Ah, Paris je t’aime! Les boulangeries! La tour Eiffel! La Louve! Sainte-Chappelle et Notre Dame et …eh, je ne pas parle Francais…
Miraculously, I actually picked up enough French to get by without even glancing at a guidebook before I got on the plane. And even more miraculously, while people looked at my other traveling companions and immediately began speaking English, they looked at me and babbled strings of French in my face.
Should I have taken this as a compliment? Is it cooler for people to think you’re French than for them to think you’re American? Before I got to Paris, I would have said “no”. I once despised the French language, French people and the country of France itself…for no apparent reason. Maybe my unreasonable hatred for all things French was the reason why Paris ended up being my favorite stop during the travel week–because I had low expectations that were dashed in an instant.
On the plane from Barcelona to the City of Love, I pictured sidewalks lined with grime, scowling men with hanging jowls and huge noses, rude women turning up their equally large noses at anyone who even smells remotely American. Such are the negative stereotypes associated with Paris. As it turned out, my first day there convinced me the positive Parisian stereotypes were far more accurate. For instance, picture a parade of glamorous people in leather boots and designer togs walking down romantic, cobblestoned roads with hot, fragrant baguettes in their hands. Sound too good to be true? It isn’t. I saw it with my own eyes. (OK, some of them still have large noses, but hey, so do I.)
And best of all, we stayed in the Latin Quarter, a part of the city devoid of tourists and a million times cheaper areas perennially swarmed with visitors. The day we got there we grabbed lunch at a legitimate sit-down restaurant with fabric tablecloths–a great feat when you’re a student crunched for money–and ate three courses of food for 10 euros. That’s the cost of a cocktail in most of the city.
I could expound on all the sights I saw–Sainte-Chapelle, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, etc–but I’d rather focus on the two sights I found most impressive: Notre Dame and Versailles.
The home of the mythical bell-ringing hunchback was one of the first touristy places we visited in Paris. After our comparatively cheap lunch, we headed over to Sainte-Chapelle (whose enormous stained-glass windows deserve a shout-out, at the very least), then set out to find Notre Dame under grey skies. We knew it wasn’t more than two blocks from the Chapel, but we didn’t know which direction to walk. We started to wander, and then, as if by magic, we turned a corner and there it was. And then, more magic: the clouds directly above the church dispersed and cast a dramatic afternoon shadow on the ground. I wondered whether the heavens had conspired to allow us to see Notre Dame at its best just as we were arriving.
Even better, when we went inside, an organ-and-choir concert spontaneously began and we sat watching for what must have been at least half an hour. It was the most relaxing part of the entire trip, and frankly, my feet welcomed the break.
The next day, we hopped a train to Versailles early in the morning to get in line before the hordes arrived. Unfortunately for us, the train took an hour longer than we thought it would and the inside of Versailles didn’t open until noon that day. We had two hours to wander around. Luckily, the gardens behind the palace were so expansive that we actually could have been there longer than two hours without getting bored. The landscape was extraordinary–maniacally manicured in some places and, further back, rugged and wild. Fountains and Renaissance Roman statues abounded.
The palace itself was impressive but was marred by a modern art exhibit scattered around its rooms. In the middle of Louis XIV’s chambers you’d see a giant metal sculpture designed to look like a mylar balloon animal or a ceramic cast of Michael Jackson with a monkey. Even when I tried thinking about the deeper meaning this exhibit might be communicating, my mind came up blank.
Though Versailles and Notre Dame are what I normally tell people are my highlights of Paris, the real highlight is slightly more complicated than this four-word answer. My favorite part of Paris was simply being in Paris, walking down any street at all, preferably one with very few people, and soaking up the Frenchness of it all. It really does feel like the romantic city everyone claims it is. If I marry rich, I might return one day with my significant other and experience the city the way it was meant to be experienced.