fragmented ideas of specific aspects and didn’t really combine to create a generic “whole picture”.
Looking back on it, my impressions and experiences in Paris were bifurcated. On the one hand was awe and respect. It is an absolutely stunning city. Somewhat unbelievable, it looks exactly like every painting you’ve ever seen of it. In the city heart, where we spent the vast majority of our time, everything looks as though it could have been built in the height of the 17th or 18th centuries. The buildings, statues, monuments, parks, and thoroughfares seem all very carefully organized to preserve the impression that Paris is what Paris has always been – historical and beautiful. Ironically, this sort of visual synergy is something I more expected of London than Paris. (Edinburgh would be, I think, the UK equivalent of Paris.)
When I first came to London last year, I was immediately surprised by how inconsistent-looking it was. From one building to the next it was as if London stuck things wherever there was space (even if the size of the “space” was questionable) and paid no attention at all to maintaining or preserving any sort of homogeny with regard to the already present structures. It is therefore entirely possible, and likely, you will see Victorian-style buildings, Tudor-style buildings, Edwardian-style buildings, and modern office buildings, apartments, hotels, and shopping strips all jumbled up together on the same block. For whatever reason, I never really expected this of London; though, in retrospect, it should have been an obvious thought.
Two major things contributed significantly to the current inconsistency in London’s architectural “look and feel” I think. One, the aggressive damage sustained during bombing raids in WWII left whole sections of the city levelled. Whatever centuries-old buildings had once stood in those places, they certainly didn’t escape considerable damage if not total destruction. Two, in light of all the damage, rebuilding efforts likely became a matter of efficiency by necessity rather than a measured attempt to recreate what had been lost. Compounding this, as the city continued to develop it seems Londoners, if not the Brits as a whole, tended to appreciate the “modern” and thus avidly followed the newest trends rather than putting a great deal of effort into trying to preserve (or restore) the historical perspectives of the city. For these reasons it is not out of the ordinary to have an ornate, centuries-old building right next to a more modern, austere structure. (I use the term modern lightly, since “modern” in London terms could very well mean built sometime in the last century while “modern” in American terms usually means something was built in the last decade or so.)
Paris is, by contrast, exactly the opposite of London in this fashion. Where in London you find historical gems tucked away in little nooks or even proudly dominating a street corner in the shadows of surrounding glass-faced office buildings, everything in Paris looks like it could have been built forever ago. This is especially interesting to me because I feel certain that parts of Paris must have been damaged during the war as well, but perhaps they simply put more emphasis on restoration than expediency.
Another contrast to the two cities here is that London seems to bear a charming level of “wear and tear” – the buildings are somewhat dirty or cracked or seem “patched together”, the sidewalks are often uneven or pitted, etc. Paris on the other hand looks like it could have been built yesterday…if yesterday was 1785 that is. It has a very strange sort of newness to it. The stone is still quite clean and well kept as though the French have taken care to ensure that even the oldest areas of the city be strictly maintained. It is as though they are determined to keep Paris as picturesque as the thousands of paintings crafted of it. I told Jason more than once, it must be absolutely breathtaking in the spring or summer for all the trees and gardens and parks lining the streets.
All that being said, Paris is still at its core a city, and there were certainly parts of it that were not as pleasant to look at (or visit). The subway for example often made me nervous. It seemed both old and remarkably dodgy compared to London’s tube. I was also surprised by how much graffiti there was throughout the city. In the heart area this wasn’t the case, but in the subway stations or down alleys or in the outer areas away from the major monuments and buildings wall after wall was covered in graffiti of the variety you might find under overpasses or on old train cars in the States.
“Street art” is a trend in London that’s rather fascinating. It’s a type of graffiti, but it doesn’t carry the tone of aggressive irreverence that typical graffiti does. Instead it really is “art”. By night people come out and create these massive masterpieces that remain on a designated wall for a period before it is wiped and painted over by someone else. Jason says even businesses now are hiring artists to paint temporary advertisements for them. I’ll see if I can get some good pictures of these when we’re out and about around London. I didn’t see anything like this in Paris.
Another thing I found surprising and a bit unsettling about Paris was just how many homeless people and beggars there were. They were literally everywhere we went (probably because they stick to tourist areas for the sake of profitability). Often, though, these people were horribly deformed or disfigured. We arrived in Paris late at night just as the airport was shutting down, and it seems a lot of them come into the airport, perhaps for warmth, for the night. My first sight in Paris, in fact, was a homeless man peeing on the airport wall/window as we walked by before going back to the pallet he’d made for himself a short distance away.
My experience with Paris was unique in another regard. It is the first time I have legitimately travelled to a place that I did not have at least a functional grasp of the language. This brought me to two very significant conclusions. One: travelling without linguistic support (even in a country which by all rights has enough tourism to make it relatively easy to find someone who speaks English) is awful. I plan to make every attempt to at least have a survival-level toolkit of phrases in my arsenal before travelling abroad again. For one thing, I think the local citizens appreciate the effort (though in the case of the French that might not be true), but for another, I like to know when someone is deliberately being a jerk to me. There is definitely a very helpless feeling that accompanies not being able to order food in a restaurant with some degree of dignity and confidence. (We often resorted to pointing at items that looked “safe” on the menus and vaguely mumbling to the servers.)
Two: Americans are in general spoiled when it comes to language. We have the convenience of speaking a language that is (for now) the international standard. English for most of us exists in some fashion just about everywhere…particularly in touristy areas. It’s a security blanket we don’t realize we rely on or expect to be there until it isn’t – like when a menu has no English at all on it or all the road signs or plaques at tourist sites have no traces of English to explain what the thing you are looking at is or what its supposed significance might be.
I admit that I fully expected English to be readily available in Paris. I would like to think that this wasn’t out of personal arrogance, but perhaps it is to a degree. Paris is heavily visited by tourists from all over the world, but it is undeniable that there are copious numbers of Americans, English, and Scottish travelling there all of the time. Even in Japan English was everywhere in major cities, so I sort of expected the same in France. Certainly not in the outskirts, but in the heart of Paris it just seemed a natural assumption that it would be there. I forgot, of course, the rather terse relationship France has with the UK (Americans have their own special feelings about the French I think in general, but it’s nothing like the relationship the Brits and French have. The closest thing I can come to describing it is the US/Canada relationship…but even then we’re much friendlier with one another, sort of like siblings picking on each other. There is definitely less of the open disdain and veiled hostility as exists between the French and English). I think the stark absence of English in certain places might have at least something to do with this French/British dynamic.
All in all, despite the lack of English Jason and I managed to get by. A few restaurants had small bits of English on their menus, and mostly we were lucky enough to find servers who knew English well enough that they could help us. That combined with what little French I remembered from high school (mostly vocabulary words that I could recognize written but not when spoken to me) helped us fumble through our encounters with the language barrier with some relative degree of success.
It actually wasn’t until our last day in Paris that we had an issue when we went into a cafe for breakfast and our server, despite my clearly and emphatically ordering using French words and pointing specifically to what I wanted, refused to bring me “cafe au lait” and instead said “Ok. Chocolat (Hot Chocolate).” Followed by completely ignoring Jason and refusing to let him order breakfast altogether.
I suppose most stereotypes are rooted to some degree in reality. I have to say, I was neither surprised nor impressed with the French people in general, but I allow that my general assessment isn’t entirely fair given that Jason and I neither spoke French nor conversed at length with many French people. The people who tended the reception desk at our hotel were by far the nicest people we spoke to throughout the entire weekend. Otherwise, we talked only as much as necessary to “the locals” and went about our business without paying much attention to them at all. James Baldwin said, “It is perfectly possible to be enamoured of Paris while remaining totally indifferent or even hostile to the French,” and I think my own short and limited experience trended toward this sentiment. As far as first impressions go, they didn’t seem a terribly friendly people as a whole, but beyond the jerk at the cafe, they weren’t nasty toward us much either.
Also, as an aside, the French are definitely not nearly as composed or reserved as the British. People in London (as far as I’ve seen) tend to keep to themselves and are largely pretty poised in their public behaviour. Contrastingly, it wasn’t unusual for us to see groups of people in France shouting, laughing, or just generally carrying on loudly in public places. They also seemed to use street and park benches as perfect places to pass the time drinking from bottles of wine and eating baguette sandwiches. Given warmer (and drier) weather, it’s definitely something I could enjoy too I think.
- Crepe (“Creepy”) stands exist all over Paris in about as prolific a quantity as cafes.
- Mulled Wine is delicious.
- The French seem to love dogs. We saw so many people walking their dogs around the city.
- A basket or bowl of baguettes comes with just about every meal. Carb-lovers’ Heaven.
- Frog legs were not bad but not really that impressive either. I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Escargots are next!
- Paris is expensive. It seemed even more so than London in some ways.
- Cadeaux: see “souvenirs”! J
- The funny way Kevin Kline pronounces “Oui” in the movie French Kiss actually is correct. I heard lots of French people pronounce it this way. It sounds like it could be the difference between saying “Yes” and saying “Yeah” in English. That’s just a guess though.
Check back for pictures and the good stuff in Paris Part Deux!!