My plane to Paris was full of people going home for holidays. A young Irish lady sat next to me. She works as an admin staff in a Arab university in Abu Dhabi. Shiny golden hair and Prussian blue eyes – she reminded me of the quintessential Caucasian woman I have always seen in American films set in Europe. She said that she knows her job is not among the ideal ones – she’s neither a corporate biggie nor a civil servant, neither an aid worker nor a soldier – but she is not worried about it. I instantly liked her.
It reminded me again how every journey is unique to oneself, no matter how ordinary they may seem to others. Paris, the over-toured, over-photographed and now, the over-selfi-ed city, will always be special to me as my first ever intercontinental destination. There is no travel guide that does not talk about Paris and it seems like every little secret of the city is already out.
The city is known for its grand architectural marvels ranging from the Gothic style of the Middle Ages through the Art Deco style of the 20th Century, the Eiffel and honeymoon pictures in its foreground.
I stepped out of the Gare du Nord station on a windy grey evening two days before Christmas, desperately trying to hide from the first bite of cold behind a beautiful statue before realising it was a trash bin.
I had in front of me a brightly lit busy three-way street with old and the young people walking back home, couples cuddling in little cafes with pretty balconies and saxophonists spreading music and happy smiles in exchange for a few cents. Such sights spread around the city’s cobblestone streets and lamp posts full of graffiti, warmed my heart and helped me cope with the cold that had already made a Rudolph out of me. This impression of Paris will stay with me.
Paris became the first among my ‘getting lucky’ trips. For example, an 1.90€ ticket can buy four rides in the metro. If you get stuck the fifth time, try placing yourself in a queue of rushing locals and voila! you’ll most likely to be pushed over to the other side. I am not kidding. The exit is free everywhere. I couldn’t care less about some mild cursing in French when I had delayed everyone behind. French never sounds too bad and I do not understand it either!
But Paris is neither just rich nor fancy. It is a real city, with all sorts of people. As it started to rain, a shrunken old woman with endless wrinkles in her face, clad in leather boots and a pretty but ageing hat, with hands full of grocery walked past hurriedly. A man with no legs made woollen puppies out of threads of red,blue and yellow in front of the Cathedral. Many of the urban poor sold knickknacks along the fringes of the station. Only a few begged in the train that I rode. There was a dignity in seeking help and a gratitude in their eyes when my smile admitted my inability to help them, a.t.m. I guess a smile always works when language doesn’t.
In fact what I learnt in the first half an hour of me being trying to find out my hostel, is nobody gives a damn about the English-speaking, despite the fact that not all English-speakers come from Britain (pun intended).
On the sunny side, the French do not dislike tourists at all. Plenty of gendarmes (armed police) patrol the streets – which is not surprising. Yet, you don’t feel a tad insecure as they are so well-behaved, and move past in their heavy boots like a breeze without freaking out the public. Yet, I silently hoped they didn’t have to be seen, and openness didn’t have to be imposed.
I lived in an area near the historic and hilly Montmartre – which is one of the popular tourist attractions – but not as sold out as the Eiffel Tower.
The locality is vintage and absolutely pretty in its tall houses with heavy doors adorned with quarries of flowers on their intricate balconies, as in the cream croissant, Eclair and Macaroons being held up inside amber-tinted lights in patisseries that are all decked up for Christmas.
I was lost trying to find my hostel. Finally the cold and tiny raindrops shook off my hesitation to seek help. I asked a very tall and red man for directions, who turned out to be absolutely clueless about it. But he gave me a charming smile (French smile?)
Well, Merci! A French family of four tried helping me too, but ended up saying a ‘thank you’ to me. I guess some of the French do like English pleasantries!
My roommate in the hostel is a (very) young girl from Hong Kong, doing her bachelors in Dance and enjoying her two months of compulsory travel all alone. I could see why she chose France!
She advised to tuck the purse somewhere safe, like your waist, while walking alone in the streets- like she has done it. Unwelcome help to tourists in Parisian streets is not rare. But having come from India, I just could not imagine myself being robbed in Paris. Even after they showed it in ‘Queen’.
I guess I am completely smitten!
….to be contd.