You have to be prepared for Paris. On first impression, the city seems very impersonal and cold, as the stereotype goes for its people. Even the colors speak to this; one would think beige and white would be the colors on the flag, as you see them everywhere in the architecture. Order and symmetry prevail everywhere you look. You must adapt and expect this to permeate the attitude of the people around you. Then, you can look for the little rays of light that break through the gray skies and provide contrast.
Take the Montmartre district for example. All the poets, artists, prostitutes, and ne’er do wells flocked to this neighborhood and made it a splash of color – quite literally with Moulin Rouge. Walking through the twisted corridors, you encounter the homes of Van Gogh and Picasso, among others – champions of disorder.
Eventually you’ll find yourself in what I believe is the highest point in Paris, at the Sacre Coeur. This famed basilica has a cacophony of architectural styles on display. I did not see the interior, regretfully, but the views both of the exterior itself and the skyline of Paris are wonderful. I recommend it as a midway point through your visit. Happily, the clouds (and rain) broke for this part of my journey, adding to the vibrancy.
Vibrancy vs. Order, on display atop Sacre Coeur
A classic for a reason
Now that I’ve demonstrated my position as a Paris apologist, let’s get back to the heart of the place. To be frank, there are too many things to do in one visit, and if you’re a skeptic you’ll be tempted to skip the touristic ones. I have to say, the Eiffel Tower does not deserve this treatment. The thing is easily twice as big as I had imagined, and looks like a golden rocket when it is illuminated. You must go.
Starting at La Tour Eiffel, I took a nice soirée aboard a bateau (boat) which drifted slowly down the river Seine to show the rest of the sights. They don’t call this the City of Lights for no reason – the reflections on the water speak to the romance of the city. Take a bottle of wine aboard and perhaps some snacks from the local boulangerie/fromagerie/whatever your particular poison is (mine is all of the above).
Phew! What a cool place, you’ll exclaim. It’s enough to make your time here worthwhile. But while you’re flying this close to the sun, it’s easy to inflate your expectations for your trip. You will have your ups and downs in such a big place, so let’s slow down and get a better idea of what to expect.
Snagged this sweet upskirt shot, but now I’m blind.
Understanding the Parisian way
So, the stereotypes. I did see several people walking with baguettes. A good number of pretentious smokers stared indifferently from their perch at the café. One beret was spotted in the wild. But as with any cliché, these are not norms of the everyday people. The important question: are the people rude, and will they scoff at you if you walk up and speak English? That really depends, both based on my experience and what I’ve been told by others.
Here’s the thing: Parisians do not inherently trust strangers. They put their faith in their close friends and open up their energy to those they have a higher level of comfort with. You have to make an effort to connect and share an experience with a person before expecting the hospitality to come rushing at you. This can be intimidating and challenging, so I recommend putting aside your judgments and enjoying Paris for the art, architecture, food, and whatever your cup of tea may be. Don’t be offended or upset if you feel like a stupid tourist. Do your thing and be polite in the face of any hardship.
If you do get friendly service or make a new friend, take it as a bonus. Staying in a hostel (if you’re up for it) is not a bad way to go, because you’ll have other English speakers to fill the social role for you. In lieu of adventuring partners, speaking some basic French will work wonders into getting you a little more personal warmth from the locals. And please, do not barge into any establishments preaching that the customer is always right, because that is 100% false in other parts of the world, and especially in Paris. Have some patience and you will be less stressed about the differences.
Try to leave your plastic stereotypes at home and enjoy the people for what they are.
Heading to the underground of Paris
To escape the rain (and to get my freak on) I visited the Catacombs. This is something you’re either going to be super excited about or be utterly confused why anyone would go. Basically, the city had a lot of quarries underneath for many centuries, and here they had to relocate a lot of human remains from the cemeteries to ease overcrowding and disease problems. The result? More than a mile of creepy, atmospheric corridors lined with human skulls and bones.
I overheard a tour guide explaining how the youths of Paris will sneak down into the catacombs to drink, dance, and party, and they have to keep chasing them out and instituting new security measures. So, rest assured I am weird, but not that weird.
I’m glad that I had some time alone down there. It is an eerie feeling to hear your own footsteps reverberating off the cold, wet rocks and the ancient bones.
Read up on the history of the place when you get to the isolated informational sections. Don’t be spooked, and try to come early to avoid the biggest crowds – I didn’t and had to wait in line for an hour to get in. Oh, and have a wee first, because the bathroom is at the very end.
If you wear a floral print shirt and meditate, the skulls won’t eat you. It is the only way to avoid a grisly fate in the catacombs.
Get lost in Paris
For the rest of my time in Paris, I did various things – mostly walking around the various arrondissements (zones/neighborhoods) to look at the sights, and of course eating good food. Look for any place that does not have the menu in English, and has a “plat/menu du jour” posted on the chalkboard outside. My highlight was a place called Workshop where I had a melon/feta salad, gnocchi with chicken, and an apple tart for less than 20 Euro, with wine! Not quintessentially French in selection, but the location and quality were up to their standards.
If you want to have someone local show you around a less well-known area, check out a program called Paris Greeters. You can indicate your general interests, age, preferred language, etc and they will pair you up with someone (by yourself or as part of a group). My guide was a woman named Claude, and she gave the tour completely in French – I wanted to improve my listening. I had to use a lot of context clues and ask for help, but I made it through!
She took me to a fascinating neighborhood called Le Sentier, which is very ethnically diverse and historic but is currently being gentrified. The hipsters are moving in and working for startup companies, and fiber optic internet is being provided in the area. I saw plenty of shared working/living communities with office space for rent. It’s like a little Silicon Valley in Paris; lots of hip new foodie places and craft bars are popping up. I’d love to go back and check it out at night on the weekend.
Le Sentier is a charming, up-and-coming neighborhood. The lack of tourists can be a boon to your experience.
Until next time, Paris
Je m’excuse for this long ass post, but Paris is a huge place and I didn’t even do half of what I wanted. Didn’t step foot in the Louvre. Went to Versailles, but not to the interior of the château (the line was 2 hours long). Didn’t have foie gras. I will surely be back.
Thanks for bearing with me and I hope some of this information was useful to you, or it gave you a smile/laugh. À tout à l’heure!
Free walking tours depart from Fontaine St. Michel around 11am. Good way to meet people if you’re shy!