POSTCARD: Paris-First Impressions and Generalizations

PARIS, France—What’s so special about Paris? “Mais c’est Paris,” many would say, as if it’s self-explanatory. This is one of the reasons I came to Paris feeling rather skeptical–so many people adored it so much, and I didn’t see why. I visited Paris when I was twelve and my impression was that it was predominantly grey–both buildings and sky—and not too much fun.

This time around I love Paris. I have rediscovered it for myself. As a city, Paris is giving but not demanding. I also think Paris is special because it is balanced in a remarkable way; it has found a kind of golden median between quality of life and efficiency, a dynamic city life and a certain calmness, a sense of tradition and modernity.

There is a feeling of history, but not so much history that there are whole centuries to keep track of, like in Rome. The other danger of a historical city is being great for what it was, rather than for what it is, but this is not the case here. Paris is very much alive and there is a lot to do, but not to the point that it is overwhelming. It is not as calm and monotonous as Geneva—but still, Parisians are organized and efficient. Mailing a package at the post office takes no time at all. The subways arrive in less than two minutes, and stations include vending machines for food and condoms. Parisians also follow laws and keep the city clean. The next time you hear about Paris being dirty and smelly, please don’t believe it; your interlocutor must be referring to the days of Les Misérable. Despite all the Parisian protests and revolutions, there is a sense of general stability in the air.

Although the city functions well, the Parisians don’t seem very busy or intense, much less so than other big city dwellers like New Yorkers or Muscovites. The cafes are always full of people who chat while they inspect passer-bys with urgent interest (“Do you think she’s 40? Do you really think she’s 40? She looks like François’ first wife but with better legs...”). Looking good matters here, and I appreciate the easy elegance of Parisians – they are fashionably dressed, but do not have a lot of attitude about being fashionable. (Here, we will not mention the Italians).

Visiting French acquaintances, I saw that most Parisians live in tiny apartments in which everything is smaller: the plates, the chairs, the rooms, the balconies. My study abroad program placed me in a room that measured 2 meters by 2 and a half meters, about the size of an Adams House walk-in closet, smaller in length than the average basketball player is tall, and probably the smallest room you’ve ever walked into. I came up with the theory that they were forced to develop this vibrant outside culture as a solution to get out into open space more; and once they started hanging out where everyone could see them, perhaps they also decided to dress up and look good. Most apartments are small and close together (and Paris can’t get any bigger than it is), but the silver lining is that Parisians are outside, being social, and enjoying their cafes and parks, and perhaps this is one of the ways a rich culture was born.

There are free music, dance, theater and cinema events in the parks all summer long. Last weekend I heard the Russian National Orchestra play under the Eifel tower. The kiosks are filled with cultural magazines, and art museums are numerous. According to the French, if you spent five seconds looking at every object in the Louvre it would take you 500 years. And this is just one of about 170 museums. The cinemas here are as common as Starbucks’ back home, especially on Boulevard Montparnasse and St. Germaine, and play movies from all over the world. And by the way, there are Starbucks’ too.

Gastronomically, little specialized grocery stores are sprinkled everywhere in the city, and the food they sell is fresh and absolutely delicious. The quality of food is so important here, that under every McDonald’s advertisement there is another sign that says “careful, snacking is bad for you, and make sure to eat lots of fruit and vegetables” and lists a website with more information. Nevertheless, one of the most visited McDonald’s outside the States is actually in France.

Both the positive and the negative things I heard about Paris turned out to not quite be true. I heard that it is the most beautiful city in the world -- la plus belle ville du monde as the French like to call it. But I don’t think so. I don’t see how it can compare to the bright, stunning beauty of Rome, Venice or Florence. Those cities are so radiant and immediately impressive that Paris and its even architecture pale in comparison. “The City of Light”, Ville Lumière, is also not quite accurate – there really aren’t that many lights. But Paris has its own special, magnetic charm which I have never seen anywhere else, and which I feel more drawn to by the day.

I’ve also heard, as we probably all have, that Parisians are rude and snobbish. Pas du tout. They have been nice to me all the way—when I was looking for directions, ringing the doorbell of the wrong house, or asking for food in a closed restaurant. They have guided me through the city streets, explained that their neighbor actually lives four floors down, and even fed me afterhours, although time-off in Paris is allegedly sacred and untouchable. In that cafe, the cook himself came out to talk to me. He looked around the kitchen, told me which ingredients he still had left—a piece of meat, some rice and tomatoes—and said he could throw together a quick faux-filet. It was delicious, especially with a glass of red wine and then a cappuccino. Here I came up with a new personal mental health motto: “there’s nothing a good meal, glass of wine, and cappuccino can’t solve.”

Or maybe it’s just Paris itself?

Elizabeth D. Pyjov’10-11, a Crimson Arts writer, is a romance literatures and languages concentrator in Adams House.