Because it is a long weekend and because I have been growing increasingly restless (and probably because I’m terribly financially irresponsible or whatever) I am in Paris this week, holed up in a little apartment just off the Place de la Republique.
I’ve never been to Paris before. When I was young I lived for a time in southwest Germany, not far from the French border, and my family forayed regularly into France to feel the warmth of other supermarkets, but I take it as a measure of my parents’ idiosyncrasies that they dragged my sister and me all over Europe but never showed any interest in Paris. Indeed, my father always dismissive of the idea of going there–”Nothing but traffic and tourists.” (The only other city I heard him show such contempt for was Venice, because he saw a picture of clothes hanging on a line and declared the whole thing “ghetto.”)
(My sister, for the record, did spend two weeks in Paris on an exchange, and she did her best to convince us that we should go, but my father’s attitude infected us all and we left Europe without going.)
Given how much I’ve traveled it seems like a curious hole in my biography to have avoided Paris. I have nothing against the French, of course, and greatly admire the food, culture, and history. I cringe whenever anyone makes anti-French comments, and agree enthusiastically whenever French friends tell me I must see Paris. “Yes, I must!” I declare.
So with Ugandan independence day this weekend, and all my colleagues taking that as an excuse to miss the whole week, I bought a plane ticket and booked a room. Not bad, huh? Being an adult means never having to show self-control! (Um…what?)
Now, an American can never just go to Paris, the way one can go to London or Berlin. Every time someone at the office asked where I was going for the vacation, I was reminded of the weight that Paris, alone among cities, carries on the American imagination. Sometimes I couldn’t even say it. “I’m going to France,” I’d say, or even “Europe.”
When an American goes to Paris, or even just suggests the possibility of going, he or she is immediately placed on the continuum of obsession that is at least as deeply rooted as apple pie. An American in Paris follows in the footsteps of Thomas Jefferson, Josephine Baker, and the Fourth Infantry Division. An American in Paris must partake of Hemingway’s movable feast, and carries the burden of every fanny-packed tourist who ever joked about freedom fries and cheese-eating surrender monkeys. An American in Paris hears the echoes of a million honeymoons, and honors the wishes of every housewife whose only dream is to someday go to “Paris, France,” and every theater major who drives her roommates nuts singing Phantom and Les Mis.
It’s quite a history.
And so it is with a heavy heart that I must confess that I came to Paris extremely unprepared.
I don’t speak French, something which was noted at customs. (“Why not?” the officer asked.”I don’t know.” “ ‘I don’t know?’ This is not a good answer.”)
But mostly, I don’t know anything about Paris. I don’t even know what there is to do here besides the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower and croissants.
And so I arrived in one of the world’s greatest cities as if I’d just wandered into a little town in the middle of nowhere. What proceeds now are almost pure first impressions.
First, Charles de Gaulle Airport is the least welcoming airport I’ve seen outside of America. (My country, I admit, has some truly awful airports.) Dark, brutalist, with few amenities. But that’s okay, I’m a New Yorker, and our airports look like disasters.
How is every building so lovely? And what did this city look like before wrought iron? And when there is just one perfectly-placed flower box in the window of a building, is it because only one person cared and they hit upon the most perfect way to beautify the whole building, or are all the neighbors choosing to forgo their own flower boxes for the aesthetic purity of that one box?
What is up with the toilets here? I went to several, and all were gnarly.
Seriously, why don’t I speak French by now? All I know are Serge Gainsbourg lyrics, and I’m pretty sure it’s hard to work “Je vais et je viens entre tes reins” into a normal conversation. Funnily, whenever someone asked me a question in French, I felt the need to answer in Russian. Could not stop saying “da” to everyone.
Heavy cloud cover means I still haven’t seen the Eiffel Tower. Maybe today it will clear up.
My first day was all aimless wandering, rewarding but exhausting after the long flight, and once I checked into my room i found I didn’t have the energy to go out again. It’s a new day, though, and I’m looking forward to exploring more. I kind of like that I am here without any useful background knowledge. I’ll have to see where the day takes me.