Saturday, October 4, 2014

A Walk in Paris

It is ironic to think that in a place where the architecture, the cobblestone streets, the churches, the palaces have stayed the same throughout centuries, I find myself coming back to a different Paris each time.  Every time I return, it seems like I’m returning to a changed Paris. The minute I step into its streets, I feel the distinct almost imperceptible undercurrent of a place different than I remember.  Like coming home after a prolonged absence and noticing that your favorite wall hanging has been moved a millimeter to the left.   

Good, bad, indifferent, one thing never changes.  Paris always, always, always makes me swoon.  It is as if I enter a trance and I convulse into involuntary back flips while promenading along the Seine.  Baguette under one arm, of course.

Whenever I catch Anthony Bourdain on TV, I feel a pang of envy.  I want to have that same experience of seeing a place in the eyes of a local. I want to hear the stories of a place as told by someone who calls that place home. Especially if that place is Paris. When I made an appointment with a volunteer Parisian guide via Paris Greeters, I did not expect that that would exactly be the kind of experience I would be in for.  

I met my Parisian guide outside the Maubert metro.  A resident of the 5th arrondissement, he would show me the quirks and nuances of his neighborhood not often covered by guide books. There were so many snippets of interesting information walking the streets of Paris.  The walk would take me to the small neighborhood park next to where ex-first lady Danielle Mitterrand lived while her husband, then President Francois Mitterrand carried on an affair, past the bouquinistes (those charming green stalls selling old books, menus, posters, that sort) along the Seine, to an amphitheater back when Paris was still known as Lutetia in the Roman Empire, to the street where Ernest Hemingway lived.  Of course there was one quirky moment when heading towards the marche on Rue Mouffertard, a lady I would mistake for a bum would bellow in something in French and my guide would respond something back.  She is a wealthy lady, owning a lot of real estate in the area and was known to randomly scream things at random people just to interact with someone.  

I was really soaking this up so in my rapt attentiveness, I failed to take more pictures.  And of course, there's wanting to seem cool and unaffected being the world traveler that I am (no, not really).   

We sat outside Dose - Dealer de Cafe on Rue Mouffetard while I enjoyed my coffee and he his OJ.  We have spent the last half hour or so walking and he was opening up to me a Paris I've never known before.  By conversations surrounding politics and the Parisian society in general, I was gaining understanding of how complex the French people are, and also perhaps, how activism never left them two centuries after the French Revolution.  Case in point: I was scheduled to fly Air France both directions to and from Paris, but on the week of my trip, the pilots decided to go on strike.  Seriously?  This is so foreign and unintelligible to my capitalist-trained brain.  No flights for two weeks?  But this is the way of the French.  It is their way or the highway - millions of dollars in business be damned.  

We resumed our walk on Rue Mouffetard where a lively market was in full swing and at this point, I gave up my pretense of coolness.  The SLR had to come out.

 The building shown above used to be a chocolatier.  The mural depicts a black servant serving chocolate to a Caucasian woman.  Every year, there's a protest in front of this building where stones are thrown at the mural and every year, the government replaces the glass.  Apparently in Paris, once considered historic, it belongs to the patrimony and could not be destroyed or taken down, regardless of how offensive it may seem in today's times.  

And here is a building which might have been a boucherie back in the day as suggested by the animals painted on the building facade.  
 This is supposedly the church where Cosette and Jean Valjean hid in Les Miserables.  And speaking of Les Miserables, the Parisians abhor both the movie and the musical.  They associate the Victor Hugo novel, regardless of adaptation, too much with homework.

This is exactly the kind of conversation with a Parisian I've been daydreaming about since my first trip here.  Straight from the Parisian's mouth, I was able to confirm my suspicion that Paris is changing.  McDonald's and Burger King are gaining popularity after it had flopped a couple of decades ago.  The young Parisian does not cook on a regular basis anymore.  They would much rather take the shortcut.  For someone like me who admires the French for their heritage of gastronomy, news like that is a sad, sad affair.  It is rather depressing, actually.    

Paris is often idealized.  But a couple of hours with an insider allowed me to understand that Paris is just like any other human society.  It is not without pitfalls, regardless of how the rest of the world project their utopian dreams on it.  I learned about the individualistic nature of the Parisian society, and how to some Parisians, that can just be downright exhausting.  They are stubborn to uphold their personal rights, but could care less about the whole, but that makes Parisians Parisians.  If you want to be spoken to kindly as a tourist, go somewhere else like Japan.  Paris isn't the place for that.     

Our walk ended at Jardin des Plantes where little Parisians can be found playing and their adult counterparts could be seen jogging around.  Overall, everyone was taking advantage of the indian summer that has surprised Paris.  I bid adieu to my guide who is off to the cinema with friends.

And I?  I had the rest of Paris to explore.  

If you go
I would most highly recommend Paris Greeters to anyone going to Paris.  They are a non-profit, volunteer-run organization who love sharing with visitors the Paris they themselves love.  Your walk will be tailored to your interest, in your language of preference, and could very well end up to be a private tour like mine was, depending on season.  The service is offered by donation.  Paris Greeters' website can be found here.  

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