I had to cancel the original trip back in May due to unforeseen circumstances, but this time everything went according to plan. I arrived in Paris at lunchtime on Sunday; after checking into my apartment at Gare de Lyon, I headed straight out into the city.
The avid reader of this blog knows that when it comes to exploring a new place, I prefer walking around aimlessly to guided tours. Paris is not exactly an unknown destination for me, as I have been here before, but the last time I visited the city, we were still in the 20th century (yes, I am that old). I am not really sure why it took me so long to come back; I guess I was just busy exploring the world, living in Australia, the USA, and the UK, and then travelling to places such as Asia or the Middle East. With France, for a long time I had the feeling of “been there, done that”, but lately I have realised that not visiting a place for such a long time means it almost feels like uncharted territory again.
The second “rule” for my travels (if you can call it a rule; this is me travelling, not Fight Club) is to avoid most of the touristy places, or at least give them a wide berth during rush hours, which is why I often wander around cities at night (fitting nicely to my night owl personality). It also means that I cannot offer many photos of monuments or famous buildings; I am more interested in the people and the individual atmosphere of a place (the je ne sais quoi, as the French say).
One of the things that struck me here is that while it has become increasingly unpopular to smoke in Germany, the tobacco industry in France seems to be doing just fine, especially with girls. I saw a lot of fashionable young ladies, sitting in bistros, lively discussing the world with their friends, waving around their lit cigarettes; they did not look too concerned about their health, to be honest.
Speaking of bistros, the sheer amount of cafés and restaurants is staggering. I know that Paris is renowned for its gastronomy, but you can’t walk for more than ten feet without coming across a place with marquees, blackboards, and a pavement full of tables and chairs, usually frequented by groups of Parisians with wine glasses and baskets full of baguettes in front of them, chatting with everybody within a ten foot vicinity. Yes, it sounds like a cliché, but the eating out culture in Paris is certainly alive and well (and very entertaining to watch, by the way).
Another thing I noticed is the immense popularity of longboards, roller skates, and scooters; children and adults alike seem to love them and can be observed rolling or pushing their way through the city. I have to admit that guys in suits pushing a scooter down the street look a bit ridiculous, though.
What I like, however, is the architecture in Paris: Although there is the occasional skyscraper, the general cityscape is very level – the majority of buildings does not go beyond six floors. It gives Paris a feeling of being a somewhat quaint place, as the city spreads out into the adjacent municipalities instead of skyrocketing; when I then think of London and its construction plans for the next decades, it makes me want to weep.
But Paris also managed to make me cry, and not in a good way: I was walking down the Quai de l’Hôtel de ville when I came across a shop with hordes of children inside. It took me a second to figure out it was a pet shop, and another second to realise that the animals in what I had misidentified as aquariums (albeit without water) were actually puppies and kittens. I stopped dead in my tracks and just stared at the scene: About 12 “aquariums” (there is no better word for it) with puppies of different breeds, usually one in each, and in the next row, another 6 of these glass cages with pedigree kittens. Looking at these animal babies, being held in glass spaces of less than a square metre, without any physical contact to other creatures, let alone their mother, made me almost physically sick. How on earth is this still a thing in France?! While I was staring in utter horror, a man decided to buy a chihuahua puppy; the shop assistant took it out of the glass thing and handled it with the same clinical interest I display when I clean my bathroom. It was enough to make me spin on my heels, go down to the Seine, and have a bit of a cry. Sorry, France – as much as I like you, this is a shitty way of treating animals, and it really needs to change asap.
Apart from that particular attitude towards animal welfare, the people are just lovely and often try to engage me in a conversation, which fails miserably as my French is shit. The problem is that I can remember a couple of sentences from school, which I utter with a beaming smile and at my usual speed (= velocity of light). Coupled with a pretty good pronunciation (the only thing I manage to do well in French), locals hence think I am fluent in French and start chattering away, leaving me completely clueless as to what is going on. It makes me realise again that a) I should have paid more attention back in school, and b) that even though I can read a lot of French thanks to my knowledge of English, Latin, and the aforementioned basic French, it is a whole different story when it comes to listening to a native speaker. I guess it is time to finally start that language course I have meant to do for years.