Paris is the city of love, light, and literature. I went there prepared to hate it.
Historical Paris has an eternal place in my heart. I’ll talk your ear off about the absinthe glories of La Belle Epoc, Hemingway scribbling in the Closerie des Lilas, and Mesrine escaping La Sante prison in broad daylight.
But my image of modern Paris was an urban hell full of rude waiters and yapping poodles. I was wrong. Boy, was I wrong.
Heart of the World
It’s a beautiful city with so much history the ghosts are coming out the walls. That cafe where they serve the best steak and frites in town? Proust, Sartre, and most of Serge Gainsbourg’s wives used to eat there. The Musee d’Orsay is a glorious shell of old railway terminal stuffed with a fine selection of mid to late nineteenth century art. Picasso used to haunt that park looking for new models and even now it’s full of elegant faces that deserve a portrait.
And it’s a literary city. Book shops everywhere, strap-hangers reading on the buses, customers in cafes cracking the spine on a new paperback as a cube of brown sugar dissolves in their coffee. Streets are named after writers: there’s an avenue Marcel-Proust near the Seine, a small and cramped rue Huysmans further inland, and many others.
Is Paris perfect? Nope. It’s a place that burns money, with locals ruder than a New York cabbie and cafe tables so close together you end up sitting in your neighbour’s lap. Get used to queuing and paying and crowds – and those are just Tourist Problems. Never forget that a week in Montparnasse or the 16th arrondissement is a world away from the real Paris of bills and school runs and unemployment in the banlieue.
But I loved it, God I loved it. The Eiffel Tower looming down side streets like a metal monster on the attack, the four storey Gilbert Joseph bookshops, the imperious women clip-clopping to work on high heels with a fruit juice in one hand and a croissant in the other, the very air that makes everything crackle with matter-of-fact eroticism.
I’ll probably get stabbed on the Metro next time I go back and end up hating the place again. But until then … Paris, je t’adore.
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