Paris. What ideas come to mind when you read that word? Before I came to France, I guess I would have imagined Eiffel Tower, tourists, lots of people wearing berets, lots of accordion players and a lightning fast metro train system. Quite a few weeks ago I visited Paris for a weekend and here I reflect on what I saw and thought.
Imagine. I arrived on late Friday afternoon on the train, somewhat nervous, somewhat in a daze. I was in Paris. I tugged a bit harder on my rolling suitcase, eager to meet up for the first time with my Australian friend in something like 2 months. A flurry of SMS's, the confusion of rapid-fire french explanations of how to buy my ticket and which train to catch, I tried to take in my surrounds, knowing it would be a while before I'd arrive at this rate. Busy faces. People everywhere, from almost every corner of the earth. Gigantic train stations with tri-lingual announcements (sometimes 5 or 6 languages, if it's a warning about pickpockets).In less than 20 minutes I had experienced my first rip-off in France. A friendly man offered to help me with buying a ticket. I couldn't tell his nationality and he quickly changed to talking in English as soon as I opened my mouth. I needed a ticket to 'Cite Universitare'. He sold me a ticket which he assured me would last the weekend. I thought, great! That simplifies things. It wasn't until a few minutes later after he disappeared that I realised he had sold me a $1 one-way ticket for $10. That's euros. This put a damper on the rest of my night.
Paris is wonderful at night. Surprisingly quiet traffic on a November weekend, lit-up old mason buildings. News stalls. Shiny roads, rain reflecting the nightlife on a cold night. Window shopping is suddenly ok now for males. It's Paris! DVD stores, posters, postcards, eiffel tower imitations. Lots and lots of imitations. No wonder why Parisians are generally rather tired of their iconic 'tour d'effel'. As you near the tourist hotspots, you notice an increasing number of illegal vendors of Eiffel Tower imitations. Upon asking a shopkeeper, I learnt that often these imatations are stolen from factories and then redistributed at a massive mark-up. I've been told that when police turn up, the 100's of vendors communicate quickly to each other by a high-pitched whistle to go run. On the second night there, near the beautiful old Notre Dame, a Algerian singer with his mate covered well-known songs representing many different nationalities, including the appreciative group of Hungarian students. It was amazing.
During the day, there is a lot to see. Museums, nice coffee, wining and dining, icecream, window shopping, the list continues. Musee d'Orsay was 'genial' (really nice/cool) with ornate doors and sculptures, art explanations in 3 languages (French, English and German, generally) as with the token high security at the entrance. It was Gerome's turn to feature in the museum as well as Victor Hugo. The visit really stirred my interest in art and its significance. During my stay, one thing that struck me was that Paris is a network of metro rail lines. It's amazing how you can descend to the substation and pop out the other end in 10 minutes in another arrandissement (sector) of Paris. Oh, did I mention the Eiffel Tower? Hehe.
C'est magnifique! But just as a disclaimer the tour d'eiffel is not as amazing as I had expected. But it was much bigger than I had expected! From first glance, Paris is a tourist city. Maybe next time I visit I'll get a different impression of this enormous, fascinating city.
Paris was low-key in my experience, with many people being well-natured about my broken French and giving me a helping hand. It's interesting when I talk to friends who have travelled to Europe and have had highly negative experiences of people there. Did I just have a good weekend? Of course, it really depends on the people you meet. Also, it seems to me that French people really appeciate it when a foreigner at least tries to speak french to them. Perhaps if a foreigner assumes that a French person speaks English than this can be interpreted as rude. I would how Americans or Australians would fair if visitors assumed they knew Chinese or Bulgarian? :D
There are a lot of ways to describe a place, whether it's the appearance of people, buildings, history, demographics or food. But there is something appealing about talking the food of the place, and this is not less true in Paris! Paris seems to be the 'city of the crepe'--yummy! Imagine. Liquid doughy mixture is thinly spread over a hot round stove, which is then flipped at the perfect moment, producing a gastranomic marvel. The only negative (if possible) is that the crepe's flavour is often drowned in the sweet goodness of Nutella. Roasted nuts are another popular treat it seems. Foreign young men with enormous hot metal plates precariously balanced on shopping trollies hawk their wares. Just the thing for a cold morning. A bag filled with an assortment of bonbons (lollies) at 3 euro for something like 100g. Icecreams scuptured to look like roses by art students (just joking) dripping with strawberry sauce. Mmmm. But why am I eating this on a cold night? And let's not forget: Starbucks meets Paris! It was a very odd experience in the jam-packed café, having to literally compete with other customers to wait for a seat. I developed my elite hawk eye movements and body language techniques that morning!
Of course, friends are what really makes a visit to Paris special. I couldn't imagine eating all that food all by myself; it would be kind of pitiful really.