Paris is a city of contradictions. Tiny lanes and alleyways turn into wide, open boulevards. Cramped city streets lead to sprawling parks with elegant landscaping. The stereotype of the rude Parisian battles the reality of the warm and helpful local. Ancient cathedrals stand converted into monuments to the secular Republic, consequences of the French Revolution. A rich and complex history coexists alongside technological and progressive modernity. Welcome to Paris, the City of Lights.
Our arrival came after three days of hardly any sleep, coupled with a sleepless plane journey. The first twenty four hours in any country can be trying even with all faculties at their best, so needless to say, not everything was smooth. But we hardly expected it to be. We managed to take the RER train from Charles de Gaulle airport to the correct train stop for our AirBNB. Any other method of transportation from the airport into Paris is absurdly expensive, and although it can be complicated to figure out which ticket you need for the train, once ticket is in hand it’s relatively simple. (See Logistics of Paris for more information).
We arrived at Val de Fontenay without much trouble, but then all navigational prowess was lost. Parisian train stations can have numerous exits, and we managed to find ourselves out of the station but in the very wrong spot for our scheduled pickup by our host. Managing a French phone conversation to find each other with hardly any processing power left in my brain was quite an embarrassing first impression, but we eventually met up with our host, Maryse.
Maryse drove us to her apartment in Montreuil, our home for the next ten days. She pointed out bus stops and the local convenience store along the way as I sat sweating in the back seat – from lugging giant suitcases in the warm midday sun or the adrenaline rush of being lost, I couldn’t be sure. She drove us to her lovely apartment in the suburbs located next to a park, complete with old wood floors, giant windows, and colorful walls. As the weather was to be amenable most of the week, those windows were to be open more often than not, offering verdant views of tall trees and the sounds of children playing across the valley. An incredibly friendly host, Maryse told us to make ourselves at home. She shared the kitchen with us, and over the next few days we enjoyed preparing several meals in the apartment. Given the prices of meals in Paris, eating in is an economic necessity for longer stays – but I admit my love of cooking and baking means that I am thrilled to be able to use kitchens on the road, necessity or no.
Although the apartment was larger than those I’ve seen in Paris, the economy of space was still very much observed. The appliance I believed was a bathing suit dryer in the washroom was in fact a washing machine – one that fit just as many clothes as my old apartment machine did. Parisians have learned to deal with small amounts of space very elegantly, as real estate in such an old city is slim. There is of course the separate WC from the washroom, which personally, I think is very civilized. Kitchens house smaller refrigerators and freezers, though I think that has less to do with space concerns and more to do with the fact that Parisians seem to eat so much more fresh food.
During our time in Paris, we may have spent the majority of our time out exploring Paris and the surrounding areas, but our “home” life in Montreuil couldn’t have been more pleasant. In the mornings, we made coffee or tea and enjoyed our baguettes with Maryse’s homemade jam, which happens to be one of the most delicious jams I’ve ever tasted. Typically we would return earlier in the evenings, hopping on the buses that ran like clockwork from the RER train station with fresh vegetables, bread, cheese, wine, and pastries in tow. Some evenings we did yoga and workouts in the park, which was far larger than we initially thought. The French take advantage of their local parks far more than I’ve ever seen in the States, and I don’t blame them. There are numerous parks throughout the city, and they are beautifully maintained, small oases amidst the hustle and bustle of city life. Parisians picnic on benches or the grass, children learn to ride bikes, joggers whiz by, sunbathers doze. In our local park, I even found an “éco-paturage”, after thinking the loud “moo” from a pregnant cow experiencing ennui was just a truck horn.
It turns out that in this park, the livestock pens are moved from place to place to maintain the parks in an ecological manner, while at the same time preserving some rarer, rustic species of cows and sheep. What a great idea! Parisians take their parks and sustainability seriously. Alas, they also take park hours seriously. Time got away from us one evening as we practiced yoga on a hilltop, and Clayton expressed concern the gate would be locked as we walked back to the entrance. A sign said the park would close at 8:00pm, and it was 8:02pm. I scoffed, saying it would be so much work for them to go to each park and padlock it right at closing, but wouldn’t that be “so bureaucratically French” if they did. Lo and behold, we were greeted by a determinedly shut and padlocked gate. Luckily, a young boy kicking a soccer ball led us to a secret gate that he confided to us was never shut and locked.
That was another thing we noticed about Paris – children were often out on their own, taking buses to and from school, walking home for lunch, or playing in the parks. I saw more children in the last week in Paris than I have in the US for months. That could be a result of the French push for families – there are incentives in France for people to have children, and the protections and subsidies towards pregnancy and child-rearing are significant. But I also believe it is because children are simply given more freedom to be independent. They aren’t constantly supervised and shepherded from place to place. I remember when I was growing up in the States, I always played outside with my neighborhood kids, even after dark. I walked to the bus stop on my own every morning, and home each afternoon. At the risk of sounding like a jaded cynic, times have changed. Parents get in trouble for allowing their kids to go play in the park down the street. Our cultural shift to remaining indoors, not knowing your neighbors, and over-protecting our children may not be ideal. In Paris, I saw children tackling the world without hesitation. Without Fear. Sans Peur. I think a happy medium of freedom and safety can be found.
That helpful boy also demonstrated another common thread to our time in Paris – the helpfulness of Parisians. Most everyone is familiar with the stereotype of the cold French, or the rude Parisian. In all my times in Paris, I have never found that to be the case. We watched Parisians greet each other with incredible warmth and familiarity. Patrons knew shopkeepers names, neighbors caught up in the street, schoolmates fist-bumped on the metro. The times that we had questions or got lost, we were always helped, sometimes even before we asked. So why this unfortunate stereotype? I suspect there are several causes. First, the French don’t necessarily greet strangers like that. In the States, it’s common to be friendly with strangers, but the French see that as less than genuine. I personally will smile at a stranger more often than not, but perhaps I prefer that because I am American. The French believe in getting to know a person first. Second, I believe that if visitors come to another country and expect everything to be the same as their home base, they’re going to have a bad time. France may be a Western nation, but the culture is just as different as the language. Not only have I witnessed many tourists expecting Parisians to speak English for them, I’ve seen some get wildly offended when their waiter isn’t anticipating their every whim. I don’t think that’s fair to the French at all. Parisians may be inundated with tourists day in and out, but they don’t owe us anything. Attempting the language is the minimum we can do to be respectful. Everyone can stumble through the phrase “Parlez-vous anglais?”, and more often than not, stumbling attempts at French are very much appreciated, even if the local does speak English. It may help if people understand that things may be different from home. French restaurant culture is a research topic in and of itself, and has many subtleties. Now, having said all this, of course there will be those that are just plain rude. Like anywhere. But honestly, what population doesn’t have grumps?
Despite some bumps and steep learning curves, we settled into our short time in Paris relatively smoothly. It does help that I can slowly work my way through the language, though sometimes I feel that I will never be fluent given the speed at which Parisians talk. We researched some places of interest and set off to (re)discover Paris.