Paris, je t'aime mais tu ne m'aime pas
Paris. The city has many flavours they say. I had dreamed of visiting this place ever since I read (more like studied) about it in my French classes. 10 years of studying French and 7 years of forgetting it later, I finally managed to visit la ville d'amour (mais pas avec une amour). The spectrum of opinions about the city varied from "wondrous" to "filthy" but one thing remained constant - it was always touted as a 'must-visit' city. And so when my brother decided he was coming to Europe, I used this as an excuse to throw Paris into the itinerary. When I told my friends (French and otherwise) that I was visiting Paris, I heard, "the people are not nice", "they won't speak to you in English even if they know English", "there's filth, dirt and beggars everywhere", "you can't go there unless you speak French" and the crown jewel of all comments, "any Frenchie not from Paris pretty much hates Paris." And so keeping all of this in mind, I landed in Paris on June 13.
A chilly Parisian morning greeted us in front of the Palais du Congrès. Dusting off my French dictionary was quite hard in the beginning but, funnily enough, I really needn't have. A few funny and embarrassing French conversations later (I won't get into the specifics but if you know my brother personally you can ask him to get into the exquisite details), I realised that, much like other people, Parisians make an effort to bridge the language barrier. Most stores switched to English automatically when I started with a very badly pronounced, "Bonjour nous voulons deux bières" or something else on those lines. Of course there were beggars but I wasn't born and raised in Zürich so poverty didn't strike me as odd or untoward. What did, however, strike me was the general attitude of Parisians. Literally any activity can be put under the aegis of the phrase, "I don't give a flying f*ck" xD
My brother and I made our own jokes out of it but this aside, Paris is indeed a beautiful city. The architecture is splendid, the people are what you would expect from a city that has been through so many phases, and the ambience is surely welcoming. After doing the typically tourist things at Paris - visit the Eiffel tower, visit the Musée du Louvre, walk along the Seine, etc (basically everything TripAdvisor tells you to do) - we took a bus in a random direction to a random arrondissement and chilled out there for a bit. You can easily say who's a tourist and who isn't. Tourists stick out like sore thumbs in the landscape. I believe that you really get the feel of the place when you do as they do, visit the same places as they frequent and chill with them. So we ate at a brasserie that you would never find on Google maps, sat at a park with school children playing basketball and their parents, shopped at Carrefour, and got back to our hostel with men and women tired from a long day at work.
Another thing that got to me (not so much to my brother) was that everything was so inexpensive in Paris. I would never even dream of buying a 1.5L bottle of water from a supermarket for 31 cents. Of course people living in parts of Europe (or maybe even the world) that aren’t Switzerland may beg to differ but having been used to thinking in terms of “Am I getting my money’s worth?” in Swiss terms, everything is super cheap in Paris.
My brother studies hotel management and is really into food and the culinary culture as such. We set out to try some local French cuisine but all we could really get our hands on was some cheese and wine. Although escargots were in the plan of things to try out in Paris, circumstances led us to skip that part. But the crescendo of our trip in the French capital was about to hit an end and what’s life without some misadventure? I had a bus back to Zürich to catch on Friday morning at 8.45am and he a flight back to Chennai at 11.30am. We managed to wake up just in time to miss my bus J
I awakened quite suddenly, with a start, at 9.05am. As the realization that I had missed my bus and my brother, potentially his flight, struck me, a sort of frenzied panic descended. Thankfully we had packed up the previous night so that we were able to scamper out of the hostel and sprint to the metro station. Paris bitch-slap #1 – I bought a local train ticket although there was an option that said “Airport” on the screen. I realized that this was a folly only upon reaching the airport. I ended up saving almost 16 euros on the ticket and spending 100 euros on a fine at the airport for having purchased the wrong ticket.
He managed to catch his flight. Phew. One problem out of the way. The lady at the counter even gave him some “access one” priority since he was upgraded from economy class and he had to run through security and emigration. No worries there. After collecting my breath for a bit there at the airport, I decided that I would get back to the city and grab a bite. Paris bitch-slap #2 – I waited in a serpentine queue to get a ticket to get into the city from the airport and when it was my turn to get to the machines I realized that the machines took only card, and not cash. So I had to wait even longer (spent almost 1.5 hours just waiting to buy a ticket) and finally spent the actual amount I should’ve (10 euros) to get a one-way ticket to the city.
After a 30 or 40-minute journey on a clanky train with an oversized man sitting across me and George Orwell giving me company, I alighted upon the sunny and crusty pavement of Châtelet. Oh wait I’m forgetting something. The Paris underground system has machines at entry points of all metro stations to validate your ticket. There’s no ticket inspectors aboard the train itself. I got onto the train but when I got off and tried to exit the humongous station, I realized that this station had such machines at the exit points as well. No issues. I bought my ticket from the counter at the airport from a human who knew where I wanted to go. I’m good. Paris bitch-slap #3 – the ticket didn’t work on any of the machines. I scampered about, navigating my way through swarms of Parisians walking with purpose, trying to find that exit that didn’t require me to buy another ticket just to get out. After 30 minutes of aimlessly meandering about the station I managed to squeeze through the turnstile when someone with an actual ticket crossed through. I’m sorry Paris but I’d had enough of you by then! xD
Now a new problem presented itself to me. My phone was about to give up on life and I couldn’t let her (yes my phone is a woman) die. The blablacar dude would call me when he was ready to drive me home to Zürich. I walked about a bit on the sunny Paris roads and chanced upon a McDonald’s. Despite having had enough of the store over the last 4 days, I entered the outlet because I was sure of three things: they would give me food, they would have free internet, they wouldn’t kick me out. Anyway, the rest of the story is rather straightforward. I shifted to a Costa place, managed to charge my phone, met the guy who would drive me to Zürich and got home fine.
But before I can end this story there is a fascinating little thing that happened to me, that I must share. I was sitting at a café overlooking the place where the driver said he would pick me up. I was reading my book and drinking my hot chocolate while my phone was busy charging up when a random Frenchie comes to me and starts quick-yapping in rapid French. I knew he was speaking French but of what, I didn’t. As is always the case with languages and me, I stopped for a bit, betrayed a sign of incomprehension on my face and fit the French words together.
“Je ne parle pas français. Parlez-vous anglais?”
This seemed to puzzle the guy. He had on a huge backpack and was evidently flustered. But he was not a beggar. Beggars don’t enter cafés and disturb the reverie of tourists.
“Non. Seulement anglais et un peu de français”
He grabbed his phone out of his pocket and motioned at my charger and made an action that conveyed to me that he wanted to charge his phone. From what I understood out of the torrent of French that poured forth from him, he was waiting for a friend to pick him up from there but his phone had died and he just wanted to charge his phone enough to contact his friend.
“Sure go ahead,” I said, disconnecting my charger and handing over the end to him. He thanked me and hooked his phone up.
“Assayez-vous s’il vous plait!”
“Je prends un café”
This was when he finally found out that slowing down his French conveyed at least 30% of his intention to me rather than rapid spewing words which made no sense whatsoever.
He grabbed his coffee and sat down opposite me, at my table. I could have continued reading of Oceania and the travails of Winston Smith but I chose to speak to my new table mate *tock tock*
I learned a little about him from the broken English he spoke and the broken French I replied in. He was a plumber with some big company. He showed me way too many pictures of pipes to substantiate that fact. He seemed to enjoy his work. France has 60 million people he says. Very big country (sure, whatever bro, I’m Indian). He used a lot of “donc” which I later found out means “therefore”. He had reverted to the rapid-fire French that he started out with so I had reverted to the blank face nodding that I had started out with. Soon it was 7pm and I took leave of my friendly new French acquaintance.
What I found out while I was on the way back to Zürich was this – I love Paris but Paris doesn’t love me enough.