Paris has been a shining city on an island and part of western literary culture since Julius Caesar showed up to meet the Pariisi Celts and decided they were worth buying some fish from before he stormed off to get his dolium kicked by the Germanii. From then, the list of literati who gave the world Paris before Paris became a city of the world grew to include Peter Abelard, Voltaire, de Balzac, Hugo, Zola, Sartres, a myriad of film directors from Mélies to Malle, and painters who number beyond the stones of Notre Dame. So as I walked up and down the Champs d’Elysées, grateful for another opportunity to visit the la Ville Lumière as a teacher of students embarking on their journeys of discovery as I had the wonderful opportunity to do the summer after my junior year of high school, I realized I got nuthin.
Not one to allow ambition to go unpunished, though, I have taken some notes that I hope someone might find useful, if only to let you know that it’s okay to discover that Paris is a city full of people. And people make mistakes, laugh at awkward moments, stumble on curbs, ignore crosswalk signs, pass art indifferently, pass urine copiously, and sometimes prepare food that sometimes really isn’t all that great (OMG, in Paris?!).
For most of us non-French speakers, we will likely get to the capital by plane. Few airports serve as the best welcome to a culture. They either are hyper glossy and are hoping to entice the one percent to break out their Amex Centurion Cards (first used by Caesar, perhaps), or they are functional and rather tatty (or they are in the US and none of these). I left with my charges from Newark on a six and half hour flight on the smallest plane I’ve ever taken to Europe. The Delta 757-300 is apparently nice up in first class, but for the rest of us it feels like a slightly longer plane in the Southwest Airlines or Spirit fleet – perfectly functional but definitely budget travel. And with only two toilets in mid-cabin (in front of one of which, I had the pleasure of a non-reclining middle seat to add to the horror), you’d wish you were only going to Reykjavik.
No one expects anything in Newark excepts a chance to get out. So the fact that the airport is serviceable and of no aesthetic value is no surprise. Charles de Gaule, though, is the gateway to Paris, so one’s expectations are surely higher. Thus the sense it falls short is notably greater. If you were expecting to be treated to some savior faire and some enticements of French design, don’t feel obliged to hide your disdain for the place. You paid for the right to be there and thus to complain about its brutalist walls and prison-chic walkways. The halls where luggage is collected are a bit more amenable, and the signage is wonderfully clear, so you shouldn’t have any difficulty getting out of the place for your hotel. Charles de Gaulle lies about 40 miles north of any part of Paris a tourist would want to see. If you are taking the train into Paris to get to that hotel, be prepared for more of the rough stuff: the RER (Réseau express regional) train is likely tagged with the same layers of graffiti you thought you left back at Newark or JFK. And northern Paris is not for the faint hearted, so don’t get off until you are in the centre ville.
By the way, don’t let any Parisian talk smack about the scourge of American urban poverty. Take most any US city, where the wealthy white people live in the suburbs and the non-white people are coerced to the center by an economic system that quietly and/or cruelly limits their opportunities, turn that geography inside out, and you have Paris: the wealth whites get to keep the historic beauty of the center, and the the rest are shuttled out to the peripherique.
But what you don’t have in Paris is the NRA. You’ll make it to the city center and your hotel, even if you don’t speak much French. I do, and it is a huge help, of course. But despite what many Americans believe, most of whom got pissed off at the French when the French warned us back int 2002-2003 that invading Iraq might not accomplish what we were promising it would accomplish (Are we still serving “freedom fries” in the Green Zone in Baghdad?), the French generally love American culture. They enjoy speaking with Americans about it too. I wouldn’t rush into a conversation about politics, but basketball is quite cool at the moment.
Parisians who are at all involved in tourism or museums or hotels or taxis or restaurants or entertainment or shopping… within fifteen miles of Notre Dame know some English. True, many of them will not smile and throw out a “How are you doing?” when you walk into their establishments, because they know the question is meaningless. But if you learn even three words, “pardon”, “oui”, and “merci”, you will get met far more than half way. A couple of more phrases will be so welcome you’ll actually feel like they give a damn. Let’s try one. “Ou-est…?” is “Where is…?” Admittedly, it needs to be pronounced “Ouu ehhh…?” but before we start complaining about the language, somebody needs to explain how we got “through” when the sounds can be conveyed in half the letters but we have “enough”, which is pronounced entirely differently but has the same last four letters. But I digress. “Ou-est…” can be followed by anything from “the Louvre’s nearest entrance to see Tintoretto’s Coronation of the Virgin?” to “a McDonalds?”. They’ll explain it in English, then you say “Merci!”. Violà! Quickly Paris will not seem so intimidating.
The Louvre, by the way, is far too great to see in a day and hardly enough to bother seeing in a few hours. If you are going to mole under Pei’s pyramid, be prepared to spend a full day with lunch and espresso breaks. Also steel yourself for the likelihood that something of what you want to see will be closed for renovation. Much time will be spent trying to find any particular bit of cheese you were hoping to sample in the maze, and blocked paths are inevitable. Accept with a Gallic shrug of existential indifference and follow the crowds to the Mona Lisa. Don’t be surprised by the disappointment you will feel when you find her, either. First off, you’ve seen her more times and in larger formats than even Walter Benjamin believed was possible in a world of mechanical reproduction. Also, you or someone you love skipped their way through The DaVinci Code, so what else is there to know? Like any national art museum in any European capital, at least three quarters of what is on display was pilfered from the rest of the world while said capital claimed it was giving civilization to the rest of the world. In the case of the Louvre, you can choose anything from cuneiform prayer statues of Sumerian Mesopotamia to American folk-art of the late 1800s (far less of the latter, if its not covered for renovations).
On this particular trip, having accepted my charges’ desire to see the Mona Lisa before they rushed off to the gift store, I went roaming for the late medieval paintings. As I worked my way toward a main stairwell, the Daru stairwell as it turned out, my phone buzzed with notice that the great fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy had just died at 99. A few moments later, and I looked up the stairway at the Winged Victory and easily effaced the tourists and superimposed my teen crush, Audrey Hepburn, floating down said stairs in one of his iconic creations for the film Funny Face (1957). For one lovely moment the Daru became a reversed palimpsest as ancient grace, classic film aesthetic, and post-modern social media all weaved into a wonderful humanist continuum, or a dissonant tourist kerfuffle, depending on one’s tastes, I suppose.
Paris in March is rather like Seattle in March, albeit with better known monuments and a far broader palette of skin tones. Cool drizzle could dampen the ambitions but the prices are not yet inflated to pressure tourists’ credit limits. We worked our way to the right bank and upriver toward the Ile-de-Cité to get a sense of the scale of the Louvre (having covered about .1% of it in three hours) and to appreciate the joys of walking in a blustery Parisian rain storm. But rain is still rain, and few of us found it all that romantic. When we arrived at the point centre before the famous façade of Notre Dame, most of us gave up on photos and sought meteorological, if not spiritual, sanctuary in the cathedral.
I’m not sure artists have to explore their talents before they create great art. For example, I doubt fourteenth-century Sienese artists did not really know what perspective was, though they seemed to be struggling to find ways to portray it. I suspect they ‘got it’ but were working within the interests of their peers and (more importantly?) the demands of their patrons. Pablo Picasso, for example, was a deft copyist of Spanish portrait masters of the seventeenth century, though he is best known for his Cubist inventions of a woman’s left breast on her right shoulder blade.
But architects do have to explore their talents and their materials, and lives are actually at stake if the pediments slip or the pillars give way. Notre Dame, if carefully enjoyed, shows the explorations of the relatively new gothic style of the late twelfth century as it bloomed into the fourteenth, as the architects investigated what would stand up to the tests of limestone and time. The church was rebuilt over a series of earlier and largely untraceable religious buildings, and – unusually – it was begun at the crossing of nave and transepts. The window on the upper story are notably smaller than others in the nave, and the walls are strikingly thick. The tower held and the buttresses supporting the roof of the nave allowed for some experimentation. The windows a couple of bays closer to the said western façade are notably larger, the jewels of the stained glass allow far more light in, even on a damp early March afternoon. And the western façade, admittedly notably restored after the Jacobins sought to rid Paris of any vestiges of royal images, even those of ancient Judaic monarchs, is the symmetric gothic template by which all other medieval churches are judged.
With all that time and money spent, and stones quarried, the building was put on hiatus for about a century. When the funds were raised to start again late in the reign of King Louis IX (1226-1270; the self-styled King Solomon of his day), a new generation of architects had discovered the physics for ever more sinewy buttresses and ever grander walls of glass. Thus the eastern end of the church blooms both inside and out in ways that belie the tons of limestone took to build it. And the garden that surrounds it is a wonderful place to contemplate the sublimity while enjoying a ham, cheese, and salad sandwich on a baguette. More on that soon enough.
The left bank, best known as the Latin Quarter, though only a fraction of the bank is within the student neighborhood, is home to art galleries for the quietly wealthy and curio shops for the ostentatiously poor. Cafés and bistros abound, and the movie theaters sometimes show classic American films in classic American English if you need a break. The buildings range from about the time Peter Abelard arrived to piss off his teachers in the 1120s until the collapse of Napoleon III’s empire in 1871. The roads meander and shift names unexpectedly, so you can find yourself lost quickly. If such is a concern of yours, find and stick to the Rue Mouffetard. It’s a crinkly medieval road from just south of the Sorbonne that has some of everything to enjoy on a long afternoon of any season. And if you like all that history stuff but want to get inside, spend a couple of hours in the Musée de Cluny, palace of the richest monastery of pre-revolutionary France built among ancient Roman baths. Vows of poverty clearly meant something different back then. And if the Marquis de Sade is to be believed, so did chastity.
The French are wide and perhaps best known for their cuisine. So much so that I used the French term and you didn’t even bother to think of the translation. One can search out restaurants that use dairy products only from a certain region with a special kind of grass for the cows to produce a certain sweetness of milk countered by salt from another particular region on the Mediterranean coast – all of which must be paired with a particular vintage from a particular vinter. But as a teacher, I don’t have the funds to search out those restaurants. What is glorious about French cuisine for the rest of us is not its precision or snobbery, but its care. Many Parisians have to eat on-the-go (prête-å-porter) liked most Americans, especially lunch. But quickness does not mean haste, and care can still be taken. Even an inexpensive sandwich of ham (jambon) or chicken (poulet) with some tomatoes and lettuce on a baguette can be a moment of deep pleasure. The French take pride in freshness no matter the type of meal or the speed with which it is eaten. Which is why the French have neither a fast-food chain developed in France nor an obesity problem. Take that sandwich to one of the dozens of historical parks that checker the city, and violà!, you are local enough that one of those rude Parisians might stop by and start chatting with you.
Paris is not a notably clean city, though if you recall that it has been housing humans and their penchant to poop and litter for over two thousand years, Paris is pristine. Though I am a Francophile who so grateful to have had numerous opportunities to return, I am still rather peeved to have to pay for the privilege of peeing. If anything stands as a marker of making American great, it is the fact that water from any tap in any town that has even a slim majority of whites is potable. And we don’t need to carry around pocket change in case we need to heed nature’s call while doing, well, anything. In Paris, free public toilets exist, and they are pleasantly cleaned automatically, but they are not plentiful. Brasseries (not what you are thinking: ‘bars’) and cafés have toilets but one is expected to take an espresso or some other purchase for access to the facilities. But of course, why wouldn’t you want a Parisian espresso? Occasionally, one will come by a pretty grimy cabine, but these are the exceptions and the state of the toilet is in direct relation to the state of the establishment, so you’ll be forewarned. True, they are almost all fairly small, but what are you doing in there that needs so much room? And if size matters for you, at least appreciate the fact that you are relieving yourself in a building that might be older than our federal government and is crumbling with greater grace, so the space for modern amenities is at a premium.
Lunch and facilities attained, we zipped off to the catacombs to reflect on life’s brevity. The catacombs began as the quarries that built Notre Dame, La Sainte Chapelle, the Hotel de Ville (City Hall), and the Roman baths before that, and probably the Celtic fortress before that. Only when the city expanded southward in the mid-1800s to build on the swiss-cheesed ground, and buildings started to fall into the sinkholes, did the city planners appreciate how to solve two problems in one go. First, the two-thousand year old cemeteries had filled to bursting (Literally: The bodies began oozing from the Cemetery of the Innocents into people’s homes after floods in the 1780s.). Second, the tourist trade was slipping with the fiasco of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71, the first in a series of wars for which l’armée de France was shown not to be a European, much less a world, power). Thus the catacombs were born, to draw the two ends to the middle. Only a portion of one’s time underground is surrounded by bones, but it is a moving experience to be surrounded by the remains of those who died of the plague of 1348-1350, the Terror of 1792-1794, and the wars of Napoleon and his nephew in the 1810s and 1870s. Another moment to reflect on the continuum of the human experience. Or ruminate on the myriad ways we might die, depending on one’s tastes, I suppose.
Having achieved the katabasis that only Orpheus, Ulysses, Aeneas, Dante, and millions of tourists have accomplished by descending into Hades and returning to the warm sun unscathed, we gathered for a tourist-trap dinner (but still tasty in its banal parts of chicken breast, potatoes, and salad) and a trip on a tourist-trap river boat. Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoy the bateaux-mouches (the boat flies, not flying boats) that cruise around the two ancient islands and down river to the model mother of the Statue of Liberty (the one in New York given to us by the French to commemorate the centenary of our victory over the English with a good deal of French aid). Do not go on board hungry or thirsty, and try to avoid the toilets altogether, but definitely take the trip. Like a tourist-trap bus, the tour will give you a good lay of the land while giving your legs a break. The Tour Eiffel sparkles at the top of every hour, so save your photos of it for that moment. But be prepared for some serious wrestling with Asian tourists to get the best vantage point from the boat.
Dammit, I got caught up with it too. Guides! History! Monuments! Books on “What to see in Paris” keep publishing houses afloat. And if you can’t get here, a slightly smaller booklist exists for “How to live like a Parisian wherever you are.” What I really wanted to tell you was, they are all largely right and I would encourage you read a couple before you drag yourself through the concrete contours of Charles de Gaulle. But leave the books at home. Paris breathes and pulses with as much modern glory as it does pre-modern history. You will not be disappointed, if you keep eyes and ears and taste buds open, simply walking anywhere in any arrondissement below ten (of 20 – Think of them as zip codes that spiral outward in a clockwise manner from the Ile de Cité that hosts Notre Dame.). The sad/joyous fact is that you won’t see it all anyway, so don’t try. At least not in one visit. If one visit is all you have, take a guided bus tour now universal in any city with a modicum of tourism. That will give you a sense of the major monuments and their spatial distribution across the metropolis. Then walk, take the Metro, and walk some more. The little treats (petits cadeaux) can be the sweetest, and any challenges you encounter with a menu in a local bistro or mistakes you make reading the map will make the best stories when you get home.
Which reminds me of that one time I needed a toilet really bad in Paris, and…