The usual attributes of Paris are no mystery to me. The grandeur of the Louvre, the reach of the Eiffel Tower, the wealthy expanse of the Champs Elysees – who wouldn’t be impressed by the idyllic Paris about which romantics dream and Parisians boast? Well…me. I felt disenchanted after my very first visit to Paris, which was exciting but not at all what I had expected. Having checked it off my list, I never wanted to return. And I felt a little guilty about it.
Being a tourist in Paris is exhausting. There are lines. Extremely long lines. Men, women and children who on most other days of the year couldn’t care less about art pay a bundle and wait for what seems like hours to visit a famous museum with a surprisingly small famous portrait. They are herded through the cramped halls to catch a glimpse of the mysterious smirk, and then shuffled off to the remainder of the museum. Of course, the majority does not care about the rest of the museum. Perhaps next they depart the endless exhibits, only to find another hours-long line to ascend to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Admittedly, the view is spectacular, but so is the one from the tops of other places in Paris, which do not require such a lengthy queue or pricey ticket. And then there is the rudeness. How dare you ask someone if he speaks English? The churlish reactions could be understood if you’ve asked if they speak Swahili. But English? Oh, the French.
And that is to say nothing of the food. French food is iconic. One expects to eat luxuriously in Paris, yet most tourists end up eating overpriced “French” fries at brasseries and pre-made sandwiches from delis that capitalize on tourists who find themselves in sticker shock after having come to the realization that Châteaubriand far exceeds the travel budget. It’s somewhat of a letdown, like the discovery that Santa is really grandpa stuffed into a red fat suit and topped with a cheap wig.
That little bit of realization removes the façade of expectation. Real Paris is vastly different from fantasy Paris. It’s a city where rent is ludicrous, wages are low, parking spaces are a rare treasure, and stepping in dog feces is a regular, incensing occurrence. The metro smells terribly wrong and people rarely make eye contact on their way about town. Pick-pocketers abound and its shops are only better in that you at least get a takeaway for being ripped off. And tourists are everywhere. People in Paris are crabby. Wouldn’t you be?
Once you begin to understand Paris, you can see it for what it is. Tucked away from the crowds are charming neighborhoods with cafes full of kind and tolerant staff, who prepare quality French food at a fair price. You’ll discover cheese that you’ll be thinking about long after your meal ends, unique local wines, perfectly braised chicken, and a pretty good cappuccino. You’ll sit mere inches away from the next table, but hey, that’s Paris. There will be a charcuterie menu that you don’t understand and a waiter who is amused with you and does his best to explain it. Listen and just order what he recommends, for it will be memorable.
Wander through the outskirts, off the beaten paths, away from the masses. Before you go to Paris, look for suggestions that take you to the places you’ve never heard of. That’s where you want to be. It is in those places where the magic of Paris is found.
I have only recently come to terms with the duplicity of Paris, and can honestly say I’m starting to enjoy what it has to offer. If you’ve never been before, by all means, go by the famous things; see them with your own eyes. But, for example, if you don’t care about art, don’t feel pressured to go inside the fancy museums. (They’re most beautiful from the outside anyway.) Do what will really satisfy you. If you like wine, find a local wine shop and don’t be shy. Ask the owner what to try and take a bottle with you. Pick up a baguette along the way and head to a park and enjoy your wine and bread while you read a book and people-watch with your companions. Checking off boxes that other people created just doesn’t work in Paris. Make your own list and you’ll have a much better vacation.
A few of my somewhat off-the-beaten-path suggestions for Paris:
- For baguettes and pan au chocolate – Boulangerie Bechu, 118 avenue Victor Hugo, 75016 Paris, France, Tel: +33 01 47 27 97 97.
- For crepes – Crêperie Gustave, 19 r Gustave Courbet, 75116 Paris.
- An afternoon in a park – Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, 1 Rue Botzaris, 75019 Paris.
- My favorite café – Café de la Nouvelle Mairie, 19 Rue des Fossés Saint-Jacques, 75005 Paris, Tel: +33 01 44 07 04 41.
- To wander – the “village” of Montmartre, located at the Blanche or Anvers metro stops. Just don’t eat on any of the main streets.