Paris…the city of lights and romance. The first time I went to Paris I was in my mid-twenties – almost two decades ago! It was my second time in Europe but the first time I was awestruck by the sheer overload of beauty. The fashion forward people, architecture (particularly Haussmann’s architectural renovation in the “everyday” structures), the symmetrical gardens, galleries, luxury brand names and food overwhelmed me. It was such an extreme contrast to Toronto. Everything in Paris was made with such artistic detail. At twenty-something years old, I felt I had found my soulmate.
But my soulmate wasn’t perfect. She did smell a bit of urine, had aggressive drivers, a male population (not excluding cops) that had nailed catcalling with their eyes (and sometimes hands), and an ethnocentric attitude. I remember sitting outside of Le Select Bistro in the Montparnasse area and overhearing an American couple trying to order in English (naturally, since the menus were written in English). Their innocent faux pas was met with disdain and a haughty tone from their server – who adamantly took their order – in French. Paris had spunk. And I loved that about her.
Everyone was drinking, everyone smoking, everyone was beautiful…no one was worried and it seemed everyone was having a great time. Even the homeless and destitute were reading Rimbaud or sketching nudes.
That was then. Paris has changed. Since the Charlie Hebdo and November 2015 coordinated terrorist attacks, tourism naturally slowed down. And with it, followed an anxious city and nation. Every major corner, tourist site and attraction had French military armed with finger on trigger ready to fire. There would be no catcalling. Merchants grew weary and with it came a warmness and willingness to speak English with tourists. Pierre and I were almost always given menus in English. Which disappointed Pierre as his first language is French.
But the biggest difference between my first visit to Paris and my most recent was seeing the displacement of refugees. They were living in scattered shanty camps in the St. Denis area. The squalid conditions, desperation and hopelessness I saw was heartrending and harrowing. The image of two shoeless men fighting each other for a discarded lunch on what was one of Paris’ hottest days, is burned into my memory bank and will probably haunt me until the end of my days.
Despite the apprehensive state, the unyielding dichotomy between the opulence and the destitute, I still love Paris. The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Arc De Triomphe (just to name a few) still stand strong and beautiful like the Goddess of Liberty leading her people ahead. Although Paris is no longer my soulmate (Pierre took over that role), she will always have a significant place in my heart. As first loves always do.