Paris is in a class all its own – it has no competition. It’s the city that all other cities want to be. Paris is like the coolest girl in school, but she’s also so nice that you just can’t hate her. She’s got a whole lot of depth and substance to go along with her flashy style. The city seems to make it look effortless; like it’s not even trying… it just IS.
The older I get, the more I like Paris. Maybe it’s because these days I can afford to stay in something other than a shoebox-sized hostel with fifty other international students. Or maybe it’s because I’m eating something other than ham and cheese baguettes off of the street. Or maybe it’s because I’m no longer standing in long lines for the Louvre or the Notre Dame. Certainly those things can be a lot of fun in their own way and in their own time. But I’m secretly glad to have moved on.
Our last trip didn’t take us to many of the major sights, but I think as a result we discovered a new side to the city. When you’re racing to the next stop on your tour itinerary, you may fall in love fast with the flash and dazzle, but on the flip side you may miss the chance to develop deeper simmering affections for the simpler, more substantive things. Paris’s true marvels peek out from within colorful bakeries on quiet back-alley streets, tucked away in tiny neighborhood bars decorated with butterflies and paper lanterns that can only hold about ten people at a time, or found at a sidewalk cafe over a glass of wine or cup of coffee at the perfect people-watching table.
Often, when a city or experience has been so famously romanticized, it is hard for the real thing to live up to the ideal. It doesn’t seem to be so with Paris. No matter how many times I visit, it still feels a lot like the soundtrack to “Amelie” sounds. But to really see Paris you must embrace your poetic side – the one that lingers on the sidewalk to notice the ironwork on an old door, or the way the sunlight glances off of that old building at just the right moment in the afternoon.
People-watching is a must. As Josh and I watched Parisians from various cafes around the city on our last trip, I realized something. I didn’t see people staring at their phones! The French still actually talk to each other. They appear to shake off work entanglements at the end of the day and meet for a drink or a laugh. They lean in to conversations. Their phones are out of sight, and they talk, and talk, and talk. It’s refreshingly wonderful… I miss that. Have we ever had it? We always seem to be “too busy.”
And another thing… I’d like to propose that we all collectively agree to put the old “Parisians are rude” stereotype to rest. It’s simply not true. In fact, on this trip we encountered some of the most friendly and helpful people I’ve ever met throughout our travels in Europe. For example, an elegant, well-dressed Parisian lady stopped us on the corner of a busy street to proactively ask us if we needed help with directions, after she noticed that we were looking at street signs. Would that ever happen in New York or LA? When people say that Parisians are rude, it probably means one of two things: A) They feel insecure about how “cool” Paris is, and they want to feel better about themselves or their cities by putting Paris down, or B) They are visiting Paris and behaving rudely themselves, inciting rudeness in return.
I see some of these kinds of tourists when I travel – they yell loudly, as if speaking more loudly will help someone to understand. But imagine if someone came to your city, didn’t attempt to address you in English at all, and tried to begin a conversation with you by yelling at you loudly in some other language like Chinese. Wouldn’t you be annoyed? In Paris, a friendly smile with a “Bonjour!” and a “Parlez-vous anglais?” will buy you a mountain of grace. Most Parisians will respond “Yes, a little,” which means that you can politely continue in English. At least you’ve attempted to be courteous and apologetic about your embarrassing language deficit. For most people you will interact with, that is enough to win courtesy and friendliness in return.
It’s true that Parisians may be picky or particular about certain things (like insisting that cheese is a dessert) but let’s not forget that being “particular” is a far cry from being “rude”. The French just like things precisely the way they like them, and that’s that. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s their country, after all – they are allowed to make up the rules. They could decide to call cheese a dessert, an appetizer, or even a fancy hat for that matter, and we wouldn’t have a say in it.
Interestingly enough, we’re better off that way. We’re better off feeling frustrated by cultural differences. In fact, the stranger the custom seems to us, the more thankful and polite we should be – those experiences should be treasured and valuable to us! If we didn’t feel uncomfortable, surprised and even frustrated by the things we encounter while traveling, we might as well be staying at home sitting on our couches watching TV. The frustrating and confusing cultural moments we experience while traveling are precisely the moments we should be seeking out – the things that stretch, bend and challenge us. They force us expand our own notions of culture, life and humanity in order to respect and discover something new about ourselves and our world. And a world that conforms to all our expectations – that would be an unbelievably boring world indeed, and not one I’d consider worth exploring.
But back to my point. I think we all know that Paris can be unbelievably pretty – both flashy and subtle all at once. But we have to go in search of the subtle parts – and they are often found in quieter moments and smaller details. At the same time if we can embrace the things that surprise, or perhaps even frustrate us about the culture or the people, we will have a much richer experience and perhaps walk away with a much better sense for the place.
But I’m sure that I’m just getting started. The great thing about Paris is that some parts never change, and other parts seem to evolve constantly. I’m sure the next time I visit I’ll peel back yet another layer to the city and I’ll see it all over again in a brand new light.