How long does it take to fall in love with a city? Judging from my experiences, I'd say about 30 minutes.
I had only been on the ground in Paris proper for half an hour yet already I knew this was it—I was made for this city. 30 minutes by metro from the center of the city to my hotel in Trocadéro, and that was all it took for me to be totally smitten by the City of Lights. Hunched in the corner of the metro car with luggage for a week in one hand, camera bag in another, several differences from Rome struck me:
Observation one: It says a lot about a city and its people when the doors to the metro cars open before the train has come to a complete stop. And also that said trains run every 3 minutes, so if you dawdle and miss one you'll still never be late to wherever you're going.
Observation two: The streets lined with cafés, and café-goers frequenting them, lends the city a certain air that I've felt is totally missing from Rome. While the Mediterranean lifestyle is one known for its easygoingness, Italians are somewhat surprisingly inclined towards the coffee-and-go model of café; rarely do you find a place where you can just lounge around for a few hours reading, writing, or people-watching.
Observation three: Not that Rome is badly behind on the times, but Paris is a much more modern city. Rome is, let's face it, old...really old; factor in the Papal and Mussolinian influences on city planning and architecture over the last 1600 years—seemingly the only influences on city planning and architecture—you're left with a city that, while beautifully picturesque, is seemingly and quite oddly void of anything from the last 4 decades.
Observation four: Paris is SUPER cosmopolitan. People of every sort of ethnic and cultural background call themselves Parisian...and as I would learn later in the week, the ramifications of this multiculturalism on Parisian gastronomical culture are GLORIOUS.
Observation five: Oh hey there Eiffel Tower.
Save a walk underneath the Eiffel Tower, my first night in Paris was rather uneventful; unable to locate the Centro friends who had gotten to France before me, I grabbed a sandwich from a nearby Carrefour to tide me over as I planned out my next two and a half days. Early on a rather smoggy Tuesday morning, I navigated my way to the Musée d'Orsay, where I met up with my four Centro fellow-travelers. The queue at the entrance seemed unexpectedly long, until we discovered that we had come on the day of the grand opening of a new Van Gogh exhibit. Was it worth the 45 minute wait in line? Absolutely. After a few hours wandering through the halls of impressionist art, the museum's specialty, we split up for the day and I headed off to lunch with my friend Alison, who's been studying here since January. Leading me with aplomb through the back alleys of an arty neighborhood, streets lined with galleries, bakeries, and obnoxiously beautiful French people, we arrived at a crêpe place where we enjoyed their lunch special—one savory crêpe and one sweet crêpe of our choosing + fresh apple juice.
[Side note: I've been taking French since 7th grade, and by now I've gotten good enough at it that navigating the city and asking for directions is no problem. Given that this was my first time in a Francophone country and that I was still drained from my trip to Sicily the week before (and the horrifying turbulence of my easyjet flight...), it took me a little while to muster up my French skills, but with a little practice I was good to go. I didn't get "Englished" nearly as much as people had warned me I would; apparently my grammar is good enough that people were willing to humor my attempt at speaking their langue maternelle. Which brings up another point: Parisians have a reputation for snootiness, and while it's true that no one here goes skipping down the boulevards beaming and singing, I think much of that rap derives from the fact that the French love French. Think, for a moment, how you would react if you ran a business in America and Korean tourists who don't know a lick of English and show no interest in trying to learn any kept showing up at your door. You'd be frustrated, right? Consider also that the French language is so sacrosanct to the people of France that there's an organization devoted to the preservation of the language and you can start to see why Parisians are known for being hostile to American tourists. (Obviously there's also a political aspect here, but we'll save that for another day.) Where I'm going with this is: I was lucky enough to be able to French my way through Paris, but for someone without any knowledge of the language exploring and getting lost in the city probably wouldn't prove to be as fun an experience as it was for me. Especially on the getting lost part.]
After finishing up lunch, Alison took me to one of the must-see stops on my list: Shakespeare & Company, the famous English-language bookstore along the Seine, right across from Notre Dame de Paris. Every last nook and cranny of this place was stuffed with books and antiques refashioned into bookshelves (no photos allowed, unfortunately). Alison had to run off to class after that, so I spent the rest of the day exploring the city. Much of these explorations entailed just walking up and down the endless corridors of restaurants, cafés, florists, antique book dealers, pâtisseries, galleries...and on and on. I did pop in to Notre Dame and was taken aback by the jarring contrast between the service going on in the center of the cathedral and the tourist attractions flanking the aisles.
I did have one mission to tend to away from the hustle and bustle of downtown. Woojin, one of the Centristi in Paris, and I had planned to meet up again in the afternoon to go check out the tomb of Oscar Wilde. While we ended up missing each other, I still had a nice stroll through the Père Lachaise Cemetery, located a bit further out from the main part of Paris and also housing the tomb of Chopin, among other notables. It was nice to get away for a short while and experience a neighborhood of Paris less travelled by tourists' shoes.
That night, after walking up and down the streets of the Latin quarter for...longer than I'm comfortably admitting, I located a Lebanese restaurant where I was able to satisfy my longstanding hummus craving. [Side note #2: abandon all hope ye who wish to be vegan in Rome during Lent while enrolled in a program that provides 15 meals a week and has limited options in the way of high-protein food; Paris seemed to me as though it would be much more accommodating to dietary restrictions, as my fully-vegan meal of delicious Mediterranean foodstuffs would imply.]
Wednesday was another packed day, with a trip to the Louvre occupying most of the morning. On my way there, I stopped at a pâtisserie and nailed my order (I had food in hand and was out the door in 30 seconds flat; my only error was having to ask the cashier to repeat the price) and continued on to track down the Greek Orthodox church in Paris—secular as this country may be, not too difficult a task—for my inevitable return trips in the future. As chance would have it, I got to the Louvre at the same time as the other Centristi did, without having planned beforehand, so we spent the morning wandering the endless halls of artwork together. After parting ways until evening, when we had agreed to meet up again for dinner at an Armenian restaurant, I caught the metro to Montemartre to get lunch with Alison again and check out Sacre-Cœur. I made the mistake of taking the stairs at the metro stop where I had agreed to meet her (note to tourists: DO NOT TAKE THE STAIRS. TAKE THE LIFT. You're welcome.) and with my stomach running on empty from a day full of walking, we took a long detour at a café; nevertheless, it was nice to catch up on each other's news and share our thoughts about our study abroad programs.
On our way back down the mountain, we tried and failed to find Moulin Rouge—two blocks into the red light district we decided this was an adventure that could wait. From there, I headed off to the Jeu de Paume, a photography gallery that was holding a retrospective show on Robert Adams. This showstopper was alone worth the price of admission. The gallery was also holding a show of the works of Mathieu Pernot, a French photographer who has documented the immigrant, gypsy, and otherwise overlooked communities of Paris for the last 2 decades. The show included a series on people shouting messages to their loved ones from behind the gates of the prisons where their husbands/wives/children are being incarcerated, and a stunning wall of photographs of dilapidated French buildings mid-implosion.
Pernot's photography carried with it a message worth remembering while on vacation. Paris, for all its charms—and it has many—is not to be reduced to some idealistic Shangri-La. Like any other world metropolis, there's more to Paris than the fancy neighborhoods and the postcard-ready monuments. The only parts of the city I got to see were really, really clean and really, REALLY beautiful; getting a glimpse of the less-marketable sides of the City of Lights, far from tarnishing my image of Paris, whetted my appetite for more of this place. I've read about it in books and the news, watched it evolve through decades of Francophone cinema, and now finally taken to the streets myself, and hopefully that's only the beginning. Call it fascination, infatuation, or whatever you like, but Paris speaks to me in a way that other cities just don't. I definitely want to come back for a longer stretch of time to really get to know every aspect of Paris, both the things advertised to you in travel guides and the things discreetly swept under the carpet. I'm not saying I'm going to up and move here, but with a metro that wonderfully efficient and chocolate-pistachio pastries calling at every corner...you never know.
(Addendum: I also went for several strolls down Champs-Elysées, but the only story worth telling there is how a woman came up to me, at 10 PM or so on Tuesday night, and tried getting my help in figuring out why the designer purse store she had just walked in to was open, lit up, unoccupied and unalarmed. Beats me, madame, but if it's a partner in crime you're looking for, count me out.)
Next stop: London! My blogging will resume in a week, after my weeklong trip through the wifi-less hinterlands of Campania and Pompeii.