This, theoretically, could be a post in which I fill it with the general clichés that are to be expected from the obnoxious participation of a week in Paris. The post would open with a picture of the world’s most famous antenna, it would then continue on about how I absolutely “adored” Paris and think it’s the most “amazing” city.
Personally, I’d like to cut the crap.
In my notebook I wrote this yesterday evening:
“Paris could quite happily, in light of economic disaster, descend into a state of attractive sluminess.”
It’s a city that, if you’re lost in the streets, everything does look the same on and on and on and on: it all looks vibrant, dashed with varying typography and lights on the cobble stones – especially if you’re there in the evening. It could still quite happily return to the point where it was when Orwell wrote about it in his Down and Out in Paris and London in the 1920s.
Now, of course, it’s a city that has it’s own image, rendered in plastic and metal and sold for often no more than five Euros. The number of Eiffel Towers produced in the year would be repulsive. The berets and the post cards and Toulouse-Lautrec posters and the vinyl bags and the jumpers – “I love Paris” – and the wallets and the cigarette lighters and the fridge magnets and the crystal balls and the scarves are crammed into shops, filled with people buying the stuff to take home. It’s the dumbed down image of Paris constantly spreading.
Our hotel was on Rue Ordener, a street of decent length, which the internet, in all its wisdom, describes as quaint and cafe-lined – I can testify to that. My dark room – wallpapered in green and red – looked out over the street, which saw traffic most of the time, except the very early hours of the morning.
From here, the Metro station Jules Joffrin on Line 12 was a short walk and a long flight of stairs away – whence you could really get anywhere on the densely constructed Metro network. (On average, the Metro stations are just under 500 metres apart on the line; in some cases if you lean out a bit you can see the illuminated tiles of the next station down from your own platform. Still, it beats walking.)
The Metro is where the real Parisians are. A lot less American voices are heard and the drop off rate of British and German backpackers is enormous. This is where you’ll hear French, where you won’t be subjected to conversations about how “amazing” the Eiffel Tower is, and where you’ll see the ordinary people taking their baguettes home and their dogs out. Does “real” Paris have to travel about underground to avoid the imposing force of tourism?
I think it would have been amazing to have seen Paris before it was corrupted by the jet engine and easy travel, but the opportunity for that is now long past.
Cafes are nestled in, not asking for attention with their red neon signage and round tables. The Parisians remain permanently fit as they navigate the stairs at the older Metro stations – then they brace their legs in such a way that is surely beneficial to their health to remain upright on crammed trains, trains which have been in service in some cases since the mid-60s and which have a density of four passengers per square metre.
Of the Metro stations, I wrote:
“The tracks of a metro [sic] station are littered with used needles, cigarettes, pieces of paper.
“The Paris Metro is grotty yet efficient.”
I forgot to add that forgotten chewing gums are pushed into the backs of seats, scattered and squashed into the concrete platforms, and pushed into the tiled walls. It’s not all Three Michelin Star surroundings, you know.
Vespas and motorbikes whizz down the cobbles, the homeless mind their own business, or ask for small change, from their bus stop vantage points. People are always going somewhere.
But it isn’t all just little streets, cafes and Metro station entrances. There are some other things to see – the things that everyone comes to see:
The Louvre is one heck of a big place. You enter through a glass pyramid – to see everything in the collection in a day you would have to be split like a light beam into different colours, each appreciative of the different artistic pursuits on display.
This is what I wrote at the time:
“The first thing that I would ban if I were running the Louvre is cameras. You can see this art rendered in 16 megapixel quality on a screen at home – surely you’d take the opportunity to see it properly here.
“The Mona Lisa was infuriating – there’s no hope of seeing the painting in its entirety unless you’re 6’4”. Cameras and phones are raised as pictures are constantly taken. What’s the picture per minute rate, I wonder?
“It’s perverted and symbolic of the shallow appreciation of art.
“But it is a beautiful painting – it looks as if it appreciates the attention, but doesn’t understand why. … [The painting] is periodically ruined by the light of the camera’s flash on the glass. It made me unreasonably cranky.”
It was definitely worth being there. Some of the stuff they have is really top notch. However, the Musèe d’Orsay was a lot nicer, for one main reason: Photography was verboten – banned – not allowed – illegal – prevented. And[ fewer people and no artistic mosh pits, admittedly, it was a bit tricky to see Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhône – I wasn’t the only one there who was interested in having a look.
The Notre Dame was a lot easier to appreciate, but a bit off putting in its own way. The first note I made in Paris in my notebook was:
“In the Notre Dame in Paris you can hear the coins falling; you can see the grubby banks notes changing hands. Everything comes with a price tag. The trampling feet oblige.”
It felt shifty to me, especially watching the suited security guards wheel around boxes of coins on trolleys. Faith really is a perfect business model.
The same could be said of the Eiffel Tower – but that felt acceptable, and it had a view to make up for it. It’s an impressive bit of kit, with a billion rivets and layers upon worn thick gloopy layer of brown paint. Our guide said there was an online survey to test the market in relation to changing the colour. How many people would go for my orange paint idea, I wonder? The Eiffel Tower is painted every seven years by hand – every part of it. “Because otherwise, if they sprayed it, the whole of Paris would be brown,” our guide said. That’s a job which doesn’t have much interest for me.
Yes, that’s me at the top reading the paper – what else did you think I was going to do up there? It was a crazy idea for a photo – my friends would say it’s a Jasper thing to do; I’d agree. At the bottom, a more sensible photograph was taken:
With such efficient travel arrangements, nothing is really locked in about Paris. Except the bridges:
All these people, supposedly, were in love in Paris, locking the memory of this to a bridge, thus aiding in making it look absolutely horrendous, while adding another key to the River Seine below. I’m sure before the age of the jet engine, the foot bridges in Paris looked quite attractive. Now the ones that are easily able to harbour padlocks look atrocious.
Making up for the padlocks, though, are the riverside booksellers, who operate out of identical green boxes, which fold out to reveal their wares, that sit on the wall on the bank of the River Seine. I left with the front page of the continental edition of the Daily Mirror of July 7, 1945 (original price: four francs). The headline announced that the Union Jack was flying in Berlin, the Germans having watched silently on.
Another thing quickly realised is that it appears as if everyone who goes to Paris did so on a whim and it was all rushed. They’re still reading their books about Paris when they’re there – they mustn’t have had enough forewarning to be able to finish them in time. Rick Steve’s guide book was popular and Dorling Kindersley also seemed to have the monopoly on the English language; Lonely Planet seemed popular, too.
Paris really is a big, beautiful, glorious mess; I wouldn’t write “amazing”. The streets don’t make sense, there are grotty parts and cleaner parts. Parts feel isolated within the whole, as if you could live within a few streets and never venture anywhere else. It hasn’t lost its localness. It hasn’t been extrapolated beyond recognition. It’s still human.
I left wondering what the turn over in population is. What percentage is tourists at any given time? and how long will it take for them to all leave and be replaced with new ones? You could spend years here and still not see everything. It’s been described as a mysterious city – mystery that just awaits you to get off your backside and see it, perhaps. Or is the mystery the activity of the city – so varied and absurd and plentiful that you won’t ever be able to comprehend it?
It a stationary and steady city that’s plural and constantly on the move, and it takes you with it.