“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
“America is my country and Paris is my hometown.”
Ah Paris, the City of Light, the City of Love, the cultural centre of Europe… Since moving here, I’m afraid to say that a lot of the clichés we all envisage as holidaymakers most definitely slowly started to disintegrate. I have found out that Paris is not the flawless city we see in Amélie or Midnight in Paris: it is a city above all else, not a romantic illusion. It has been filmed, photographed, painted and written about so many times that its ‘reality’ has arguably become obscured. It is a city where people live and work; it has its irritabilities as well as its graces. I like to think that I now see the real Paris as I see London, the one behind all the romanticized clichés and La Vie en Rose-tinted glasses.
I live in the vingtième arrondissement – that is to say, far, far away from the Eiffel Tower, Montmartre and Notre-Dame. My end of Paris is not like the glossy pictures in guidebooks. There is noise, there is traffic, there is dirt on the streets. I bustle my way through the swarm of people thronging out of the sliding metro doors, a harsh icy gust of wind whips my face as I come back up to the surface for fresh air from the dingy underground. I hear the market venders’ banter promoting their gorgeous fresh produce and bric-a-brac, I see the locals enjoying their afternoon apéritif, the tradesmen recognize and greet me, I bump into school children burdened with oversized satchels. I pass numerous pharmacies under glaring neon green crosses, I catch the tempting whiff of fresh baguette, I battle my way through the crowd by the bus stop outside my front door. This for me is the real Paris.
Don’t get me wrong, Paris is absolutely beautiful, and I am still often caught in awe by its visual splendour. Yet like all great cities, it is full of contrasts. One can wander aimlessly in a flâneur -like fashion along the wide, elegant Haussmann boulevards, admiring the exquisite architecture or browsing designer shop windows, or find themselves down the narrow, cobbled streets laden with rubbish and overflowing with Friday night drinkers. In fact, I would say that the streets of Paris are considerably dirtier than those I have roamed in London. Descending underground to take the metro feels like entering another world, and an extremely dirty, dingy and depressing one at that. As I have said time and time again, the metro is definitely far grimier than the tube back in London – there is just no contest involved. That’s not to mention the amount of ‘interesting characters’ (bref, des fous) one comes across upon a daily basis whilst commuting. Whilst it has wonderfully attractive areas, these are equally matched by les coins moches (not so pretty areas).
Paris may be one of the fashion capitals of the world, but that does not mean that every single Parisian naturally oozes in style and panache. Ok, yes, there are certainly the stereotypical chic Parisian women garbed in Yves Saint Laurent and Dior sitting in cafes along Boulevard Saint-Germain daintily sipping their cappuccinos whilst doting on their prized little pooches peeking out of the top of their Chanel bags. However, coming across sans-abri (homeless people) on street corners and beggars on the metro is sadly far more common. For an affluent European city, I have been very shocked by the level of poverty that I witness here on a daily basis. On a more positive note, one great aspect of Paris is its cultural diversity. As a born and bred Londoner, this is one of my favourite aspects of my home city. Like London, Paris is home to an array of nationalities who all contribute in their own way to cosmopolitan Parisian culture. That being said, speaking to any international friends that have visited both cities, I get the general feeling that London is regarded as far more accepting when it comes to multiculturalism.
And is Paris really the ‘city of love’? As Woody Allen himself once said, “As long as you haven’t been kissed during any of those rainy Parisian afternoons, you haven’t been kissed at all”, right? With the Eiffel Tour, the Seine, the Pont des Arts and café terraces, it’s hard to argue with the fact that Paris is the number one romantic destination in the world. What’s more, French is arguably the language of love. I’m not going to lie; a Frenchman’s accent does make me go weak at the knees. And course there is the famous French kiss – enough said. However, is such a tourist hotspot really the best place for loved up couples to whisk themselves away to? The Eiffel Tour is always heaving, the Pont des Arts is jammed full of padlocks (good luck finding yours again in ten years’ time) and you’ll be out of breath and sweating once at the top of Montmartre.
To put it short, there is so much more to Paris than what any guidebook says it has to offer. Of course you can still get the bowdlerized view of the city from the top of a tour bus listening to a cheesy tour guide pointing out all the sights, but this is far from capturing its true essence. For me, the only way to truly discover Paris is to steer clear of the tourist traps and head off the beaten track. Although it wouldn’t be right to not visit the Louvre or adventure around the quartier latin, the real city definitely lies beyond its most famous marvels. This is the Paris I live in – a city of visual marvel and filth, cultural richness and street poverty, French patrimony and multiculturalism. Somewhere I can for now call home.