Hollywood, in its usual preference to bypass subtleties for in-your-face stereotypes, usually like to portray the French at, if not at their impossibly worst, their impossibly best. So, I thought, if travel writers and casual tourists alike wax lyrical about the French capital like superlatives about La Ville-Lumière are going out of fashion, then they’re probably leaving out parts of their trip and basing it on their version of the city predicated to subscribe to silverscreen idealism. France in general, and Paris in particular, has always carried a cachet that evokes a million images for different people. The Eiffel Tower, the Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, the Seine… all basking in a diffused golden-hour sunshine while an accordionist plays a romantic tune nearby.
Is it possible to have any city live up to such idealistic hype?
Weeeell… yes. Paris IS beautiful but to let yourself be fully embraced by that idea is to set yourself up for eventual frustration. There’s romanticism but you’ll hardly find the romance on first glance. If it’s too overwhelming at first, take a deep breath, let it sink in, and allow the magic to gradually work. Perhaps rushing to meet our expectations is what victimized us more than anything else. After an hour-long train ride from London, we had difficulty getting to our hotel in Bry-sur-Marne outside the city center partly because it was rush hour and the trains were jampacked. Grafitti filled the mostly dilapidated Metro and people weren’t exactly the high society almost everyone from our side of the world has come to associate. There’s pushing, there’s shoving, and there’s lack of poise in some places.
Mostly, however, our first evening in France was of the hardscrabble sort because we couldn’t find anyone who spoke English, leaving us to practically fend for ourselves. Either that, or we were simply unlucky enough to always stumble upon pedestrians who are too arrogant to speak a foreign language. I’ve read that not all French are snoots, but judging from our experience, maybe they’d all gone some place else that day. The police weren’t much help as well since they were hardly visible. Fortunately we managed, thanks in part to a kind French couple who helped us find the place. They didn’t speak English but we understood each other through signs (if you can even call it sign language, being mostly shakes and finger-pointing).
The next day was wasted on unproductive sightseeing, if I may say so. Without a clear itinerary in mind, our group spent the morning doing grocery for our dinner before going to Versailles in the afternoon, then only to realize that it was almost closed for the day. So we returned to central Paris near the Notre Dame and just hanged around. Parisians being Parisians, there were lots of kissing and hugging on the streets, and we got snubbed a lot.
“Do you know…” Tita Marie began to ask. The man raised his palm towards her face with a sneer.
I tried to ask a saleslady, “Où sont les toilettes?” Apparently she didn’t like being interrupted from her chat with a fellow saleslady. She eyed me annoyingly, as if thinking, “Scram!”
She answered me, though. “Au troisième étage.” Her words were tinged with irritation but I take it all with a grain of salt. She’s probably just being French.
The following day, however, was filled with more enjoyment and less haughty people. Riding another hop-on-hop-off bus filled with fellow tourists, I could finally see why Paris has inspired and left so many people awestruck despite some not-so-appealing tags. Granted it’s not readily apparent when you emerge from the RER, which is a downer if you’ve seen London’s Tube — but as the bus obligatorily whisked us around the city, Paris’ history and magic soon wrapped themselves around me.
The sun has started to cast its scorching rays and the comforting warmth of the early morning light was slowly being replaced by the noon sky. But Paris is like a glamorous star in a big-budgeted Hollywood movie: after a roughshod chase that sends a car hurtling through the air and crashing upside down, the star emerges from the accident virtually unscathed except for a well-placed scratch that makes her sexily vulnerable. Paris is lovely that way.
Now, what can be said about the city’s main sights that hasn’t been said? Postcards, movies, magazines… it’s been overexposed to the point that it might as well be a travel writer or photographer’s greatest nightmare (or challenge, depending on your optimism level). How the heck are you going to present Paris in a new way?
But maybe that’s the point: Paris is all about being classic. It’s become a cliche for a reason. The place has that sort of enchantment you can’t pin down through words, but nonetheless draws visitors from all over the world. To resist that gravity is futile. France has led the world in terms of international tourist arrivals for the third-straight year in 2009. More than 70 million visitors can’t be wrong, can they?
The haut monde that has been associated with Paris finally came into full view during our last full day in the country, when we were able to enter the Château de Versailles. The nearly 400-year-old palace that stands as a testament to the opulence of King Louis XIV is filled with gobsmacking apartments and staggering gardens that you thought stopped existing in modern times, except perhaps for one of those period films. Trains stationed just outside the back of the palace take visitors around the grand area, making three stops along the way.
There, one can enjoy the pastoral beauty of the gardens while having a freshly squeezed if outrageously expensive glass of orange juice. To think that this was once the playground of Marie Antoinette gives me reason, yet again, to marvel at the French beauty.
France has always been a dream destination and aside from the usual complaints about its people, rarely does the place disappoint. There are truths and there are myths about French stereotypes but, as always, it’s up to the traveler to discern which is which. And while visitors will come away from the country with various opinions, there’s a consensus that a trip to the country is one of the greatest highlights a person will have in his life.