20/20 Hindsight: Memories of Paris

I keep meaning to finish telling stories about Europe 2006 here, and I keep putting it off — probably because the last entry took so long, and because I’ve been kinda busy since then. So I’m going to change things up a bit here, and not be wedded to the concept of chronological storytelling, and instead talk about some stuff that I’ve been thinking about recently.

Lately, it’s been Paris on my mind.

(Narrative and 20 some-odd pictures and a movie follows…)

The reason? This:

Around a dozen Japanese tourists a year need psychological treatment after visiting Paris as the reality of unfriendly locals and scruffy streets clashes with their expectations, a newspaper reported on Sunday. …

“Fragile travelers can lose their bearings. When the idea they have of the country meets the reality of what they discover it can provoke a crisis,” psychologist Herve Benhamou told the paper.

The phenomenon, which the newspaper dubbed “Paris Syndrome”, was first detailed in the psychiatric journal Nervure in 2004.

Colby Cosh once said that London was a psychological second home to everyone who thinks in English, and while that is unquestionably true, it works the same way if we’re talking about Paris and thinking in French. I spent 17 years of my life learning French, became extremely fluent in it, and still am to a functional degree. Through all those years, steeping in French culture and the language, it was impossible to not concoct some mental image of what Paris is like. Even approaching the subject with an open mind, how can you not have expectations?

What’s really funny is that I don’t really remember the conclusion of the train ride that took us out of Arles and into Paris. I remember boarding the TGV in Arles and being mildly impressed with the duplex configuration (top and bottom). I remember whipping through the various towns on the way to Paris, passing something like four nuclear power plants in the process, and staring out the window. K., as we discovered, gets disturbingly ill on high-speed rail, so I also remember fretting about that. I do not remember the view from outside the train as we pulled into the Gare de Lyon, but I do remember navigating through the station to the Metro, buying our tickets for the subway and boarding Ligne 14 towards Saint-Lazare. I remember closing my eyes for a moment and feeling like I was in Montreal again… and then I realized that I wasn’t in Montreal, I was in Montreal’s bigger, older, more glamorous sister.

Ligne 8 took us from Madeleine to Ecole Militaire, where we ascended from the Metro into the afternoon light in Paris. It was at this point that we met our first (and only) dickhead in France, the guy who runs this place. The lobby itself is very nice, and I have no doubt that the vastly-more-expensive rooms are nice, too. Ours, however, was not: Peeling wallpaper. Threadbare carpet. A toilet with exposed innards (no, really). Not air conditioned. This wasn’t a deal-breaker, and wouldn’t be normally, but we were hot and tired and wanted some way to sleep at night. So we decided that it wasn’t an acceptable option. While K. scoured the neighborhood for other choices, I got into a protracted argument with the aforementioned dickhead. I explained that we found the room unsatisfactory, that there were several problems with it, and we were not interested in staying. Dickhead suggested that perhaps I was letting my wife drive the decision-making, and that if I didn’t really have problems, maybe I should stand up to her. Then he told me I was paying for the room one way or the other.

What I wanted to say was, “Go fuck yourself.” What I said was that I thought we had a disagreement and there wouldn’t be a useful way to resolve this, short of “we’ll take our money and be on our way.” I really wanted to swear at him in French, I really did — it was the first language I learned how to swear in, and, almost without fail, if I get really really angry, I end up muttering at myself in French. But the problem is that while I can do a couple of French dialects, what I really speak, and what I really know, is Quebecois French, and swearing in Quebecois French is very strange, and I don’t encourage it if you want to be taken seriously outside of Quebec. (Briefly, “c’est toute fucké” is perfectly OK with your mom; “mon hostie de Christ en ciboire” is strong enough that you might provoke a riot under some circumstances.) So I couldn’t exactly say, for instance, “va t’en faire bapteme” or something along those lines, because it wouldn’t work; he wouldn’t get it. So I set K. upon him, and in the end we escaped with a $100 bottle of Evian water — our “free” gift upon registration, and one night’s worth of lodging poorer, but only after threatening to call the cops.

Thank gods for the Hotel Prince around the corner on Avenue Bousquet. The proprietess took us in, gave us a nice room, and told us that the guy we’d dealt with was a notorious jerk. That made me feel better. (I managed to confuse her frequently by switching between French and English randomly throughout our dealings over the next few days.)

Before actually going to Paris, the thing that most influenced the way I think about Paris was Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain. The “Amelie effect” loomed large in my mind, and I was a little disappointed, arriving in the middle of the afternoon, that I was greeted with a relatively flat, boring light that well-matched the heat of the day. Silly photographer! You should know afternoon light is never very nice. Paris did not disappoint me, in the end.

Eiffel Tower. Paris, France. 3 July 2006.

K. and I kissing underneath the Eiffel Tower. Paris, France. 3 July 2006.
(Note also the Vigipirate guys standing in the upper left.)

Eiffel Tower. Paris, France. 3 July 2006.

We ate our first Paris meal in the Champs de Mars, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. You’ve seen it a thousand times in pictures; you could probably draw a representative sketch of it if you had to. In person, it is truly unlike anything you’ve ever seen. I remember seeing the Tokyo Tower for the first time; it didn’t seem to be very impressive despite looming from the fog. The Eiffel Tower is different. Who knows why; it just is. We ate Chinese take-out in the Champs, unable to tear our eyes off of this giant metal thing.

The lineups were long but I was determined to be up in the tower for sunset, to see Paris by night for the first time from its finest vantage point. Paris did not disappoint me:

Looking east from the Eiffel Tower at dusk. Paris, France. 3 July 2006.

Arc de Triomphe, shortly after being lit. Paris, France. 3 July 2006.

All I could think of was U2’s “City of Blinding Lights.” Look, I know it’s about New York but who cares? (Later, I would be dismayed to see the song used in precisely this context in The Devil Wears Prada, but I was in Paris before I saw the movie, so I claim inspirational rights.) The history and the sense of place was almost overwhelming, far more so than in Venice. I had loved Venice, had hated the idea of leaving Venice; this was something completely different. It wasn’t some tourist destination whose glory days were behind it — this was the living, beating heart of a culture and a country, one of the world’s great cities of history and of the present. How can you not fall in love with a place like that? At the top of the Eiffel Tower, watching the sun set on the city that looms so large in the minds of so many, how can you not love that on some level?

Some things in Paris can be familiar even if you’ve never seen them before:

Rue Cler. Paris, France. 4 July 2006.

Galeries Lafayette. Paris, France. 4 July 2006.

Napoleon’s Tomb. Paris, France. 4 July 2006.

We blasted through Versailles and the Louvre in the space of a single day. Up early, out of the hotel, a quick stop at the neighborhood bakery for croissants and quiche, then the RER C line to Versailles and a six-hour romp through the palace grounds. Back into town, a shower, a snack, and a late evening at the Louvre. It’s open late on Wednesdays. I remember being overwhelmed by the sheer size of both places — at the opulence of the palace, of the historical significance of the museum. (Sofia doesn’t really do Versailles justice in Marie Antoinette, though it is interesting to be in many of the same rooms.) K. and I were both pretty thoroughly museumed out by the time we made it to the Louvre, so we headed straight for the Italian wing.

Watching tourists in the Louvre can be quite funny. They all want to see La Gioconda, so they race like crazy past four other Leonardo paintings, all of them less famous than the mysterious woman. We had a Leonardo exhibit in Victoria a few years back and they brought a replica of La Gioconda to town, and I have to say that the real one is a little underwhelming. It’s tough to admire the painting; it was in temporary quarters when we were there, and behind its bulletproof glass and its layers of security personnel, and surrounded by people, it’s tough to give it the reflection that you think it deserves. Creepily, her eyes do follow you around the room, but that’s about the end of it for me. I much preferred The Virgin and Child with St. Anne if I had to pick a Leonardo painting.

Still, some fun things exist in the Louvre, including the non-Gummi Venus di Milo, and an homage to ancient Greek baseball:

Hercules Killing the Hydra. Louvre, Paris. 5 July 2006.

And there are some truly infuriating things, too:

Grrrr! Louvre, Paris. 5 July 2006.

That night, we walked through the Tuileries towards Place de la Concorde and the Champs-Elysses. We’d planned to stroll up the Champs and find dinner, but we were distracted by some strange happenings:

Paris Civil Protection units on Place de la Concorde. 5 July 2006.

Oh, yes, that’s right — it was Match Night. France was playing Portugal in the World Cup, and, if they won, they’d be heading to the finals. We found a small bar/cafe a few blocks up from the Champs and ate dinner while France held its breath.

Pandemonium ensues. The Champs-Elysses explodes with people celebrating.

Champs-Elysses, Paris, France. 5 July 2006.

The mood was ebullient. I can’t think of any other way to describe it. We walked down to the Seine and back towards the Pont de l’Alma, the bridge leading back to l’Avenue Bousquet and our beds. I was grabbed by ecstatic strangers and hugged; I had nonsensical shouting episodes with random football fans overcome by joy at this semi-final win. About six blocks from the Champs, I was approached by a young man in a leather jacket.

“Il y’a du monde sur le Champs?”
“Il y’a tout le monde sur le Champs!”

This is what I remember about Paris: A city that more than lived up to my expectations. A city that was suddenly simple to be in. A city like no other, and yet like all others; a place I’d never been before that was already familiar to me by the time I arrived. (London was like this, too.) A place to fall in love, and to fall in love with. It was, quite possibly, the highlight of the trip for me.

Weeks later, I was in Dublin, riding the bus from the airport into the center of town. K. and I were sharing the top deck of the bus with a pair of American girls from Washington, DC, who were talking about future destinations. They were idly trashing Paris and France, despite never having been there. One said she didn’t really understand why she’d ever want to go to Paris, given that it was so expensive and people were so rude — why, she could just go to New York if she wanted to put up with that, and New York had better shopping besides. I could have slugged her — both for the unfounded slur and the horribly incorrect perception. And then I relaxed. Paris has been slighted many times before, by people better than her, and if she can convince other idiots that it’s an expensive, rude place to be, so much the better.

Now, to be fair, I’m absolutely certain I had a much easier time of it in Paris, and in France generally, because I speak fluent French. I suspect that my opinion of the place would have been much different had I only spoken English; that’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. And yet, at the same time, I run into Anglophones all the time who went to Paris without speaking a word of French (my mom, for one), and who went on to have perfectly great times without any rude encounters, which makes me think that it’s an attitudinal thing. As it stands, I got one rude encounter with a guy who was basically a jerk to everyone, and that was it for obnoxious French stereotypes.

Lately, I’ve been dreaming of Paris more and more. When I drift off at night, more often than not, I’m dreaming of somewhere different — the Big Island, Turkey, Wales, Italy, Japan. But I keep coming back to Paris, wanting to revisit the warm glow the city left in my mind. It takes a special place to do that.