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.
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.