I fall in love quite easily. With places, that is. People are more difficult. Maybe that’s why I remained unsure about Paris for so long: this city is like an untamed person whose characteristics are impossible to pin down.
On one hand it’s the city of lovers strolling along the banks of the Seine – but on the other hand, those same riverbanks are the site of squats and of homelessness on a massive scale. It’s a city of magnificent grandeur, and of grubby back-streets peppered with dog mess. It’s a place that draws tourists to its iconic sites in their millions, and then takes pride in remaining aloof and disinterested. If we were in a Facebook relationship, our status would be it’s complicated.
I’ve visited Paris several times: with parents, with family friends, with my own university friends. Each time, I felt the same conflict between the breathtaking splendour of the city and the disdain with which I felt it regarded me.
Then I travelled there solo. I stepped off the Eurostar at Gare du Nord, ready to tackle the city on my own. (Ok, so I actually went there to see my old Australian choir perform as part of their European tour, but as I was only meeting with them for one day, the majority of this trip would be a solo effort.) Within minutes, two different people had come up to me and asked for directions. Slightly bewildered, I apologised in my broken French and pointed them towards a map across the street, but inwardly I was glowing. Clearly I looked as though I belonged. And this appearance of belonging didn’t stop. Even while I was wandering up la Rue Royale, snapping photos of La Madeleine, a man asked me the way to a street I’d never heard of. Surely with a camera in my hand it was obvious that I was a tourist? But no, apparently not. In my 72-hour trip to the city, I was asked for directions no fewer than seven times.
It wasn’t just people asking for directions who saw me differently, either. As I studied a large sign, trying to work out how to walk from the Gare du Nord to the Palais Garnier and Galeries Lafayette, a Parisian with a little girl on his shoulders came to my assistance. When he didn’t know the way either, he called over a street-sweeper, and the three of us figured it out together.
When I popped into a busy little Lebanese restaurant in the Quartier Latin, I was greeted with friendly and grins at my imperfect French. As I strolled beside the Seine, booksellers nodded at me as though I were a local.
But it wasn’t just the people. There was something about the very act of being solo in Paris that I loved. I’d experienced the freedom of solo travel before (in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore…), but this was the first time that it had had quite this effect: I felt thoroughly at peace with the place, and totally in love. Grubby became shabby-chic. Aloofness became grandeur. Back alleys became winding streets to be explored, with marvels around every corner.
I stood on the roof of Galeries Lafayette, taking in the peaks and troughs of the city’s roofscape, stretching out for miles in every direction. Behind me, Montmartre reared up in the distance, Sacré-Cœur sitting atop it like a beacon. In front, the Palais Garnier bore its majestic statues of angels and muses skyward. The roof garden was full of couples and families photographing each other against the backdrop – but for me I could just look; for me the city wasn’t a backdrop, but the thing itself. For me, I found I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
So here’s my (very subjective) advice for visiting the city of love:
- Speak French: Even just a little is enough. Nobody expects you to quote Voltaire or discourse on Einstein’s theory of relativity, but a friendly ‘bonjour’, ‘merci’ or ‘c’est combien?’ can go a long way. (Don’t be offended if the other person replies in English – they probably want to practise their English just as much as you want to practise your French.)
- Travel solo: Stroll through the Quartier Latin with a freshly made crêpe in your hand. Spend hours lingering in front of the Impressionists at the Musée D’Orsay. Climb from the foot of Montmartre to the gleaming white basilica of Sacré-Cœur, then stand breathless at the top, gazing out across the vast spread of city below. Do it alone, with the city herself as your companion. Obviously, this isn’t for everyone. I’m just saying what worked for me: focus wholly on the city, and the city may just let you in.
Relationship status? Totally and utterly besotted.
About the Author:
Katie tries to juggle her work life with her love for travel. She has her bucketlist neatly written down and this list is ever growing! The list will take her from the glacial lagoon of Antarctica to the golden deserts in Morocco. Here is the link to her bucketlist. Do you think you have something in common on the list? Well, then reach out to Katie….