As an inveterate Europhile, I came to Europe this summer with romanticized notions of the cities that I was to inhabit. I was fully aware of the fact that my vision of London was a glamorized one and, with that in mind, London in many ways met and even surpassed my expectations. But much as I consider myself to be an Anglophile – blame it on all those British history books and classes and nights of watching Sherlock and Downton Abbey – my romanticization of Paris was beyond compare.
My love affair with France began at an early age. While I had never visited France before last weekend, I had been fortunate enough to have grown up in a world infused with French culture, thanks to my parents’ time in France and my own childhood years in Quebec. Elementary school French language classes were exhaustingly repetitive and heavily reliant on mind-numbing, albeit entertaining, videos (Téléfrançais, anyone?). However, luckily, I had some fantastic French teachers later on, and by high school, I had fallen in love with the French language.
Adding to that, central to American romantic comedies is the Parisian romance that is falling in love with Paris itself: that promise that once you step onto the streets of Paris, the historic architecture will enrapture you, the impossibly flaky pastries will entice you, and the chatter of locals sipping wine al fresco late into the night will enchant you as you amble down a sun-drenched side street leading to the Seine. The sunset will be reflected and refracted off the river in a thousand shimmering planes of crimson and gold, setting the entire city ablaze, lighting the flames of romance between couples and stoking the fire of inspiration for aspiring artists.
It is an overtly sentimental picture painted, but one with some merit. Paris has such a storied history that it only makes sense that it should still have such an eminent reputation. But its alternate, antithetical reputation cannot be ignored: the disillusioned protest that the streets are dirty, that the food is overrated and expensive, and that the hostility towards foreigners is ubiquitous. In sum, that the romantic image of Paris is a sham.
My experience affirmed neither stereotype in full. Certainly, there were things with which I had to grapple at first. For one, the endemic vagrancy. Perhaps it is in part a matter of poverty being more well-hidden in London, but I could not remember encountering so many panhandlers there as I did in Paris. The cruel irony was that the frequency of beggars was often higher in wealthier areas, where the price of the average handbag or necklace on display in shop windows likely exceeded the weekly income of a beggar’s entire family. That, compounded by the fact that Métro-goers regularly warned tourists to watch their bags lest they fall prey to pickpockets, reinforced to me the troubling economic woes that are omitted from grandiose depictions of Paris in pop culture. The double-digit unemployment rate in France is at a record high, and is even higher for youth and racial minorities. Many of the banlieues are rife with crime. People often associate the haves vs. have-nots dichotomy with the France of Les Misérables, but in fact, it very much persists and becomes patently obvious even to the casual observer.
Before this becomes some superficial social commentary – I keep up-to-date with current events, but do not presume to be an expert on contemporary social problems in Paris – I should add that Paris is nevertheless a beautiful city. There were moments when I paused to do nothing more than admire my surroundings. And admirable surroundings there were, indeed. There is a multifaceted beauty to the city that makes it never lose its appeal. There is of course the ostentatious beauty of the marble statues and palatial museums, the seductive beauty of an array of perfectly lined-up, almond perfumed macarons. But there is also an understated, whimsical beauty to each arrondissement underlining the slightly crooked alleyways, the street performers, the wildflowers that dot patches of lawn. One random street, which I entered by accident on my way to another location, stole my breath; I did not photograph it, but even a picture could not capture the multiple dimensions of its beauty, could not quite convey how the combination of ivy meeting the windowsill at that precise angle and the sunlight painting the buildings that exact shade of ecru came together into something that could have tickled the heart of even the most jaded person.
Spending a weekend in Paris – and the weekend of le 14 juillet at that! – was magical, but not in the fantastical, rose-tinted sense. The military parade was delayed; the maze of streets left me nonplussed at times. But that only gave me more time to explore, more ways to get lost, and more opportunities to stumble upon something of undeniable beauty. It was not the Paris of romantic comedies. It was the real thing, and that made it all the more powerful.