Arrogant. Rude. Hateful of anyone who doesn’t speak French. These are some of the stereotypes and expectations I had for Parisians as I headed in to spend a week in their town, and which I can happily say are mostly unfounded.
It’s probably fair to say Parisians (and possibly the French, although I don’t want to generalise too much, and Frenchmen from other parts of the country have told me that those in Paris are of a different breed to the rest, much like in Rome) are quite proud. They have a beautiful, popular, world-renowned city and they know it. Their language sounds cultured and sexy, and is damn difficult for non-speakers to pick up, and they know it. Parisians walking down the street, or working in shops are often attractive, well-dressed and carry an air of confidence, along with a possible hint of mild annoyance for those outsiders trying to mess with their daily routine.
But tolerance. Many people have said that Parisians refuse to speak English to foreigners, even though they know it. I found that true to a certain degree. While it was obvious that many (younger) people seemed to understand my English, they would respond with French. But, I don’t think that’s necessarily as bad a thing as people make out. They would speak fairly slowly and simply, with alot of hand gestures to help get the point across, which they usually did. And on the occasions where I still didn’t understand, they would often switch to English.
I think I decided that, once again, the problem lay in the tourists themselves. Nearly everyone I encountered, even people I passed on the street in remoter areas, would greet me with a friendly Bonjour which I returned. And when I opened with nothing more than a simple Bonjour, the Frenchman often smiled. A follow-up “Parlez-vous anglais?” was usually met with a smiling “Oui” and we were away. From what I saw, French people just don’t seem to want to go out of their way to accommodate arrogant English speakers who assume everyone else should speak English and don’t even bother to learn basic greetings.
One of the few times I really encountered a curt reply was when I decided to take the advice of Pulp Fiction over the menu and ordered a Royale with Cheese at the local McDonald’s. The girl behind the counter had either heard it a hundred times before or never in her life; either way she didn’t see the humour in it and just gave me a simple No, then suggested I actually order something off the menu.
All that aside, Paris was really a beautiful city. I spent alot of my time walking through the part of town where the Seine river cuts through, which happens to be the centre of the city, home to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and other lovely buildings. Aside from the first couple of days where I got rained on at a music festival, the weather was gorgeous and I managed to rack up a little sunburn pretty much every day.
The outer grounds of the Louvre are almost as much of an attraction as the inside of the Museum itself. The large courtyards and the glass pyramid surrounded by water open up onto large gardens which stretch on down to an Egyptian obelisk, and beyond that the Arc de Triomph. The inside of the Louvre is of course immense. Getting there about 9am, I walked all day, admiring pieces until about 5pm and still had only covered about a third of the ground inside.
Probably the two most famous pieces I did come across were the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. The Mona Lisa had the requisite herd of tourist sheep crushing in towards it, pushing to the front of the crowd, waving their cameras wildly to get a photo of the painting behind the glass pane which would never be as good as any of a thousand images they could find on the internet, before turning and moving on without actually spending any time looking at the picture itself. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I’ve never really understood its appeal. I was hoping that seeing it in the flesh might trigger something, but I’m still kind of lost. If anyone has any light to shed on this (other than the vague notions of “she’s so beautiful” and “she has such an enigmatic smile”, repeated from movies and pop culture), please, I’d really like to know.
Far more impressive, I thought, were several other pieces throughout, including Liberty Leading the People, The Raft of the Medusa, and a statue called the Winged Victory of Samothrace.
The Eiffel Tower and the Cathedral of Notre Dame both looked quite impressive, but although I spent some time looking at them from outside, I didn’t go inside either. The queue for the Tower is formidable, and although I intended to go inside the Cathedral I never got around to it. I’ll be back.
The Seine river itself is quite nice to walk along, especially with all the little stalls set up along the banks selling secondhand books, paintings, posters, along with other touristy goods like badges, postcards, key rings and the like. The people working them were generally pleasant and relaxed, although again I didn’t hear a word of English out of any of them.
The graveyard at Père Lachaise had plenty of nice, large tombs to wander between, especially with the rows of trees between them. Along with hundreds of Frenchmen I know nothing about, the graves of Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde are here. I have to wonder what happened to Jim Morrison’s grave that caused it to be the only one there barricaded off, while Oscar Wilde’s grave is absolutely covered in loving graffiti, with nothing but a “Please do not deface this grave” placard to protect it. The grounds were pleasant to walk through, and a few more sights caught my eye. It was a nice place to finally get through the final sections of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which ultimately I’m not too sure how I feel about. Started and ended well, but there was alot of stuff in the middle there…
Speaking of dead people, the catacombs were a sight. Apparently the skeletons of about 6 million people are down there, in tunnels under the bright, beautiful city above; themselves arranged into artistic displays created largely from skulls and femurs. After descending a spiral staircase for forever, it must have been unreal to have walked and even transported all those bones down there by only the candlelight they would have had at the time. Unfortunately the atmosphere is kind of ruined now by the loud twangy voices of other idiot tourists firing off volleys of flashes at the dead as they yell at each other, flagrantly disregarding the signs posted everywhere asking for no flash photography and a certain level of respect for the dead.
The last big touristy area I went to was Montmartre and the nearby red-light district, including Moulin Rogue. Unfortunately both areas suffer heavily from Paris’s main drawback, which is extreme cost. This is an expensive city. The basic coffee is a tiny espresso, which will cost you about 3 euros. A larger coffee, more suited to sipping over time, will set you back around 5. The food is also scarily steep, but the wine is surprisingly cheap (a bottle for 2 or 3 euros). Travel about the city is quite cheap, and the city itself is actually not all that big. It’s easy to get around from one place to another and the metro system in place is fast and well-networked. Accommodation on the other hand, is shocking again. A quick glance about seemed to show that hostels are probably the most expensive in Europe, and hotels and places to rent seem to be through the roof. A friend of mine was staying in a pretty small one-room place with a minimum charge of 90 euros a night
But I’ll definitely be back. The streets are lovely to walk around, the people seem nice enough, and there’s a pleasant vibe about with no real aggro (though I hear some areas are pretty bad at night). Before I head back next time, I’ll try to lean a little more French.