Each time I go, I feel more and more desperately the need to defend Paris. Friends’ fathers unimpressed by the throng of Italian students being let in by the second to Orsay, ticket lines comparable to Disneyland’s at Versailles … “Completely impossible to navigate, let alone breathe, in the hall of mirrors — Unacceptable.” My BFFL heaving from the stench of urine in the depths of the Gare du Nord, even more disturbed by my urging us to jump the metro barricade without paying. “Why wouldn’t the ticket booths work? Why don’t they accept card here?” Le Big Mac, half the size of a Big Mac for double the price. Picturesque walk to Clignacourt’s flea markets interrupted by a gypsy woman tanning her amputated legs on the sidewalk before us. First time I saw someone without a nose was in Paris. First time I saw someone smoking crack, too. Land of the chic but home to a thousand and one freakshows.
“Paris is dead,” my friend would always say as we disembarked at the Daumesnil metro stop. She would whip her blond hair and look back at me smirking as we passed her Algerian neighbors, who never left the premises of the rusty playground on the corner, just by the yellow recycling pins. They would sit and call at us. Les meufs, les meufs, venez. Their advances were always welcome, as far as we were concerned. Anything to indicate the signs of the City of Lights’ deterioration. We loved it in our twisted world. Paris might be burning, but we’re into the heat.
Le fond de l’air est frais: something I learned from an old lady claiming it was the most beautiful French saying because it can’t be translated. Demystification of Paris, I think, is what all Parisians seek. Why not make it so unappealing that nobody wants to come back? Sadly, most of these efforts are futile. Thus, I force myself to get cozy with the sight of an American family’s impromptu photo-shoot in front of a pissing SDF in Le Marais. His victory cry breaks through gray whiskers and broken teeth as he happily smashes his bottle on the ground.You can get a bottle of wine for a euro here. The average baguette is 40 centime. Vive la France, I like to say.
“I was generally unenthused, I’d say. Yes, well, Versailles was quite far from the center, actually. I had to take three bloody shuttle busses to get there! Surprisingly, though, they sell a mean burger at the Eiffel Tower’s restaurant … well, considering they could charge whatever they wanted for it! What’d you say?”
“I’ve never been.”
“You’ve never been to the top of the Eiffel Tower?”
I try my best to not discuss Paris with other Americans. The crosscurrent of self-loathing in the acknowledgment of contributing by default to what we hate most about Paris is too grim to bear. The first time I went to the base of the Eiffel Tower, I found myself in tears. So overcome with disgust, I almost institutionalized myself with Paris Syndrome, the phenomenon common among Japanese tourists in which the discrepancy between expectation and reality upon discovering the layer of filth obscuring Paris’ pristine fictional aura sends them into fainting spells and panic attacks. The city is filled with various wellness centers dedicated to easing anxiety and allowing disappointed tourists to cope with what is effectively the momentous Crushing of Dreams.
The shock of it all is an important first step. I made sure to take my friend, Paris-virgin and guilty of preconceived illusions of grandeur, directly to the Gare du Nord upon arrival. We had come from Milan, so nothing short of a brutal introduction would do to take the aftertaste of four Prada shops in one block out of her mouth. Her bougie afterglow was almost neon. I took her down three levels almost instantaneously: bum piss, screaming migrant children, general dizziness and mild eye-watering every time the doors opened on line eight to let in the stench of rotten fish-farm and dog breath. It is necessary to understand that, if absolutely necessary, it’s possible to successfully avoid travesties like this in Paris. It’s always still possible to hide behind the city’s ornate iron balconies, distressed stone walls, jasmine trees, horseflies … Paris is still very much an untouched gem. I say this unsarcastically.
Beyond the similarly sacrosanct air of its historical milieu and its native residents, however, somewhere north of Oberkampf and west of Belleville, but all over really, the less publicized side of Paris is nothing short of inspiring. It’s Paris and it’s not. There’s a black guy in a metallic suit next to an Asian guy in a snapback next to a mother in a Lanvin turban. They’re all smoking E-cigs, but no, they’re not embarrassed, and yes, they’re all poised to mount their motorcycles and ride off to their jobs at creative tech ateliers. Out comes a baker soaked in sweat and flour: c’est pas une place de parking là! Je rigole … la ville entiere est votre piste ma chérie …
I met this guy who owned a record store in the Fifth. We talked for an hour in his shop. He smelled of whiskey, but his eyes were kind, and he said it was his daughter’s birthday.
“All apartment [sic] should have a vegetable jardin on the roof. With doctor and teacher [sic] and avocat all living there. Perfect community.”
“What would be the reason to leave the house, then?”
“For entertainment. For art.”
The second time I dragged myself, regrettably, back to the Eiffel Tower, I was again brought to tears. Instead of experiencing the daytime zoo of rabid tourists queuing to stand on one of the raised platforms on the west side, I found the place comparatively empty by night. Looking at the big old thing, I felt sorry for her: forever poised to perform, each light show a singular effort to make up for the imposing metal mess of her body during the day. No one would like Toulouse-Lautrec’s dancers in the unforgiving light of day, stripped of her jewels and feathers. The tower’s glittering sepia patterns that bounce off apartment windows and rain puddles on the ground are the reason some claim that Paris is most beautiful in the rain. It didn’t help that I was in love. I didn’t know if there were tears or raindrops on my face, trying to look pretty taking pictures while struggling with a broken umbrella while my French boyfriend rinsed his kebab breath with a three-euro bottle of wine. This is what dreams are made of. In Paris of all places. Call me romantic, but there’s not much better than falling asleep in Paris with a substantial wine-buzz and a Frenchman giving out substantial French-cunnilingus for nothing. I’m a selfish lover, I guess. But this was Paris.
“This isn’t fucking Paris,” people like to say in London. This is true. I guess it’s some perverse justification of the hurry everyone’s in. I really never understood how Parisians could spend so many hours in cafes while seemingly still employed full time. It couldn’t be everyone’s five-week vacation all the time. My friend used to say the same thing all the time. “French people don’t like eating. They like food. They are obsessed with food. We know how to live,” she’d say, as if I hadn’t the slightest idea of what living was.
“Someone threw a full cup of water on me while waiting to see the Mona Lisa,” my friend from Cambridge later told me as we compared travel horror stories. “Just out of nowhere!”
“I had to seek refuge from a 70-year-old stalker at 4 a.m. in some two-star hotel after a rave one night in Italy.”
“I mean, really, how do they even let people in there with open cups of water?”
“I hate the Mona Lisa.”
How is it exactly that some saucy Italian (questionable) female has come to embody — even envisage — Paris? A lot of my recent thinking about the way in which things go viral has led me to suspect that Mona’s (Lisa’s?) mystique is a lot similar to Paris’. While arguably overrated and underwhelming, Da Vinci’s portrait nonetheless seems to possess the same enchanting quality that the city itself ceaselessly exercises over its millions of visitors per year. People hungrily rage to get there, they take the obligatory hundred photos unknowingly overexposed by the flash on the bulletproof glass, they leave, they complain about it on the way back to the hotel, they complain about it on the flight back home to Chicago, then they complain about it to their friends and neighbors, knowingly sparking a curiosity in those same friends and neighbors to see and experience the delectably tacky sight for themselves.
In order to truly appreciate this mysterious city, it is important to at least attempt to define the paradox of it being simultaneously an overwhelmingly straightforward city. While tauntingly alluring, Paris wears its heart on its sleeve at all times. It’s haughty by way of its palaces as well as its slums. By some miraculous feat, the city manages to own and love its own shortcomings as much as its grandest spectacles. Paris remains a mystery to me for the simple fact that its culture, so inseparable from its commercial identity, can avoid being irrevocably replaced by its fictional image. Holding on to its appeal like a crazed Frenchman to a frog leg, Paris stands as a testament to the resilient original aura of a work of art. It might still provoke an epileptic fit of disappointment in some, but if you approach it from its good side, Paris may prove itself to be more alive than ever before.
Contact Bonnie Mata at [email protected]