As cities go, Paris has a formidable international reputation, putting it right at the top of most folks’ travel bucket list.
It is the largest metropolitan area in continental Europe, home to twelve million Parisians, and capital of not just France but the entire French-speaking world. It is also the most visited city on the planet, attracting around 35 million tourists each year. As one commentator eloquently put it: “The idea of Paris – passion, blood, violence, moral ambiguity, heroism, cowardice, dazzling minds, mesmerising motion pictures, architectural audacity, style as ethos – is one of the most potent there has been in modern history. It is what drives throngs of people to its river banks”.
My first trip to Paris was just after high-school. Back then I spent a week there, dutifully touring the city’s iconic sights, suitably wowed by the Notre-Dame cathedral, the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower. I returned four times over the next ten years, broadening my activities to take in the museums and the opera of the “international capital of culture”; to shop in the “international capital of fashion”; and to eat myself silly in the “international capital of haute cuisine”.
But no matter what I was doing, these visits to Paris somehow always translated into days of walking around at random, blissfully lost. I’d pick an arrondissement, set out by foot in the morning, and finish somewhere in the evening. Everything had a sense of authentic beauty and whimsy to it – an impressive building facade, a weathered old street sign, or a man carrying fresh-baked baguettes in the front basket of his bicycle. Around every corner I’d come to yet another previously unexplored cobbled laneway, yet another graceful bridge spanning the River Seine and its islands, ever grander statues and monuments, ever more picturesque public squares lined with sidewalk cafes.
Centuries of culture, politics and history came to life in Paris, right before my eyes, blending in with everything I already “knew” about the place from literature, art and film. Sights and sounds and smells all merged together into the City of Light, and the City of Love. Paris became my personal reference statement of what a romantic, unforgettable, not-to-be-missed place should be like.
I thought that even if I visited a thousand times, I would never tire of this sparkling city.
A few weeks ago I had to travel to Paris for a series of meetings, and with not much else to do, I went a few day early over the preceding long weekend. I’d been to Paris several times in the last two years – once only for a day to watch the end stage of the Tour de France, the rest for work, in and out of the La Defence business district with no time for anything else. And last year I took my kids there in the summer, but that was two days of concentrated “must-see” sightseeing, followed by Disneyland.
So this was my first real opportunity in more than fifteen years to revisit Paris, or more precisely to revisit the Paris I remembered from those first encounters, long ago. Like I’d done before, I planned to experience the city by wandering the streets at random, unconstrained by a map or timetable. Suffice it to say that I was almost giddy with excitement.
The train from London arrived into Paris’ Gare du Nord, and the first thing that struck me was the shoddy, incredibly crappy state of the station. It is impossible not to notice the contrast. I left London from the super-swanky, ultra-chic St Pancras Station, all light and glass, clean and orderly, completely rebuilt and modernised in the past fifteen years so that it is a gorgeous architectural fusion of old and new. Two hours later, Gare du Nord by comparison feels like an over-sized train shed that hasn’t been touched in two decades. It is a dump, dark and dirty, and slightly scary what with the groups of intimidating-looking men loitering about amongst the general squalor and chaos.
After running the gauntlet of the station’s non-taxi rank (I mean, c’mon, even in Kazakhstan there are organised taxi queues, but at Gare du Nord the taxi rank is more accurately described as a paved area in which taxis congregate at random, hailed on a “first-to-jump-in-wins” basis), I settled back for the brief ride to the hotel.
Only it wasn’t a brief ride, notwithstanding a total journey of less than five kilometres. All those glorious boulevards of my memory had become third-world traffic snarls, jammed with cars and buses and trucks. The chaos was not helped by the nonsensical one-way system in place, the pot-holes that seemed to be everywhere, or the repair crews blocking off every second cross-street. The noise was horrendous as motorists beeped furiously, all the while doing their level best to knock-down any pedestrians idiotic enough to step out onto the road. It was like being part of a game of human skittles, played out on a grid-locked dodgem car track.
My hotel-room in the up-market 8th arrondissement, which had seemed perfectly charming and quintessentially Parisian on the internet, was actually a grossly overpriced cubicle, tarted-up with cheap floral wallpaper and barely big enough to hold the bed in it. Still, I wasn’t in Paris for the hotel, so I dumped my bags and immediately went out into the late summer sunshine, pausing at the first corner cafe I came to for a quick coffee. It was unspeakably awful – dark and burnt, and so bitter I thought that perhaps the owner’s cat, lounging around on the countertop in breach of every health regulation there is, had perhaps peed into the cup.
What on earth was happening? Traffic and dirt, crumbling infrastructure, a shitty hotel room, and now bad espresso! Sacré bleu, this was not the triumphant return to Paris that I had been expecting.
But I didn’t have much time to reflect on all this, as just then I walked past a hole-in-the-wall sandwich bar, which reminded me that I was hungry. A sign hanging above the doorway told me this was a place specialising in Corsican fare, and the queue of about forty people snaking their way down the pavement told me that it must be good. Plus, I had to do something to try to erase the lingering after-taste of cat-piss.
So I joined the line, and ten minutes later, once finally inside, I discovered that this particular sandwicherie only had one thing on the menu: a half baguette stuffed to bursting with thin slices of cured Corsican meats, and truly stinky hunks of oozing Corsican cheese. A frumpy old lady in a stained white apron handed me one, another frumpy old lady sitting at an enormous antique cash register took my money, and thirty seconds later I was out the door, back on the pavement, baguette in hand.
All I can say is that I wish I’d known, and I would have bought three.
It was the most deliciously scrumptious thing I have eaten in a long, long time – perfect in its simplicity, the bread crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside, everything else so buttery soft it felt like the meat and cheese were liquefying in my mouth. There was also a tomato and herb chutney lurking around in the back reaches of the baguette, bringing the whole flavour ensemble together into a mind-blowing culinary symphony.
A simple baguette from a random store on a random street, and I was in heaven. Instantly I was feeling good about the world again. The terrible traffic and tiny hotel room and God-awful coffee of the morning were quickly forgotten. Paris had come back to me, and I set off with renewed purpose.
Although with hindsight, I probably should have left then and there. That extraordinary baguette turned out to be the highpoint of my time in Paris.
For the following two days I walked the streets of Paris. During which any remaining sense of awe and wonder from previous visits was quickly replaced by a growing sense of disappointment and then horror, as it slowly dawned on me what a disappointment so much of central Paris actually is, once the rose-coloured glasses are removed.
Firstly, Paris is dirty.
Not in a grungy personality-giving way, mind you, but in a downright filthy “this-place-needs-a-good-scrub-down-with-soap-and-water” kind of way. Bins were overflowing, sidewalks were strewn with bits of litter and discarded cigarette butts, and just about everything was coated in dust and grit. It is as if the accumulation of decades of human activity – vehicles and pedestrians alike – have overwhelmed Paris, giving the whole city a permanent, baked-in patina of garbage and grime.
Graffiti and billboard posters do their bit, too, polluting just about every empty wall and open surface in the city. Again, whereas I once may have seen this as being part of Paris’ charm, now it seemed neither cool nor artistic, and most certainly not charming. It is a mess, plain and simple, a visual plague such that much of central Paris has taken on the look and feel of a high-class slum.
And to top it all off, there is dog-shit, everywhere. The French love their dogs, especially if they are of the small and annoyingly yappy variety. And whilst they may be cute and adorable when sitting at a cafe or dressed up in a Burberry trench-coat for doggies, they are a lot less cute and adorable when leaving their little cadeaux all over Paris. Although the real criminals are their human masters, who unashamedly watch their dogs do their business on the sidewalk, and then continue on their merry way without even pretending to clean it up. Indeed, it is such a problem that a recent newspaper article described how Paris’ metropolitan police are starting to use CCTV in an effort to catch errant dog-owners….
Secondly, Paris doesn’t smell that great, and not just because of the doggy-doo.
Maybe it was because I was there at the end of summer, but many of the city’s quaint nooks and crannies, although pleasant to look at, smelled of rotten garbage and piss. Not to mention the other dominant odour of Paris – cigarette smoke. The French are still relatively tolerant of smoking in public spaces (liberté, égalité, fraternité, and all that jazz), and even though there are now non-smoking zones in most cafes and restaurants, they tend to either be right up alongside the smoking section, or ignored altogether.
And finally, Paris is completely, utterly and most unpleasantly overrun with tourists.
Cafe de Flore and Les Deux Magots, two centuries-old cafes on the Left Bank where some of the greatest philosophical and political ideas of our time were born and debated: now, wall-to-wall tour groups and grumpy waiters charging $18 for a juice and stale croissant. The Marais, once the epicentre of Paris’ orthodox Jewish community: now, a sea of boutiques selling all manner of tourist crap, punctuated by kebab shops offering “authentically Jewish”, and completely mediocre, falafel.
And don’t even get me started on the marquee tourist spots around Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and the Champs Elysees, which have lost everything that once made them special, now reduced to little more than a city-sized tourist theme park.
In short, the whole place seemed to have fallen apart since I had last gone walkabout in Paris, with almost nothing having been refreshed these past twenty years. Whereas other great cities like London, Berlin, New York and Shanghai have moved with the times, rebuilding and renewing and in the process retaining their vibrancy, it became increasingly obvious to me that Paris has not, and is now a city well past its prime, trading more on past glory than present greatness.
Lest you think I am being a touch melodramatic, I am not alone in my thoughts on this subject.
For example, in a world defined by responsive customer service, the famed Gallic arrogance has finally begun to turn people off. So much so that earlier this year Paris’ city authorities felt compelled to launch an advertising campaign, “Do you Speak Touriste?” Leaflets and posters were distributed across the city in an effort to explain to Paris’ surly tourist staff how to be nice to foreign visitors.
Another example: a few months ago hundreds of extra security guards were despatched to protect the city’s main tourist attractions, following a marked rise in vandalism, pick-pocketing, and theft from visitors. The Chinese Embassy in France went so far as to issue a travel advisory after a spate of attacks on Chinese tourists, including in March when a group of 23 Chinese visitors were gang-mugged in a Paris restaurant. China may be the fastest growing source of tourism to Paris (Louis Vuitton superstores as much a draw as the Louvre) but the relative naivety of the Chinese visitors has made them easy marks for thieves, gypsies and organised criminal gangs (see my previous post Who’s the Real Big Bad Wolf).
It is not just the Chinese though. In 2004, the first case of “Paris Syndrome” was diagnosed. Similar to the Jerusalem Syndrome (see my previous post Oh Jerusalem), this is a temporary psychological disorder that afflicts some people while on holiday in Paris, who develop symptoms of delusion and feelings of persecution. It seems to mainly afflict Japanese tourists (they even have a Japanese word for it – Pari shōkōgun), and according to the medical journal that first identified it, Paris Syndrome arises from the inability to reconcile the idealised image of Paris with the reality, once there.
But for me the ultimate proof of the pudding is a recent survey which found that London now outranks Paris on just about every relevant measure: better facilities, better attractions, superior taxis, better levels of cleanliness and hygiene, safer and more organised. Even better food (yes, it is true – the global capital of food has sunk into the tourist mire, and Paris now has more McDonald’s per capita than anywhere outside of America, if that can be believed).
Now, if you’re like me, you’d be immediately inclined to dismiss these findings on the assumption that the survey was conducted by someone bitter, twisted, and English. Except that it wasn’t. It was conducted by someone French. And it wasn’t just any old frog, but the Paris-Ile de France Regional Tourism Committee, no less. So here we have the government body responsible for promoting tourism to Paris conceding defeat to London. If you know anything at all about Anglo-French relations, you’ll know how extraordinary this is. For the French to publicly accept that the English have got the better of them, something must be wrong. Seriously wrong.
I decided to end my sightseeing with a stroll around Montmartre, a much fabled hill and suburb to the north of Paris, spectacularly capped by the white-stone Sacré Cœur basilica.
Even though I had only visited Montmartre once before, almost twenty years ago as a backpacker, my memories of the place were especially strong. I recall steep narrow streets, shaded by trees; trellises of vines and bougainvillea overflowing old brick walls; rustic local cafes, serving up espresso and flaky pain au chocolate to eccentric locals. Most of all I recall artists gathered in the shadow of the basilica, painting in the sun, anyone free to stop and watch as they worked.
All of which, it turned out, was a case of my mind playing tricks on me, and having converted the harsh light of reality into a series of softer, more agreeable impressionist paintings. Just like the rest of Paris, I quickly learned that to describe modern-day Montmartre as atmospheric or artistic would be a bit like describing Picasso’s two-headed three-boob sketches as photorealistic renditions of women.
To start with, those steep narrow streets of my memory are now cobbled tourist thoroughfares, a seething mass of pasty middle-aged Europeans, college kids from America in backward-facing baseball caps, and out of control teenagers and school groups. They all huff and puff their way up the hill, determined to find their own little slice of “authentic” fin de siecle Paris.
For their part, the stores that line those steep narrow streets relentlessly feed the frenzy, trying to cash in as fast as they can. They are given over entirely to selling the same uninspiring souvenir junk, so that walking up towards Sacré Cœur is like walking through a canyon of flimsy t-shirts, snow globes, and little Eiffel Tower models. Of course all made in China.
Next, I discovered that those rustic local cafes I remembered – the ones where I expected to enjoy a quiet coffee and baguette at a sidewalk table in the sun – have morphed over the years into low-grade tourist cafeterias, which really should all be condemned on health grounds. Every one of them was packed to overflowing, offering day-old cling-wrapped atrocities, and $8 Styrofoam cups of dishwasher water masquerading as coffee.
Things got worse: to buy a bottle of water I had to queue for about ten minutes, behind a group of immensely irritating twenty-something gigglers from the US mid-West. If one of them had squealed “it’s like, Oh My God…” one more time, instead of this blog you’d be reading a news report from Paris, of a deranged Australian who bludgeoned five American tourists to death using nothing more than a pink, diamante-studded replica of the Eiffel Tower.
But for me, the ultimate coupe-de-grace – symbolic of everything that has gone wrong with Paris – was the Place du Tertre.
This central square stands at the very heart of the Montmartre neighbourhood. For much of the last two centuries this was an epicentre of the art world. Once upon a time, penniless artists were drawn here by the cheap rents and the spirit of artistic community. They lived and created in the surrounding streets. A tradition emerged where they would often exhibit their works in the square, selling one painting to finance the next. And of course many of these penniless artists went on to become giants of the art world, household names like Dali, Monet, Picasso and Van Gogh.
Today, this rich heritage has been completely bastardized for the sake of tourism. Place du Tertre is still home to “artists” – in fact several hundred of them – lined up around the square, all hard at work churning out endless Eiffel Tower paintings, as if in a factory. The place that redefined much of our modern understanding of art is now a machine that gives us draw-by-number souvenirs, postcards, and pencil portraits produced “in ten minutes, only 20 euro each, discounts for two”.
I was crushed, and fled the scene as fast as I could, taking refuge for the rest of the morning in the Jewish section of Montmartre’s famous cemetery. An odd thing to do, admittedly, but here at last I found peace and quietude, not to mention the complete absence of both souvenir vendors and mass-market tourists.
So there I was in Montmartre, spending my last afternoon in Paris amongst the graves and family vaults of those buried more than one hundred years ago. Which I found eminently more pleasant that the modern city of Paris around me. Go figure. Maybe I was suffering from my own little bout of Paris Syndrome, but I kept thinking to myself, over and over again as I looked at the tombstones: “what the fuck happened to Paris?”
Ernest Hemingway said that “if you are lucky enough to have [visited] Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you....” Undoubtedly true when it comes to memories, but in the real world, great cities either grow or they die. There is no middle ground. And sadly, on this trip I found a Paris that is not what it once was; a city that has failed to use its immense advantage and reputation to renew and change and adapt.
For me, the City of Light has lost some of its shine.