I think Paris is schizophrenic. One is the city that exists in my head that comes from the hundreds of guidebooks I have read up and ‘top-10-favourite’ lists I have browsed in the Internet. Its an impression created by reviews in Trip advisor and hotel rates on Airbnb. And Rick Steves. It’s the city of the sights. The museums, the Louvre, the Monalisa, the Eiffel. And that’s the image I would form naturally before I ever visit Paris.
“I guess it goes to show that you just never know where life will take you. You search for answers. You wonder what it all means. You stumble, and you soar. And, if you’re lucky, you make it to Paris for a while.”–Amy Thomas
The other is the city that I see when I visit Paris. The surreal image that has been created by watching movies, reading love stories and listening to French pronounciations. One that surprises me that the long distances seem quite short actually; the enormous boulevards and pavements that are considerably wider than the roads; the naughty temperatures that seem to make a recorded 8 degrees in the evening seem warmer than the 16 degrees in the afternoon; the contrast between the bright patisserie, its even brighter furniture and the more underground areas or the grey and cream buildings from the era gone by that amazes me; the constant sound of music in my ears, even though there is silence.
These two cities can never be the same. Wandering the streets of Paris, I always forget all about the image I would have formed before my visit. Instead, it is replaced by reality: the Bohemian streets leading up to the Montmartre; our silhouettes framed by the peach and steel Renaissance architecture; the spot of a red flower peeking out of a window sill; the ornate street lamps against the mauve sunset that fixates my eyes; the river, like thick silk, draping and flowing when the tour ferries slice through the waters; or the small tables outside the cafes from which customers observe passers-by as if they were at the Grand Opera Garnier, watching a Mozart being performed.
But I get scared- what if, when I return home, Paris turns back into that city in my head, perhaps slightly modified by a few previous experiences? What if, the idea of head-over-heels romance, of dim lights, drunken nights, sheen of cobblestones under the rain, glisten of the slice of dusk light falling on the Sienne, does not come back to haunt me? What if it does? And, what if it never releases me of my wonder, debating whether what I saw while is for real, or is our mind playing games with us, fusing reality with the image in our heads?
That’s why I must always return.
And I did. A little trip this Spring. When the city is pink like a candy-floss with the cherry blossoms, summer sorbets, pink bonnets and bright nail-polishes! Predictably, the city pokes me and tells me that it never wasn’t ever about the Louvre, Sacré-Cœur, Notre Dame, or any other noteworthy site. Rather, it’s about the invigoration she will make me feel, when I walk the narrow streets of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, when I aimlessly watch people in the Jardin du Luxembourg, when I peek into strange galleries with stranger art on Rue de Sienne or Rue Jacob or simply discover a new arrondissement. So in summary, here’s what I did in Paris, this time when I returned: Anything. Everything. Nothing.
But even then, there are little things among the ‘nothings’ that I knew I needed to do, when I was in Paris. I said “bonjour” , no matter who I was dealing with. It is the custom. Walk into any shop and say “Bonjour” and see the difference. Without this magical word, you won’t be treated as nicely, I promise. Top it up with a “merci” and “au revoir” and let the magic begin! These are powerful words. Very powerful. Like, real power. I did the bisous, one air kiss on each cheek thingie- its a question of integrity, you see! And I smoked a cigarette!
The cigarette is as quintessential to Paris, as the vada-pav is in Mumbai. It is an art, like most things are in this city. You smoke with style. You kiss in style. And even if you are a hair-cutter in a saloon, you do that with the panache of an orchestra.
Which reminds me to tell you, that you must experience an Opera, if you haven’t already. The Opera Garnier is a building that evokes magic. Boasting an ostentatious Baroque design, the Opera Garnier is one of the most extravagant representations of Second Empire architecture in France. It was so easy to loose myself in its silent corridors; amazed by its rich architecture, and spellbound at the opulent decor. As was easy to imagine the swish of crinolines as I strolled through spaces filled with sparkling mosaics, colorful marble columns, and gold-leaf flourishes. It was a performance by the Academie.. a presentation of music by Mozart. Unforgettable, and etched to my memory.
You essentially need to be absent-minded, stroll, wander with an urban flare, casual and elegant at the same time-yet, do that with style. It is something the French call flânier, the concept of actually walking around a city to experience its every true attribute , instead of planning an itinerary. Observe the flirtatious exchanges taking place in sidewalk cafés, and walk off that extra pain au chocolat that you couldn’t resist! Here is my little cheat sheet for what stays in my memory from Paris…
- Cheese. There is nothing like the quality and the variety of choices. Cheese is not just food. It’s art noveaue!
- Croissant. Have you ever had a buttery, flaky croissant from the bakery first thing in the morning? It is life changing.
- Crepes. With Grand Marnier or Nutella. Who knew you could even get drunk on them? The first bite into a a crepe laden with the orange liqueur..and there’s that buzz!
- People dress well. Wearing yoga pants in public isn’t acceptable. You put on lipstick just to go around the corner to get bread!
- The city is beautiful. And, in Spring, it is pink. Candy floss pink! Light reflects off the white stone buildings in the most amazing ways. Even the moss around the old buildings look like it’s been manicured !
- Beret. Such a French hat!
- French toast. Nothing like what you are used to in India!
- Verbs. The French language has 14 verb tenses. English has 6. Go figure!
- Art. Even graveyards of Paris turned into a touristic attraction because artists were so in love with Paris that most of them decided to be buried here.
- Metro stations. Some of them are frames in their own rights. Louvre-Rivoli- whose station font, lighting, and featured artifacts makes you feel like you’re in the museum before you even leave the station. Or Arts et Métiers station, which is lined in copper and feels like the interior of a submarine; evoking Jules Verne.
- Macaroons. You haven’t tasted Paris, if you haven’t had a macaroon a day, baby!
- The Eiffel Tower sparkles. It really sparkles!!!
- Comics. French comics kick quite a lot of ass. They are called bandes dessinées. They are more expensive, larger in format, come on nice glossy paper, and are hard bound and often very erotic
- Sunday isn’t the best day of the week. This is purely for a visitor. ‘Cos I am sure the living-in Parisian revels in the glory of this slowness and unavailability! Stores close early or sometimes never open. Or have inconsistent and weird hours.
Finally when you learn how to correctly pronounce The Champs-Élysées and actually feel like a true Parisian while saying it, or can describe to a passer-by that the neighborhood you need to reach is Miromesmil, and they understand your French accent enough to direct you there, you know you have lived Paris fully.