It’s been over a year since I went to the City of Lights, but apart from a blog post about what to pack if you’re visiting Paris in February, I’ve hardly written about my trip there at all. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, I just didn’t feel like I could.
It felt, strangely, like everything I wanted to say about Paris was on the tip of my tongue. So close to being able to verbalise all of my feelings, but never quite close enough.
Until recently, when I finally figured out why I didn’t love Paris as much as I thought I would. Why exploring this city adored by so many just didn’t capture my heart as much as it perhaps ought to have done.
The journey to Paris was exciting. The last time I’d set foot in France it was to visit Disneyland with a friend and her family. We were 14 and, since we would only be spending one day in the centre of Paris (a day which was mostly filled with visiting the Eiffel Tower) her parents were driving us there instead of taking the Eurostar.
This time, though, the novelty of visiting another city via a train that travels under the sea, without having to hire a car, check in my luggage, or arrive 3 hours beforehand was not lost on me.
Because I was living in London at the time, I already had Citymapper downloaded onto my phone, so I switched cities on the app as soon as I arrived at Gare du Nord, feeling pleased with myself that I was able to figure out the Metro so easily.
At my hotel, the Color Design hotel in the 12th arrondissement, my room was clean, the staff were friendly, there was a cute little deli across the street, and some bars a short walk away where I’d be meeting a friend later that evening. Paris seemed full of possibilities, but as I stepped out into the chilly February air and began exploring, my excitement waned.
Day 1 in Paris
It wasn’t getting around that was difficult. Walking is one of my favourite ways to explore a new city, and Paris is easy to get around on foot. And, when your feet are tired (or the heavens open) you can hop on the Metro which isn’t expensive at all.
And it wasn’t the tourist attractions that left me cold. I’d already been up the Eiffel Tower 16 years beforehand, but I went to see it anyway, taking the long way round and having my breath literally taken away as I turned a corner and saw the tower looming out from behind the pretty buildings I’d just been admiring.
I would have loved to have stood and admired the Eiffel Tower too, but souvenir touts and students with questionnaires and clipboards wouldn’t leave me alone. I put my camera away, held my bag a little tighter, and continued walking.
The Arc de Triomphe was busy when I visited, but I loved the view from the top more than I’d loved the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower all those years ago. This view was better because you could actually see the tower itself, and seeing the busy Parisian streets stretching out into the distance was beautiful.
I had no interest in actually going inside the Louvre (and, besides, the queue was too long) but I went to see the outside of it anyway, although I liked the gothic architecture of Notre Dame better. Walking along the Seine, though, the clouds low in the sky, I realised that Paris wasn’t charming my socks off like I thought it would.
I swung by Shakespeare’s book shop, took photos of pretty little shops and restaurants, got lost on purpose, as I always do when I travel, but there was something about Paris that made me feel daunted and unwelcome.
I felt out of my depth. Intimidated.
Why I didn’t love Paris
I realise how ridiculous that sounds. How could I have felt out of my depth in a city so close, so similar to London, where I’d lived for almost 3 years?
How could I have jumped backwards down underground waterfalls, travelled alone, moved to the other side of world aged 24 with no job, no idea what Australia would be like, and gotten robbed in London, but feel out of my depth and intimidated in PARIS?
Honestly, I’m just as baffled as the next person.
But that’s how I felt. Or, rather, that’s how I feel now. Because it took me a while to figure out.
Looking back, though, what sticks out the most was the language barrier. I knew a little French from school and tried to use it as much as I could but my efforts weren’t received favourably.
At times, it felt as though I wasn’t wanted at all. I’d dressed to fit in (which, to be fair, wasn’t at all different to how I dressed in London) but as soon as I opened my mouth my accent gave everything away.
Maybe it was the weather? Maybe I was just sick of the wind blowing my fringe in my face?
On my second day, though. A day when the sun shone and I felt sure I could learn to love Paris as much as everyone said I would, it all got a lot worse.
But first: cocktails.
I’d arranged to meet up with my friend Edna, who was living in Paris at the time, on my first night. And after a long day of sightseeing I was definitely ready for a few drinks and a catch-up. We met at Le Red House, a cocktail bar in the Bastille neighbourhood a short walk from my hotel before moving on to another close by. Edna and I hadn’t seen each other since her trip to London 3 months before so we sat at the bar and gossiped the night away, only stopping to order more drinks or talk to regulars like her who would come and say hello.
And when we parted ways in the early hours, I felt full of love for Paris, and couldn’t wait to explore more of it the next day.
Paris, Day 2
Feeling weirdly hangover-free, my second day in Paris was to be spent in Montmartre before catching my train back to London in the evening. If I was excited to visit the inner-arrondissements of Paris, I was even more excited to explore Montmartre in the 18th arrondissement, home to the Sacré-Cœur church, the Moulin Rouge, and some of the cutest streets in the city.
I’d taken the funicular to Sacré-Cœur church, gone to have a look inside, and stood at the top of the hill admiring the views over Paris. All those feelings from the day before; that coldness for Paris, those feelings of being out of my depth, were gone. The sun was so warm on that day that I took off my scarf, fished my sunglasses out of my bag. I could have stayed in that spot forever, but I knew there was more of Montmartre I wanted to see.
I decided to walk through Square Louise Michel, a leafy square with 222 steps up to the church, to get back down the hill.
It was when I got to the bottom that he grabbed my wrist.
I pulled away, quickly. Shocked.
He grabbed again, trying to slip a bracelet over my hand and failing. My fist was clenched
“Get off me,” I said, his fingers around my wrist again.
“Try it on beautiful”, he answered, his English heavy with a French accent, “it’ll look pretty.”
I knew the drill. He’d make me wear it, then demand I pay for it.
Shaking him off, I slipped both hands in my coat pockets to make sure my phone and cards were still there, but he grabbed my arm instead.
Two more men approached, similar bracelets hanging from large rings on their belts.
I looked around. Saw the other tourists taking photos in the sun, the children riding on the colourful carousel, the dad handing his daughter an ice-cream. But no-one came to intervene. I was just the silly British girl making a fuss.
I kept saying no. Kept repeating this word over and over, until I was able to pull my arm away, using my other hand to push him as I did.
“You do NOT get to touch me” I yelled, pointing my finger and storming off.
They laughed as I walked away, past the other tourists, past the carousel. But it wasn’t funny to me.
I was shaking but I kept walking until I found a familiar sign: Pret. It’s not the kind of cafe you go to when you’re in Paris, not when there are hundreds of other little coffee shops you could go to for an authentic French pastry and a coffee. I didn’t care. Something about those familiar maroon-coloured seats and sturdy wooden tables felt safe and welcoming.
I knew he wasn’t going to hurt me, but no-one deserves to be manhandled on the street. No-one deserves to be grabbed by the wrist or the arm, to be treated like an object rather than a person.
I sat for half an hour maybe. I can’t remember. But I sat until my hands stopped shaking and then, sunglasses on, went to see the rest of Montmartre.
I wasn’t disappointed. I loved the cobbled streets, the historic buildings, the pastel-coloured boutiques, and smart restaurants. Sure, not all of Montmartre was made for Instagram; I ducked past the garish shops overflowing with t-shirts and cheap souvenirs and when I found myself on streets that smelled worse than a nightclub toilet at 3am I quickly moved on.
Exploring somewhere new with my camera in my hand is what makes me happiest, and for the most part Montmartre had lived up to my expectations.
I hardly ever look forward to going home after a trip, but later, as I walked along Bethnal Green Road and let myself into my flat, I realised I was glad to be back in London.
More than a year later, and now living in Leeds, having left London in June 2016, I reflected on why I didn’t love Paris.
I knew there was always going to be pressure to fall head over heels for it, but I’m pretty good at keeping my expectations in check. Especially living in London, where sometimes you’ll find yourself on a dirty, smelly street and hate the city with all your being. And other times you’ll find yourself drinking by the canal on a sunny day or wandering around a beautiful market and you’ll wonder if you could ever love a city more. I know how to take the rough with the smooth.
And despite not having the best time in Paris, I’d definitely give it another chance and go again. Looking back through my photos for this post, I wondered if maybe it was just my mindset at the time that made the city feel intimidating, because parts of Paris are so pretty. I look for architecture when I travel. Architecture and shopfronts and the chance to capture people naturally as they go about their day. I got all of those things.
Maybe I just need to spend some more time there, or go with a group of friends, or visit in spring or summer instead.
Maybe Paris just didn’t fill my heart with joy in the way that Sydney and Amsterdam did. And that’s OK.