Two weeks ago, I staggered off the bus that had taken me, my family, and our luggage from Charles de Gaulle airport to the heart of Paris. I hadn’t slept in almost twenty-four hours. My vision was blurry, my mind exhausted. In my condition, Paris provided a sensory overload.
Motorists zoomed past us on the street, heedless of red lights or pedestrian crossings. On the sidewalks, tourists and locals pushed past without even a muttered “Pardon” or “Excusez-moi”. Young girls held out clipboards with ‘petitions’ to sign while their friends helped themselves to the contents of your pockets. Brightly colored posters plastered on walls and light poles were accompanied by graffiti sprayed or scratched onto every available surface, even drawn in the dust on windows.
In America, we often have a mental image of Europe as a quaint continent, full of countries lost in an earlier time. Paris is defined by the Tour d’Eiffel, l’Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre… a collection of landmarks and old structures. What many of us forget is that it is a city – very much alive, changing, and not always beautiful.
On our two hour or so walk to our train station, we passed many conflicting images. Paris is a superimposition of two cities. In places the street sheds its asphalt skin like a snake, revealing broken cobblestones and rusted pipes. Buildings grow as a tree grows, from the ground up. Older architecture appears mysteriously above ice cream parlors, convenience stores, and pharmacies where owners gutted the bottom levels only. A few blocks from the historic Pont Neuf, large areas are fenced off with the ever-present sign ‘Chantier. Interdit au public’. (Building, banned to the public.) Take a walk along the Seine river to see elegant bridges, graceful boats, and homeless people huddled in corners. In many places, your nose will inform you that some people cannot afford to use the public restrooms, which require around 50 centimes.
Stroll down a back alley around lunchtime (about 1), and eager restaurant staff will block your path and start listing off the menu. Near tourist tramps like the Champs de Mars, hawkers will try to interest you in bottled water, tacky souvenirs, and umbrellas (if it’s raining, which it was for most of my trip there). Other Parisians blow past tourists without giving them a second look.
All in all, Paris is a city of contradictions. In our films, all we need is a shot of the Eiffel Tower to confirm the location. However, walk a few streets away and you’ll feel like you’re in a different city. I’m not much of an urban girl, and after a few hours of chaos, I was ready to find somewhere quiet and close my eyes. Still, seeing the real Paris is an experience very different from watching the movies, and it opens your eyes to how cultures evolve and how they are represented incorrectly or correctly in our own.