It is, perhaps, something of an odd title.
Paris. The city of love! The city of light! An enviable embodiment of French sophistication – good food, fine wine and the crème de la crème of cultural experience.
These images and the connotations of civilized perfection they inspire have become, in many cases, synonymous with the nature of Parisian lifestyle. Of course, one would have to be rather blind to fail to at least partly appreciate the validity of these conclusions. Even in my bitterly short time in the city, the Eiffel Tower had its effect. Paris, as travellers, writers and artists alike have come to realise, is a locality that boasts authentic beauty at every corner.
With this in mind, I can entirely appreciate the contentious nature of my title. Suggesting, even for a moment, that Paris bears any kind of blemish is a bold statement and one that may do this city a rather potent injustice. If you happen to be an individual that shares this opinion, and my controversial use of metaphor inspires more outrage than it does intrigue, then bear with me.
As absurd as it might sound, Paris is a bruised city, and how brilliantly so.
Irrespective of preconceived assumptions and Hollywood depictions, it is the crooked imperfections of the French capital that have inspired artistic generations. Whilst the grandeur of the Notre-Dame is impressive, take a moment to browse the menus of the little pavement cafés that line the streets of Avenue de Wagram. Allow a second to appreciate the flickering restaurant signs in the window and the mismatched napkins or rouge-splattered wine lists on uneven wicker tables. Pause to experience the floral scents of the Tuileries gardens but don’t avoid the hazy smoke of cobbled alleyways. Those two men, leaning on the entrance to a run-down looking apartment, cigarettes between their teeth, indifferent expressions on their faces and a dirty mattress flung to the ground at their side, they’re Parisian. Do not allow the intricately traced inscriptions on the stone walls of the Sainte-Chapelle to make you forget the graffiti scribbles on the walls of the Metro station you passed on your way. The colourful mix of words and images, indecipherable but important to someone, somewhere. Savour the expensive glass of white but remember the bitter aftertaste of the cheap cup of coffee purchased on the side of the road. Enjoy the sunshine and the warm glow it casts on the pathways of Montmartre in the late afternoon but don’t hide from the rain. Take a look at the man in the middle of the square, perched on his wooden stool, paintbrush in hand. His demeanor inexplicably and charmingly immune to the drizzle that surrounds him, content to sit in the grey, the pitter-patter of raindrops scattering his piece.
Do not allow these bruises, the rows of broken bicycles and tattered theatre flyers fading on the walls, to become the content of whispered taboo alone. They’re the marks of a city that is loved. A city home to people that walk its crumbling streets and visitors from across the globe, each and every one leaving their own stroke on an imperfect Parisian canvas.
It didn’t take particularly long to realise that some of these blemishes have become my favourite. Without doubt and without question it is the crumpled pages of the used books that line the shelves of Paris’s bookshops that are the most profound bruises of all. This affection for the scars of a folded over page or the handwritten notes in the margin of a creased novel, led me to a site that is too often forgotten. Shakespeare and Company stands just moments away from the Notre Dame, occupying a small, crooked corner in the 5th arrondissement. Now, I can only assume that anyone who takes the time to read this blog shares my appreciation for literature. Whether your poison be the familiar comforts of the classics, the draw of a foreign author or indeed, the personal experience of the blogosphere, nowhere is the adoration of the written word more alive than here. In the turbulent atmosphere of 1920’s France, the green awning of this store became a refuge to writers of the day. From Ernest Hemingway (a literary favourite of mine) to Ezra Pound, artists of the lost generation were welcomed to stay in the small beds tucked beneath the rows of books. In exchange for their time and a small biography of their character, writers are provided with an atmosphere unlike any I have ever encountered. It is possible that my desperation to join this community identifies me as a cliché, yet another aspiring writer caught up in the stereotype. To be perfectly honest, with the world never feeling more familiar than beneath the dimmed lights of this unassuming bookstore, I’m not all too sure I care.
On a yellowing piece of paper beneath the stairs, I encountered a small-handwritten note pinned to the wall. Reading ‘the challenge is to write about real things, magically – Raymond Chandler’ this messy scrawl reminded me of something rather important. Even in a city such as Paris, a traveller’s experiences will not be characterised by shooting stars and fairy-tale discoveries. As Chandler observes, it is our ability as writers and adventurers alike to appreciate the charm of normality that lends itself to the greatest rewards. Just outside the bookshop, a woman had set up a small stall selling crêpes. There was nothing particularly special about it, the food was cheap and the line was relatively long. It was the enthusiasm with which she served us that left an impression. Her smile as we stumbled over our orders, the care she took in the simplest of actions, sprinkling sugar and ladling batter, made this crêpe (and our memory of it) that little bit more remarkable.
My favourite place in the city, and one that has succeeded in making its way into my top five (read about another here), is a small square sitting on the Rue du Mont Cenis. Seconds walk from the Sacré-Cœur, painters gather in the centre. Whether you choose to drink Espresso on the pavement or become a momentary muse as your portrait appears in the notepad of a smiling artist, it’s a place not unbeknownst to magic. Listening to buskers sing on the steps beneath the Basilica or people sway to the happy tune of an accordion, it is difficult not to get caught up in the atmosphere. So note down a poem on a napkin or doodle on the back of your receipt and allow yourself to be inspired.
Before I wrap this post up, I ought to be honest. The five days I spent in Paris this December were an 18th birthday present and I was accompanied by two of my closest friends (keep your eyes open for a travel companion post coming soon). Whilst we did spend many an hour strolling the alleyways of the Père Lachaise Cemetery and admiring the city skyline, a flight to Paris doesn’t automatically equate to a stereotypical cultured disposition. With this in mind and in the name of honesty, I’m going to let you in on a few of the less-magical moments of our trip. It turns out the Latin Quarter has more kebab shops than it does historical wonder. Climbing the steps of the Arc-de-Triomphe doesn’t elicit some great sense of achievement and it creates more sweat than it does memories. Strolling the streets of Paris in the middle of Winter isn’t as romantic as it sounds; it’s really freaking cold. Choking down €2 wine bought from the local store in the plastic hotel room cups doesn’t make you a struggling artist, it makes you stupid (seriously, down the balsamic vinegar at dinner, it has the same effect). Think your English accent will have Parisians swooning at your feet? Think again. The cold stares of French waiters as you suffer through the internal cringing of your blasphemous butchering of ‘steak-frites’, is painful for everyone involved. Having eaten more ‘goujons’ than I care to admit (let’s be honest, they’re big chicken nuggets) and getting stuck in more than one Metro turnstile, my Parisian experience was varied to say the least.
Just in front of the Notre-Dame, a small star marks the ground. Kilometre Zero, as it is known by most, is considered the official centre of the city. Having strolled the banks of the Seine on our first evening, we arrived at this very point. I once read somewhere that anyone who visits this specific spot is destined to return someday.
So I don’t know about you Paris, but it looks to me that we’re not done with each other quite yet…
Until next time? Au revoir.