Paris, je te aime

Eiffel Tower 27

The nation of France – and Paris in particular – has had a tough week.  On Wednesday, radical Islamist terrorists gunned down twelve employees of the Paris-based magazine Charlie Hebdo, allegedly in retaliation for that magazine’s publication of satirical cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.  One suspect turned himself in and two others – brothers who were once under surveillance until the French government decided it simply had too many “persons of interest” to continue monitoring the ones it was already keeping tabs on – were ultimately hunted down and killed.

The manhunt was well underway by international authorities, and makeshift memorials of flowers and candles were already being left near the magazine offices, when it happened again on Thursday: a policewoman, just 26, was gunned down by one of the suspects in the suburb of Montrouge.

And again on Friday.  The killings returned to Paris-proper when two terrorists gunned down four people inside a kosher grocery store in a predominantly-Jewish section of Paris.  One terrorist was killed in a standoff but the second, a female, is still at large and is believed to have since fled to Syria.

France has dealt with its share of terror attacks over the years.  Whatever your opinion may be of the belief held by some that the very depiction of an image of the Prophet Muhammad is something punishable by death – or of that controversial French court ruling from 2010 that prohibits women from wearing burqas for driver license photos – it’s almost certain that the ideological divide – and the violence, unfortunately – will continue.

This week’s attacks in France pale in comparison to the ongoing violence in places like Iraq, Syria, and Nigeria.  Still, it seems especially horrific because France is “supposed” to be an evolved, progressive, first-world nation…and therefore is “supposed” to be immune to this sort of extremist violence.  I tweeted a few days ago that the last 30 days have not been good ones for free speech, of which I am a staunch advocate.  Somewhat infuriatingly, an argument can certainly be made that while Charlie Hebdo had every right to publish those cartoons, they had a moral responsibility not to.

It doesn’t matter.  France, despite its flaws, is one of the great countries of the world, Paris one of its greatest cities.  I have been to Paris five times and to France with even greater frequency.  I guess I’m something of a Francophile, and I’d move there in a heartbeat if I could – with little fear of being a terror target.

Eiffel Tower 31

The City of Light

You no doubt have heard the rumors about Paris and its people.  They don’t apply deodorant, they all wear bérets, and they eat frogs’ legs with every meal.  The Métro is filled with pickpockets, the sidewalks covered in dog shit.  Customer service is abysmal.  Parisian waiters will spit in your soup if you dare not speak to them in perfect French.  And they absolutely despise Americans.

Every one of the above stereotypes is bullshit.  (Well, except for the one about customer service.  Even some of my French-born friends have admitted that this is not an area in which the French excel.  There.  I said it.)

My first visit to the City of Light was in August, 2000.  Paris was my first stop in mainland Europe following three weeks in Ireland and the United Kingdom.  I was with my college friend Miles at the time, and we spent just five days and six nights in Paris, including a day trip to Versailles and another to Giverny, Monet’s pint-sized hometown and location of his “Water Lilies” garden of artistic fame.

National Gallery of Art 14 - The Japanese Footbridge - by Claude Monet

Our Paris hostel, MIJE Maubuisson, was ideally located one block behind the Paris city hall and was situated in a historic building.  (An interesting regulation as a result of this stated that we were not allowed to hang our towels outside the window to dry.)  Dorms were sex-separated but cozy, and the complimentary breakfast – coffee or chocolate, orange juice, pastry, and baguette – was simple yet sublime.  I can still taste that delectable bread 15 years later.

Seine River 5

The weather was perfect.  We walked from Notre-Dame to the Eiffel Tower and back at least twice, and explored the more labyrinthine inner corridors of the city as well.  I ate boeuf bourgignon one night, steak tartare another night, and drank copious amounts of coffee and wine.   We watched street performers along bustling Rue de Rivoli and listened to buskers across the river in the Left Bank.  We enjoyed crêpes at least three of the five days we were there.  The city reeked of romance.  (I remember thinking to myself, if only I was in Paris with a significant other as opposed a male friend.  This is no certainly no reflection on my friend Miles.)

Notre Dame de Paris 4

It was eight years before I would return to Paris, and it was in the winter this time.  I technically visited Paris *twice* in three weeks, having a full-day layover in Paris before heading to Rome and then finishing in Paris after several days in Italy.  A chilly rain fell during my first day back in Paris, but it hardly mattered.  Like Owen Wilson said in Woody Allen’s enchanting film Midnight in Paris, Paris is lovely in the rain.  When I returned 10 days later, Paris had turned sunny and cold – cold enough to prevent the fine layer of snow that had since fallen from melting.

Louvre 4

As it happened, Miles met me for this trip as well.  We stayed at the same hostel, visited the same places (Notre-Dame, the Louvre, etc.), and took similar day trips (to Fontainebleau and Chartres instead of Versailles and Giverny).  We strolled further southwest along the River Seine, explored bohemian Montmartre in greater depth, and braved the intimidating post-New Year’s crowds at several humbling department stores.  (“It’s sales season,” someone explained to us, “and you mustn’t miss it.”)  We even hit up Disneyland Paris!

Louvre 3

The weather was a bit too chilly to sit outside and people-watch, so we enjoyed Paris in different ways this time.  We slowed down the pace.  We took long lunches.  We slept late.  We soaked in the holiday lights.  We explored the city’s dazzling museums in depth, rather than racing through like mad tourists checking off the two or three masterpieces listed in each guidebook.  (I admit it: I’ve been there and done that, too.)  We sought out Paris as photographers would: following the light, using shadows to our advantage, chasing the sunset, seeking out vantage points, comparing shots, and filling up memory cards as if it was matter of quantity, not quality.

Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise 36

If you can believe it, I managed at least two more trips to Paris, and those were serendipitous as well.  One trip found me enjoying unseasonably warm April weather.  I made it to Père Lachaise Cemetery, famous as the burial site of Jim Morrison and a place of such unlikely beauty that I lingered for several hours.  On this trip I also journeyed a few hours south of Paris, spending several memorable days in the château country that is the Loire Valley.  I then continued onward to the German-influenced state of Alsace-Lorraine.  That state’s incredible capital, Strasbourg, is like something out of a half-timbered fairy tale.

Chambord Chateau 64

My last trip to Paris was in 2011, in mid-summer.  I normally cringe at visiting over-touristed cities during peak season, but Paris is an exception because it absorbs the crowds so well.  I was joined by my writer friend Steve this time, and although I still would have preferred to be in the company of an impressionable younger female – a fantasy that continues to elude me – I was more than happy to share my favorite European city with someone who had never been there before.

Pantheon 9

Steve and I didn’t really cover new touristic ground on this trip, although we managed to hitch a ride on one of the city’s omnipresent tour boats that ply the river from the Eiffel Tower to Île de la Cité.  We did brave the lengthy summertime queues for a few of the requisite sites – Notre-Dame, the Louvre, and the Panthéon.  There’s something magical about Paris.  The crowds, the long lines, the overpriced fountain drinks…while irritating elsewhere, these things have never really gotten under my skin in Paris.

My $0.02

Paris is a big city, and French is a tough language.  I get it that many travelers may find the city to be overwhelming – especially if Paris is their first exposure to a foreign language.  But I’ve also read that the city is laid out in such a fashion that you should never have to walk more than one mile in any direction before reaching any of its approximately 300 Art Nouveau-influenced Métro stations.  And the signage is excellent throughout the city.  Three international airports and six long distance train stations (plus the “Chunnel”) make Paris one of the most accessible cities in the world.

Paris Metro 2

I try not to judge people, but exceptions can certainly be made.  Frankly, if you’ve strolled along the Seine, taken in the atmosphere of the Quartier Latin, people-watched in a sidewalk café, made the compulsory day trip to Versailles, been humbled by the menacing gargoyles, flying buttresses, and rose windows of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, browsed the charming open-air book markets, and eaten like a king, and you still aren’t enchanted by Paris…there is something wrong with you.

Paris, I love you.

Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food, history, and women, all while weathering the culture shock. Life's journey has since brought him to rural Tennessee, perhaps the biggest culture shock of them all. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, and travel in general.

7 thoughts on “Paris, je te aime”

  1. Great post! I also have a strange love affair with Paris, though I haven’t been as lucky as you to have visited so often. I’ve been twice — for three days as part of a big Western Europe bus tour right after uni, and then again eight years later for the famed “deux jours à Paris” on a stopover en route to Morocco. I’ve encountered metro pickpockets (yes, that one’s true) and bad customer service (but no worse than here at home in France Lite). I don’t find Parisians to be rude, by and large; I think most of them are simply deadpan and have a dry sense of humour that is lost on many American tourists. Being fluent in French helps, obviously. Though they do incessantly mock my Quebec accent.

    Last time I was there I was hosted by a wonderful CS host in Montmarte who made me crepes and took me to see his friends perform a play. I also adore the architecture, the photography, the art, the culture, and of course the food and wine — which is unparalleled anywhere else in the world. Despite feeling like France is a bit of a hostile place for Jewish people to live right now, I still harbour a fantasy of living and working in Paris for a year.

    So, yep, Paris. Great place to visit. (Though statistically, probably more dangerous than other places where most Americans fear to go. Still wouldn’t stop me. But just saying.)

    Love everywhere else I’ve been in France, too — though most of France is as different from Paris as most of the UK is from London.

    1. Yeah, I’ve been very fortunate to have spent so much time in Paris. I’ve seen a good deal of France as well, but not as much as I’d like. Avignon and some of the other Roman-influenced cities in the south of France are particularly beckoning.

      Sorry to hear about the Metro pickpocketing. Still, it sounds like you enjoy Paris as much as I do. (And I’m sure your French accent is better than mine.) Thanks for commenting!

  2. Although it’s vastly improved since the 90s, customer service is “poor” across Southern Europe, not just France. But Americans are much harder on France because they mistakenly expect it to be more Anglo or Germanic than Latin/Mediterranean. You visit the region for its beauty, culture, and climate…not for people in service positions wearing fake smiles because they’re afraid you won’t tip them. That said, when people aren’t pressured to “smile” and kiss your ass, I always find the French to be more *genuinely* friendly and helpful, even folks in service positions. People in France have bent over backwards to help me countess times. Life is certainly slower than what Americans are used to (though I’ve found Canadians to move to a similar slow-ish pace), and as long as one erases his cultural expectations from his brain (difficult to do, but the more traveled you are, the easier), then the better you’ll adjust.

    I completely agree with you that Paris absorbs the tourists hordes well…and the tourists are just a part of the city that make it what it is: a big exciting city that can feel like the center of the universe.

    1. EDIT (longer version of my previous reply)

      Although it’s vastly improved since the 90s, customer service is “poor” across Southern Europe, not just France. But Americans are much harder on France because they mistakenly expect it to be more Anglo or Germanic than Latin/Mediterranean. You visit the region for its beauty, culture, and climate…not for people in service positions wearing fake smiles because they’re afraid you won’t tip them.

      That said, when people aren’t pressured to “smile” and kiss your ass, I always find the French to be more *genuinely* friendly and helpful, even folks in service positions. People in France have bent over backwards to help me COUNTLESS times. Even the occasional rude person can be a sweetheart; you just have to look past that typical Southern European cynical exterior…they’re all teddy bears on the inside. And there are *some* areas where costumer service -I would argue- is better over there. If a restaurant is full, they’ll just tell you “we’re full, but here’s some great nearby restaurants we recommend”. In America, they put us on a list, and we wait like a bunch of idiots for a half hour for our name to be called; we don’t think it’s strange, because we’re culturally used to it.

      Life is certainly slower in France than what Americans are used to (though I’ve found Canadians to move to a similar slow-ish pace), and as long as one erases his cultural expectations from his brain (difficult to do, but the more traveled you are, the easier), then the better you’ll adjust.

      I completely agree with you that Paris absorbs the tourists hordes well…and the tourists are just a part of the city that make it what it is: a big exciting city that can feel like the center of the universe.

  3. I liked your post but only because my name was mentioned. 🙂 And keep looking. You’ll find a victim, er, I mean girlfriend someday that will be more than happy to have you pay for her trip to Paris. You’ll get there buddy! You’ll get there. (This is where I pat you on the back.)

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