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Facing Fears About the French in Five* Days

August 19, 2011

It's Paris. Need I say more?

First, let me say, it turns out I actually stayed six days in Paris. I only thought it was going to be five because I can’t count. Obviously, however, ‘facing fears about the French in five days’ sounds better than stumbling over the word ‘six’, what with alliteration and all, so let’s say I lost a day in there somewhere due to rain, which is true.

During the week I was there, it rained four out of six days, except on my birthday, which was gloriously sunny. Every day while there, due to the weather, the song “April in Paris” reverberated in my head. That sounds romantic until you take into account that when a song plays like a broken record in your mind, you start to go insane.

It turns out, aside from all of the unique medieval buildings, museums, culture, food, and architecture, Paris is like any other large city across the globe. It was good I found that out at what is supposed to be the ‘midway’ point in my life, so that I can continue on with my existence no longer glamorizing the French any more than is absolutely necessary. Whereas before I had them up on a pedestal of unattainable perfection based on eight years of French classes (and Catherine Deneuve, whose cheekbones haunted my youth), having experienced the real thing, I can say that I was completely wrong to worry. The real French are wonderful, and forgiving of American strangers who engage in the dual faux pas of speaking their language badly and wearing unfashionable shoes.

Even in the 1100s, the French were concerned with fashion

For most of my life, my litmus test of whether or not I would buy an article of clothing was whether or not I could be seen wearing it dead in Paris. Now, the upside of this way of approaching shopping is that it prevented me from buying an awful lot of baggy dreck. The downside is that I felt highly intimidated by the French, who I imagined in daytime couture, spitting in the general direction of Americans, and eating croissants but never gaining weight.

I have read books claiming that French women match up their blacks perfectly, and never go out wearing anything but a form-fitting slim skirt paired with high heels in exactly the right height to match the length of the skirt. Rumors of the daily effort of the chignon continue on this side of the Pond. All of this is highly intimidating to someone whose hair refuses to bow to authority, and who has a tendency to think pink is wearable under all circumstances. Also, if you are not a stick insect, I figured, you will drop into Paris like a fat toad in the middle of a tea party, and be just about as welcome.

Therefore, Paris, and the French people it contains, became my lofty mountain, my ascension to Olympus, my own personal K2.

So first thing, I got lost at Charles de Gaulle while looking for vendors of the very useful Paris museum pass, well worth the price, since it helped me avoid long lines at Saint-Chapelle and the Louvre. I also managed to leave all my carefully printed-out backup documents on the vendor’s counter; hopefully they’ve been shredded by now. Getting lost at the airport put me in the wrong terminal for the bus to St. Germain des Prés, so I took what I could find, a bus that bypassed my street, taking me instead to the Gare du Nord. This side-trip, which I like to think of as a free tour of parts of the city I didn’t know I needed to see, necessitated an hour-long hike back up to St. Germain.

It’s a good thing I firmly believe in walking to see a new city. Moving at a faster pace means you miss a lot, and I am there to see the place, dammit, and absorb its essence into my pores. So I walked and walked until finally my tucked-away hotel on a side street off St. Germain des Prés in the 7th arrondissement appeared before me, a quiet, sedate oasis in a very noisy city.

By walking, I discovered that not all Parisian women wear couture in daylight, so that myth died a good death. I also discovered that Paris is much larger than Saigon, the only other city I’ve stayed in also built by the French. When you walk everywhere, details become much more pronounced. Doorways can be extraordinary in Paris, for example. It is the city I will always remember as the place where my passion for photography emerged from its cocoon.

The golden light of Paris is incomparable

From antique shops with objets d’art placed just so in the windows, to pâtisseries, with gâteaux placed just so in the windows, everywhere you look, you are surrounded by art. The natural light is so glorious at times, I defy you to go there and not become a photographer. You can fall in love anywhere; for a beginning photographer, though, it is helpful to have marvelous subjects and great light, and Paris supplies both at every turn.

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Although they say this is a city for lovers, the Paris I experienced, along with being extraordinarily beautiful, was also extraordinarily smelly. Descending staircases from Quai Voltaire to the Seine to hop on the Batobus (a marvelous invention that takes you to almost all of the touristy sites along the river), brings with it the unpleasant aroma of some 2 a.m. drunk’s inability to hold his vin rosé.

Expensive perfume is the only reasonable antidote to the stench of urine, so thank god you’re in the right country to buy Chanel. Although I tested perfumes at Le Bon Marché (where the lovely young salesman let me practice my crappy French and bore with me while I stumbled over grammar I really should have learned a long time ago), I actually bought the perfume at the duty-free shop at the airport gate, because the prices are 20% cheaper, since they’re so happy you’re finally leaving. They want to reward you for coming, and, mercifully, going. Lest you fear for the French economy, I bought a very nice Sonia Rykiel wool scarf from the lovely salesman, so his time was compensated.

Once I was ensconced in my charming hotel, the Duc de St. Simon, the icons of Paris beckoned. I chose to arrive on July 14th because it’s the night before my birthday. However, July 14th is also Bastille Day, and it occurred to me rather late in the game, oh god, what if everything in town shuts down like it does in the States on July 4th? However, it seems the French are, by day, unsentimental about this festivity, so all services functioned.

The location of my hotel allowed me to walk to the Boulevard des Invalides and watch the fireworks over the Eiffel Tower, which came as a huge surprise, since I really don’t plan trips, I just take them.

This means I followed the crowds of people rushing up the street towards something, I wasn’t sure what, since I didn’t realise how close the hotel was to the Champs de Mars. But, there I am, after a wonderful gourmet dinner at La Ferme Sainte-Simon, a five star restaurant (or, at least four stars, and conveniently located less than a block from the hotel), and all of these people are rushing by. A lemming, I followed them, and arrived at the corner of des Invalides in time to overhear Americans talking about the fireworks show to come.

This, dear reader, is how I find out what’s going on, by listening in on other people’s conversations. So tacky (but useful, because if there’s one thing I absolutely deplore, it’s looking like a gawky tourist, and I am silly enough to get lost rather than appear lost. What? Yes, you read that right. If I can’t find a friend who knows the city better than I do, I get lost a lot, in the vain attempt not to appear like the noob I am—such is the price of ego).

In pursuit of French icons, I decided to see the Tour d’Eiffel on the rainiest day, thinking, logically, that rain would deter tourists. Hah. The place was packed like Disneyland, and, since I don’t plan well, I had not taken injunctions to buy tickets to ascend the tower seriously. When they say ‘buy your tickets months in advance’, they are not just whistling Dixie, so do it, if you want to see the 2nd or 3rd floors. Although the Eiffel tower is impressive, in a Jules Verne-War of the Worlds-way, it’s rather hard to appreciate in the rain, because for one thing, rain keeps falling in your eyes as you look up.

The view from inside the Batobus. Il pleut.

Walking everywhere means I never learned how to use the Metro, which became a serious detriment the day I left. I walked down to the closest RER train station, at Notre Dame, only to find that, in the two days that had passed since I’d scoped it out, it had been closed for repairs to one of the lines. This meant hoping against hope that one of the other entrances nearby would somehow still magically be opened, and lo, like Moses parting the Reed Sea, indeed, it was so. Miracles follow the Fool on the journey, it would seem, if you can comprehend enough of the language to understand what the signs say, that is.

However, if you’d stood there with me, watching me struggle to dig out tweezers from my luggage because I had to retrieve the tiny little paper ticket I’d inserted into the wrong end of the machine that then threatened to eat it, you’d realise, as did I, that I really shouldn’t try to do this stuff on my own. Fortunately, there was no line behind me, since technically, that station was closed to all but the trains going to Charles de Gaulle.

That there are negatives about Paris never occurred to me, in my hopeless naïveté, and yet discovering them helped me take the French down off their pedestal. This is possibly the most important aspect of travel; it helps bridge the gap between romantic fantasies and reality, and in the process, makes the country traveled to more human and real, thereby transforming your inner self into someone who has now been to Paris, or whatever magical place exists for you as an empty square in your passport, waiting to be filled in.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 19, 2011 2:20 PM

    Great post. You sound like a natural at this stuff. All the rain and gloom of your trip reminds me of winter in Paris. It’s mostly pretty gloomy. I would have liked to experience Bastille Day. Cool that you enjoyed it for your birthday.

    During my first visit to Paris, I too could find no fault with the French. But after living there for a few months I was given a hard jolt into reality 🙂 All in all I still have much to learn there though.

    • August 19, 2011 2:27 PM

      Thank you so much for your kind words… 🙂 Like any writer, I am only looking for someone to pay me on a regular basis…. 🙂 Paris is quite wonderful, but then I got on the train to the airport and saw, of course, the outlying districts, which are not big-city glamourous, and probably few noobs traverse those shabby streets, I’m thinking.

      As soon as I got on the train, a self-styled chanteuse hooked up her karaoke mike and started singing—badly—and then was hopeful that her fellow passengers would all feel compassion and want to pay her. Uh, no. But I would live there in a heartbeat. From what I hear, if you live there, no calories from croissants ever go to your hips. 🙂

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