Paris is a stunning, grungy, smelly, delicious, sexy, crowded, imperious, cagy, mixed-up town. It’s a lot like Berlin, except the rooms are smaller, the sidewalks more narrow, the trains grittier, the food more expensive, the famous sites more dense per mile, and every corner smells like urine. But you can’t avoid being drawn to the place.
It’s a little disorienting to come here from Berlin. The European capital city layout is not so very different, where most streets have six-story high old-style apartment buildings with storefronts lining the streets. The language is still foreign but for me has so many more footholds that I can piece together most conversations, whether my own exchanges with a shopkeeper or just overheard at a café.
But it’s so outrageously beautiful here. Walking through the square to see the Notre Dame cathedral at dusk, or meandering through side streets to suddenly catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower a block away… it takes your breath away.
Yesterday we climbed the stairs of l’Arc de Triomphe and looked out at the city. E begged for a look through the mounted telescope, so I gave her a Euro to plunk in the slot. The lens slid open and we swung it around so she could see a close-up of the Eiffel Tower, and I knew when she found it because I heard an involuntary “Oh!” that was worth every centime.
On our first night here, after walking through the Latin Quarter down windy alleys, past outdoor cafés packed with people and softly glowing interiors, E looked up at M and, with a little hesitation, asked, “Am I allowed to like Paris more than Berlin?”
We all were experiencing that overwhelming love-at-first-sight attraction to Paris, even though M and I have been here before. Our older girls, nearly equal in height, walked ahead of us taking it all in and then turning their heads back to each other to make sure the other had seen the latest sight.
From the online photos that sold us on the Parisian apartment we’ve rented in the 10th arrondissement, we thought this might be the larger, sunnier, better flat, compared to the one we have in Berlin. But no, it’s perfect for a week’s visit but would hardly do for a year’s stay.
I’m still working here in Paris, trying to balance progress on my reports with the need to make the most of our time in the city. Yesterday I skyped with a woman in Duluth who asked how the weather was in St. Paul, because it was a chilly 39 degrees where she was. I ducked her question; the man who hired me would prefer I didn’t make a big deal of my writing from Europe about the lifespan of a nonprofit in Duluth. As far as she knew I was just three hours south of her off I-35. She did however make me wonder how our renters are faring, as they still await the installation of grandpa’s boiler.
We had the chance to meet up with some American friends who live on the Left Bank. They’ve made a life here that is not so unlike ours in Berlin, except they don’t have a return date and they’ve been here for years. He works from home for an American company, and their children attend the neighborhood school. The parents speak French but aren’t immersed in it; the dad’s experience of potentially going for days without speaking French, as he works from home in English, sounds a lot like me on my laptop in Berlin, communicating in English, and then being just a little surprised every time I step out the front door and hear German all around me.
Our German neighbors have headed to Amsterdam for their fall break; upon hearing we were headed to Paris, the dad said, “You’ll have a great time. But the Frogs will make you want to come back.”
We laughed that off, but he may be right, as impolitic as he was. The effort to tell the swindlers from the indigent, the constant fending off of hucksters and buskers, trying to keep our balance in the swaying, smelly subways, the indifferent rowers, and the pushy men who cornered me in the subway station the one time I was alone, demanding “How old are you? My friend wants to kiss you” make me long for the more restrained Germans, their civility, their orderly trains, their hosed-down streets and their unfeigned interest in who you might be.
No doubt it’s our longer stay that makes the difference in our experience. If we were staying in Paris we’d avoid the touristy spots and find more local ways of enjoying the sights and experiences of this city. In Berlin we’re surrounded by locals who see us regularly, and though our language skills are minimal, they see us as more than just American tourists with play money in our pockets, there for the taking.