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Impressions of Paris

Nuit a le Marais

Calling myself a world traveler would be a lie, but I’ve been around and seen places, hating some and liking others. Big cities, small towns, rural backwaters and the highways, byways and skyways in between have all been graced by my presence, traversing the distances by car, bus, train and plane. I’ve taken ferries but never sailed and that’s not likely to change any time soon, unless they make the oceans stop bobbing up and down. The point is that I’ve wandered the streets of Manhattan suffering the brute force of a million people hurrying to somewhere under the silent sentinels towering above, I’ve roamed the grimy arcades of Osaka grappling with a culture both foreign and familiar to me, I’ve sweltered under the Caribbean sun swimming in a sea of voices I couldn’t understand and I’ve eaten poutine out of a paper bag purchased from some roadside Quebecois shack wishing for more napkins.

Philadelphia scared me the first time I visited because I didn’t understand the vigilance and tension of the older generation until I learned a little about the past. Olympia doesn’t have a lot going for it but I always appreciated the serenity, the feeling of being on a retreat, of allowing myself to slip into a slower stream of life. Portland has always hated me but we’re working on it; I didn’t get sick until the last day when I was last there and I didn’t sleep in a park. Minneapolis? It’s been ten years since I tried to live there, or kidded myself I could try to live there when I knew there were too many things I needed to do back home. I haven’t returned, although I think of it from time to time.

Macaroon. Macaroon. No, Macaroon.

Paris impressed the hell out of me, more than any place I’ve ever been. My head was filled with horror stories of rude, snobby xenophobes making life hell for no reason. I went with only a slight skeleton of French under my belt convinced I would find myself trapped on the Metro, completely turned around and unable to find my way, babbling English to a group of smug subway employees raising their eyebrows and insisting they couldn’t understand me. There would be no bespectacled school-girl to help me in Paris, I would wander the streets too shellshocked to stop in a cafe and use the bathroom. I would find my efforts to secure a simple baguette resisted until my stomach gnawed and growled. Parisian youth would prey upon me, spitting and kicking and calling me Yankee-Doodle while they rifled through my pockets and wore tight pants.

None of these horror stories came true, never even threatened to spill into reality. Everyone that I met, from the clearly frustrated fromagerie worker squishing her fingers together or pounding her palm with her fist (soft or hard?) to the equally perplexed boulangerie cashier who couldn’t understand why I kept repeating “bastard” and looking hopeful, was gracious and patient and tried their best to help bridge the gap between our lack of comprehension. The guy behind the counter at the Louvre told me “that’s okay” when I mispronounced “billet” and blurted out “sorry” in English, then let me resume my fractured and tortured French without ignoring my efforts and speaking my mother tongue. People on the street didn’t glare at me, spit on me, whisper things under their breath or roll their eyes. Gangs of youths failed to materialize from the shadows to mug me, even the poor immigrants in Belleville or the hip-hoppers in Saint-Ouen. People who I was introduced to were exceptionally nice, honest and seemed genuinely interested in getting to know me. When my French proved lacking they carefully and laboriously conversed in English, going out of their way to make me feel welcome.

Ile de la Cite

Free from the concerns of personal conflict and humiliation I was able to bask in the glorious sights and sounds of a truly cosmopolitan city. Turning each corner revealed another postcard waiting to be printed, from the beautiful apartment buildings with ornate trim and balconies to the massive monuments honoring every man who ever rode a horse, the carefully manicured and expertly plotted parks to the winding, cobblestone streets. Walking was the only entertainment necessary for a fulfilling day, surrounded by people who eased their way along too immersed in the little pleasures of life to hurry or stress out. Except for the cars– the traffic whipping by is intimidating and crossing on a red seemed a more dangerous prospect than anywhere else I’ve been except, surprise, Martinique.

Pedestrians Welcome

Intersections where each corner was a cafe, chairs laid out so that people could enjoy the onset of Spring, each occupied by people unhurried by servers even if they’ve only bought an espresso. You walk up to the bar and stand, paying less, letting your ears wander the room. Boulangeries appear in every third doorway and each has its own dedicated following, despite my inability to distinguish them from one another. Produce markets everywhere, public bike stations every ten minutes, Metro stops every ten blocks. Bookstores, newspaper stands, fromageries, restaurants, theaters. The city economy seems built on people enjoying themselves, not fretting away their lives in office towers. Clothing stores, because everyone looks so well put together. I thought I would be annoyed, or at least embarrassed, to walk among the Parisians who all look like they had just appeared in GQ and Elle but no one took much note of my worn jeans, frayed jacket, outlet shoes. Museums, art galleries, bars. History and culture intersecting and intertwined, acknowledged and respected with a certain amount of reverence and pride. People told me that Parisians get spoiled very quickly and I can understand why.

One thing I hadn’t expected was how integrated the city seems. San Francisco prides itself on diversity, as does America as a whole, but the social divisions are painfully obvious in my rich white hometown. Paris isn’t full of pasty faces smeared with rouge: little old blue hairs sit next to big young black men without any indication of fear or revulsion; Chinese and Indian women walk down the street chatting with white women; school groups parade a rainbow of excited children. Vietnamese, Korean, Greek– you can get sushi on every block. Asian markets, Muslim markets, Italian markets; English pubs, American diners and the unfortunate attempt to make Mexican a European experience. People seemed to get along except for the obvious security and tension of the Jewish district in Marais with cameras over garage doors, barred windows and SUVs emptying burly Israelis wearing bluetooths onto the sidewalk. The Muslims hate the Jews, the Jews hate the Muslims, the stories that sound so far away when you read about them in America take form. There’s a uniformed cop standing guard outside Le Memorial de la Deportation checking people’s bags. The only incident that caught my eye was while sitting with a Greek sandwich watching three black teens flip through DVDs outside of a small store on Daguerre. As soon as their backs were turned the white store owner rushed outside to see if anything was missing; I can’t say if this should be attributed to a distrust of a race or an age. I’m sure there’s racism, I saw National Front stickers, but it doesn’t seem as prevalent as other places I’ve been.

Another World

I like the fact that the streets and sidewalks are so narrow people just walk wherever, moving whenever a car comes. It can get crowded but people manage to navigate around one another like birds in a flock, and the rare collision is followed by immediate exchange of apologies. I like how easy and quick it is to get from one end of the city to the other, although I don’t like how the Metro shuts down so early and how infrequent the night buses come. In fact, I was amazed at how early Paris shuts down. Many shops were closed by seven and supermarkets and corner stores were almost all dark by ten. On Sunday half of the city would shut down and to my surprise the immigrant communities didn’t take advantage of this gap. It’s as hard to get Chinese at one in the morning as it is to get a crepe.

I like the neighborhoods, the sense of community where people wave at one another through windows. I like how no one is too embarrassed to sit along the Seine on the islands despite the busloads of tourists crawling around. I liked being able to walk down the street and not feel like everyone was scheming to rip me off, bother me or otherwise ruin my day and I liked not feeling tense, angry and hyperaware of my surroundings. I like that food is cheap, plentiful and good and that useless consumer goods are expensive. I like the craftsmenship invested in everything from a home to a macaroon. I like how people would just assume let you carry on with your business and carry on with theirs. If records were cheaper and rock bands more popular it might be heaven.

On Top of the World

I like that they’re trying to be environmentally conscious but it is impossible to find bulk bins and yogurt in large containers. There’s an effort to push organic produce but it comes packages in shrinkwrapped clusters. I only noticed a couple health food stores which were all poorly stocked and expensive. However, I didn’t see a single gas station and getting coffee or food to go is almost as common a phenomenon.

It’s been very difficult trying to explain why I like Paris so much. People ask what I did and what I ate but I feel like my trip was more valuable because of how it made me feel. One person said, “it feels like home” and in a way it did– it was immediately comfortable despite the barrier on language, but it wasn’t just a good book and hot cocoa by the fire feeling. Then someone sent me a quote from Harlan Coben’s “Long Lost”:

Paris was like that. much has been written about its beauty and splendors, and sure, that was true. every building was a mini architectural wonder, a feast for
the eyes. paris was like the beautiful woman who knew she was beautiful, liked the fact that she was beautiful, and ergo, didn’t have to try so hard. she was fabulous and you both knew it.

but more than that, paris makes you feel — for lack of a better term — alive. check that. paris makes you want to feel alive. you want to do and be and savor when you are here. you want to feel, simply, feel and it doesn’t matter what. all sensation is heightened. paris makes you want to cry and laugh and fall in love and write a poem and make love and compose a symphony.

Some naive part of me feels that I could have written that if I lived in Paris. Because it just seems to make the simple things you take for granted and the mundane tasks of every day life a special occasion worth celebrating.

And now I’ve gone back to work and I’ve gone back to my simple things I take for granted the mundane tasks of everyday life. It feels like everything happens from a little distance, like I’m slightly displaced from my own home. And I catch myself fantasizing about ways to get back across the Atlantic, gain a visa or slip under the radar, find a job or sell hash, trying to work out the intricacies of a foreign bureaucracy or the complicated negotiations of a marriage of convenience. What would I do if I lived in Paris? I have no idea, but I have this horrible delusion that the city would make it just a little easier and a little more fulfilling, whatever it may be.

None of this would have been possible without my generous and gracious host, Robin, who selflessly took off two weeks to drag us from bar to squat to friend’s house to Catacombs in order to show me and Beth a good time. Also I don’t think things would have worked out nearly as well if I hadn’t had such a wonderful co-conspirator as Beth, even if she had to leave after the first week. I’m feeling so romantic I’m tempted to list off the name of every person who I met but this is getting a little gooey for me and I know they’ll never read this so…

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  1. April 15, 2009 at 10:43 am

    Well, this has definitely made me more excited than ever for my own trip to Paris, coming up hopefully soon!

    I’m not sure about the society being totally integrated. I mean, do you remember the riots and the fires in the ghettos right outside Paris just a few years ago? I feel like as someone visiting the city, that’s probably a side of it you’d never see.

    The metro closing down early is one thing that bothers me about Santiago too, but at least it keeps it clean and safe!

  2. April 15, 2009 at 11:30 pm

    I didn’t mean to imply that Paris was a utopia of racial acceptance so much as for a city of so many backgrounds and cultures there didn’t seem to be the amount of tension and distrust I’ve encountered in other places. At no point did I feel that people were giving me that “you’re in the wrong neighborhood” look and I didn’t pick up on any angry or suspicious looks. If I was black, maybe if I looked more like my mom, things might have been different and even guidebooks talk about the racism of the police and people.

    More blatant problems do exist, I know, and the Clichy riots of a couple years ago were a pretty clear indication that there’s still a long way to go. More recently was rioting and strikes in the overseas departments which quickly boiled down to race-relations. But I wasn’t as focused on burning cars and thrown bricks as I was how people seemed to relate to one another and what little indications their mannerisms betrayed. Looking in from the outside, yes, so maybe I just wouldn’t recognize the signs.

    The metro seemed clean and safe but I’ve heard stories about people getting jumped or just fucked with for whatever reason. Another ugly glimpse I was fortunately spared, it would seem.

    All said and done I think you’ll have a wonderful time in Paris, just as you’ll have a wonderful time all over the world.

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