Throughout our travels, I’ve learned that there are very few places that can be adequately captured—whether it be in a blog post or novel, a photo, or even a film, there is just no substitute for being there. Indeed, perhaps my greatest frustration as a writer and Tony’s as a photographer is that the general rule seems to be that the most beautiful places and moments tend to be ineffable, and our very best efforts will still only allow us to capture a fraction of their magnificence. It’s vexing, yes, but it’s also one of the things I love most about traveling—that the act of seeing the world can be so profoundly humbling, and there’s really no substitute for being somewhere and experiencing it yourself
Of course, there is also the occasional flip-side of this equation, too: some places are kind of a hot mess in person but wind up photographing extremely well. Maybe it’s because even when we dislike a place we rarely take photos of the unappealing bits, but it’s always somewhat baffling to me when we visit places where the individual parts that make them up are somehow more enchanting than the sum of them together.
Which brings us to Paris. What I’m about to say is undoubtedly going to be a controversial statement but… For us, Paris is one of those “pretty as a picture” places. By which I mean, pictures of Paris are undoubtedly very pretty, but the city itself didn’t charm us nearly so well.
Now before all of you Paris lovers jump down my throat, I want to stress that we don’t unequivocally hate Paris or think it was an ugly city or anything like that. Walking around the various arrondissements felt like we had tumbled into a postcard—I love when cities have so much of a personality that they leave you with no doubt of where you are. If you’ve seen Paris in the movies or on other people’s blogs, it looks and largely feels exactly how you expect it will.
And yet. Try as we might, we just couldn’t fall in love with the City of Love. For all the things that were charming and exactly as we anticipated them in Paris, we struggled to click with it and feel anything more than the occasional moments of mild enthusiasm. Yes, the city is pretty… at least at first. But after a few days, we felt a little bit bored by our walks and with each passing day, we took fewer and fewer photos because we felt uninspired. (It certainly didn’t help that it seemed as though every major monument was undergoing renovation work, which made taking beautiful photos a bit more challenging.) Maybe it’s because we experienced unseasonable amounts of rain during our time in Paris and this prevented us from really lingering and absorbing the city’s subtle nuances, but we couldn’t help feeling that—with a few exceptions—every block in nearly every neighborhood looked the same as the last one and the streets all began to blend together, unified by the acrid smell of urine that followed us wherever we went, something no photo or film will ever capture.
Having spent so long in Asia, we felt we were fairly inured to grime and trash, but we were shocked to find Paris so dirty and smelly. Other travelers we have talked to didn’t seem to notice the Paris pee problem, but it’s a real thing—we passed several buildings that had rather gnarly spiked fences that were meant to prevent men from urinating on their walls, and the city of Paris has tried to institute everything from increased fines to free toilets and “pissoirs” (essentially open-air urinals) and “anti-pee walls” to curtail the Parisian penchant for peeing on the go. All this, and yet, based on what we smelled, Parisians are still pissing in public with a vengeance. (And let’s not get into the fact that the rumors about French dog owners are true: they don’t pick up after Fido or FiFi and the cobbled streets of Paris are frequently strewn with dog turd landmines, so walkers beware!) Très romantique, non?
Paris was also the first place in a long time where we felt targeted as tourists. While Asia certainly isn’t free of con men and hucksters, for whatever reason, we never had much trouble with touts or swindlers in that part of the world; in 20 months, I think we were conned three or four times (and never for more than $10US), but for the most part scammers seemed to leave us alone and generally weren’t too dogged or oppressive in their pitches. In Paris, however, we were frequently approached by people trying to tie string on our wrists, or offering us fake gold rings we might have dropped, or approaching us with petitions to sign en anglais, or trying to sell us 10 Eiffel tower keychains. I get it—Paris is one of the most visited cities in the world; of course there are going to be people trying to make a quick buck off of all the stupid tourists and you expect them to congregate at famous sites. This isn’t surprising, nor is it something we only experienced here. But the ferocity and seemingly never-ending stream of the shysters was surprising, especially for someone who had visited the city before (when I had been blind to both the scammers and the urine problem alike); I actually began to lament having a camera out as it so clearly identified us as targets. In a pointed moment of irony, when speaking to a fellow traveler by the Seine about why he didn’t like Asia but much preferred Europe, he claimed it was because people were always trying to sell him things in Asia… only to have his sentence punctuated by a guy walking by to ask us if we wanted to buy some beer from inside his trenchcoat.
Pee and scams aren’t likely to win our hearts, but we’ve certainly dealt with worse. I think the real death knell for our love affair with Paris is that we didn’t always feel welcome or safe there. Merci beaucoup to our CouchSurfing hosts, Nico & Marianne, who did make us feel welcome a few days following one of the worst days of our entire trip in which we were yelled at by shop owners and locals when attempting to photograph one of Paris’s more interesting (but also—unbeknownst to us, I might add—seedy and rather dangerous) neighborhoods up near Gare du Nord*, which happened to be right next to where our initial AirBnB rental was located. To cap things off, on our way home on the Metro that evening, our wallet was pickpocketed**. That wound up being a hassle more than anything else as, apart from a little bit of cash we lost, we had to cancel all of the credit cards (thankfully we had back ups!), and we both had to apply for new drivers licenses when we returned home. It’s the only time in our entire trip that we experienced any kind of theft and I can’t tell you how much the whole thing deflated our spirits, made us feel violated, and made it that much harder to be enthusiastic about the city. Nico & Marianne entered our lives right when we needed them, and when we might have otherwise skipped out on the city and stayed indoors to lick our wounds. With them, we enjoyed picnics (and naps!) in the park, macaron taste tests, legitimately fun rambles around the city, some wonderful home-cooked meals, and a genuine sense of camaraderie.
We were also so fortunate that following our stay with Nico & Marianne, we were able to bunk with new friends Sara (who blogs at Simply Sara Travel) and her husband Michael, who have a lovely flat down in the Marais. Although we had never met before, they both made us feel so welcome and it was interesting to get some insight into what it’s like to be an “American in Paris” as they have now been living in the city for a few years. Going for crêpes and picnicking alongside the Seine on our last night in Paris is one of my favorite memories of our time in the city, so gros bisous to Sara & Michael for their kindness and hospitality.
I know there is a pervasive stereotype that the French, and especially Parisians, are rude and cold but, on the whole, the French people we interacted with in Paris were wonderful. I have always wondered if I am biased and am receiving preferential treatment because I can and do speak fairly good French, but regardless, everyone from waiters to rail and Metro officials were kind and helpful to us and we never felt like we were being snubbed by the locals. I would actually go so far as to say that the friends we made in Paris were the highlights of our time in the city. Nothing would be as much of a draw for us to return to Paris as the new friends we met.
Don’t get me wrong: There are a lot of things to love about Paris, from the museums, to the history & monuments, to the food… even Parisians themselves have their allures! We could appreciate these things on their own merits (though they were not without their disappointments as well, something I’ll talk about in later posts), but something just didn’t add up for us when it came to the city as a whole. I legitimately enjoyed my previous visits to Paris (I had been twice before… much like London, my last visit was nearly a decade ago.), but this time I liked it far less than I remembered and reinforced my belief that Lyon is the superior city; we both left feeling a bit regretful that Paris would be our only stop in France. I definitely want to return to explore France in more depth one day—it’s a wonderful country and incredibly diverse—but neither of us has any burning desire to return to Paris. For me, Paris is like a bad internet dating profile: the pictures are better than the reality. I still look at our photos and feel my heart flutter at the city’s loveliness, I just wish I could have felt that spark in person.
Now it’s your turn: If you’ve been to Paris, how do you feel about the city? Have you ever been to a place that you think photographs better than it really is?
*An aside for those who want more info about the whole “being yelled at” incident: Although we were merely trying to capture the different street life and energy present in this neighborhood, which is really very different from central Paris and the areas most tourists visit, we were met with palpable hostility. I tried to take a photo of a display of meat that was out on the street in front of a butcher shop and the owners within began screaming with rage and rushed out to shoo me away. Not minutes later, one woman went so far as to yell at Tony when he was taking a photo of a street market that was across the street from us, telling him (in French) to respect people and that if he wanted to take photos he should go to the Champs Elysées. Needless to say, we felt less comfortable taking out our cameras after that. Also, learn from our mistake: don’t go wandering around Metro stop Château Rouge, especially at night. Literally everyone we told about this incident afterwards told us it’s a really dicey area and they wouldn’t go there (although the neighborhood next to it, Montmartre, is perfectly fine).
**Paris is notorious for pickpockets and petty theft; this is nothing new. However, it really does seem like crime is on the rise in Paris and travelers should be extra vigilant. Not a month after our visit to Paris, a friend had his backpack (containing his cell phone, laptop and other expensive electronics) stolen while sitting on a bench in the park within hours of arriving in the city. More recently, my parents were targeted at Gare du Nord when arriving—a man and his accomplice wedged between them to separate them and tried to wrestle my dad’s suitcase from him after they got off the escalator. My dad was on the ball and primed for them to try something and was able to fend them off, but these guys didn’t even try to be subtle in their attempt to rob him. While I don’t want to alarm people and dissuade them from visiting Paris, take a page out of Mad Eye Moody’s book and practice Constant Vigilance when you are in town.