Paris is a question I simply do not know how to pose. Homeless people, under piles of blankets, day and night, huddled in to doorways along the Rue de Rivoli. Glamour and money dripping from the walls; behind the façades lie vaping shops and tourist tat. Grime and gold; reality and perception; French and foreign. I expected this in the banlieue, not in the 1e Arrondissement. I needed a drink.
I had been to Paris on a school trip in the 90s, and I was shocked by how little I recognised the place. The buildings had not changed; the smell was still there, as fetid as ever; the atmosphere was that which only Paris can conjure. It was me that had changed in the intervening time. Rather than glitz, I saw decay; Rather than fun, I saw work; rather than ease, I saw the drudgery of modern life.
And yet, as I boarded that plane to bring me home, I knew that I would be back. I knew that I would be back in force, with child in tow, and for a much longer trip. I knew that an infatuation, although washed clean of rose tinted memories, was brewing within me. Paris is a set of contradictions so complex it will take me a lifetime to understand them, but I’m happy to start that process now.
The tourism of Paris is as close as I have ever got to being in a conflict zone. I felt that my belongings were under scrutiny and attack the whole time. At every turn a street hawker was selling me a hat, a small figurine of the Eiffel Tower, a cheap toy. Getting around key destinations was a fight against the flow of the river. The metro system was our only sanctuary: clean, efficient, quiet: wonderful.
We chose not to climb the Eiffel Tower; we chose not to look inside the Sacre Cœur; we chose not to walk hand in hand through the salons of the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay or the Centre Pompidou. We chose instead to walk the length of Rue Mouffetard, to Boulevard Saint-Germain, taking in meat, fish, wine and song; we chose to climb the Butte de Montmartre by funiculaire; we chose the Seine.
We set off from beside the Eiffel Tower; a deliberate transgression. We were almost alone as we sat on the top deck of the boat, on a cold February morning. The mist hung on to the air as we made our way past the best that Paris had to offer: beautiful palaces, opulent bridges and ancient islands. By the time we returned to the Eiffel Tower we were sad to be dumped back in to the reality of tourism.
On a side street, off Avenue Kleber, we saw the end of our holiday. A child, no older than ours, was sat huddled in to her mother. So cold that no steam formed from her lips. A short gasp from us, but a lingering image burned in to grey matter. It took us until Etoile before we could speak of it. By then it was too late. We wanted to give them what we had: to be fed, to be warm, to be a visitor on the streets of this, the most beautiful of cities, but the chance was lost. The shadow cast across the rest of the trip. A mental image which could never be erased and never should. Describe her face for me.
Paris is full of images of the lost. It is too easy to sidestep them, to wipe their faces from memory, to chalk them up as beggars and thieves, but they are more than that; in a sense, less than that. They are people, and they deserve our respect. We cannot simply sidestep them; to do so is to sidestep a basic aspect of our humanity: there but for the grace of whichever higher power your superstitions invoke go us all. From the girls collecting signatures (in order to pick your pockets) to the boys selling crap (at far better value than any of the shops, by the way) these are human stories; human beings.
Our trip was too short and too clumsy. We were defiant in our pursuit of the lean, mean Paris visit we had eagerly jumped upon, but we had been mistaken. The city had beaten us, melted us, won us over, and in ways unexpected. The things which I had feared were the things I had most enjoyed.
Then came the food. My love of French food came to me, like so much else, through television. I saw bouillabaisse, I saw cassoulet, I saw duck confit and I knew I needed these things. Any time I had the option of ordering escargots, I have dived headlong in to the parsley / garlic / butter with gusto.
Paris was always going to be a let-down, surely? Tourist traps and over-priced hidden extras. If you let yourself go, and understand what you want, even a cliché can soften the coldest of hearts.
A café in Montmartre was our first stop. The day was bitterly cold, and we needed soup. Onion soup. It was so full of cheese I almost missed the soup. The croque monsieur, although the stuff of well-worn stereotype, was precisely the hot stodge we needed. As expected, we were overcharged by five Euro for the coffees, but we returned to the street replete, ready to brace the cold road ahead.
Our last meal in Paris was in a neighbourhood bistrot, near our hotel. A place built on foundations of affordable, lovingly cooked food. My only regret was not eating more while we were there. The food and service were exquisite, but the crème brûlée was the finest thing ever to grace my lips.
Unpretentious and inviting, possessed of a range of eminently affordable and superior house wines, a good bistrot, like the one we chanced upon, can be the making of a holiday. It was in this case.
Neighbourhood restaurants, when done well, ought to be temples. They are more deserving of merit than the Michelin starred establishments we often aspire to, for their arts are harder. They have fewer people, a smaller budget, and less in the way of free advertising. Yet the food they produce is so nourishing, so heart-warming, so bursting with actual food, that they can raise a megawatt smile.
Paris is all of this and so much more. The surface we so scarcely scratched was such a joy, tinged with such a well of sadness. In a city so modern, carved out of the slums of its own past, it should hardly be a surprise that misery and joy live cheek by jowl, but it is a jolt to the core nonetheless.