Unlike my trip to Lyon, I was awake for the train ride back to Paris. I even managed to go upstairs to the little cafe and have a bit of lunch and a coffee. I disembarked with my bags and headed to the subway. Somehow, my stuff seemed even heavier. The last time I was in Paris was a million years ago. I fell in love with the city. It was a cleaner version of New York. In defense of my hometown, New York has cleaned up its act quite a bit since those days.
The first thing I noticed was the population explosion. There were more people than I remembered and the complexion of the city had changed. Being black here was no longer a novelty. I took the train to my stop,, and headed to the apartment. The listing was a charming place with an outdoor garden. Very unusual in Paris. I was looking forward to spending some time there. (FYI: I spent NO time there)
It was the last leg of the trip. I decided very early on that despite my obvious affection for Paris, I would be better suited living outside the city limits. Paris is very expensive and for me, quality of life was more important. This decision came with a twinge of regret but ultimately I knew it was the right choice. Besides, can you imagine 4 cats living in an apartment the size of a closet? My sanity had to be a consideration in this decision.
When I walked out of the station, my jaw dropped. Montmartre was an absolutely gorgeous part of Paris. What I encountered when I left the subway was a travesty. The streets were dirty and the buildings were covered with graffiti. I recognized it for what it was. I had grown up in places like this. This was the type of neighborhood I so diligently avoided during my visit but there was no mistaking it. I was smack dab in the middle of a ghetto. How did this happen?
I hadn’t communicated with this particular host after booking the space so I wasn’t sure what to expect. When I arrived, an older gentleman named Gerard greeted me in his slippers (this was a bit odd because the host was a woman.) But I thought “Well, maybe Yannick will be there later.” That should have been my first inclination of problems on the horizon.
We walked through a series of corridors before reaching the apartment. Once again, my room was up a long narrow winding staircase. It was essentially the attic and not meant for anyone of decent height. I dropped off my bags and headed back outside to explore Paris.
Memories of Paris were fresh in my mind. I planned to find a nice cafe in Montmartre and spend the next couple of days there relaxing and people watching. It had been a rigorous week and I was looking forward to some down time. My favorite spot was this long street that wound its way up to La Basilique du Sacré Cœur de Montmartre. It was lined on either side with artists, painters and musicians. In my opinion, it was by far the most charming place in Paris. But that was 20 years ago. That street is long gone and has been replaced with nondescript stores plying cheap trinkets to unsuspecting tourists. I was crestfallen. How could this be? Obviously, I needed to rethink my plans. Hanging out here wasn’t going to be an option. I decided to hop on the subway and wander around instead. I loved the subways in Paris, it was like being in an art museum. The stations had these beautiful mosaic tiles. But despite frequenting the same stations, I saw none of them. Upon closer inspection, I realized my error. The mosaic tiles were still there but they were covered under a layer of black soot. Ugh, this day just kept getting better and better.
Now let me pause here and say this; Many people who have previously visited Paris have expressed opinions similar to mine upon returning many years later. Maybe it’s the fact that the starlight has been cleared from our eyes and we can see the city for what it really is or maybe it truly is that different. I’m not certain. But it is possible that my latest impression may have been a bit harsh, colored by unrealistic expectations of a city long gone.
I didn’t know where I was headed so I got off at the exit for Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. It was gorgeous outside so strolling the streets of Paris and taking in the sights seemed as good an idea as any but Notre Dame was crawling with tourists. I mean they were EVERYWHERE. I know this is a very touristy area and I shouldn’t hold it against Paris that people were swarming like locusts however, I was still licking my wounds from the disappointment of Montmartre and my patience was a bit short.
I walked down the steps leading to the Seine thinking it would be a great way to see Paris. I was down there for all of 3 minutes before the stench hit my nose. No one else seemed to notice. (I still don’t see how that’s possible – maybe it was the starlight) The fact that they had used the pathway as their personal toilet was more than I could handle so I made my way back up to the street. The disappointment was growing by the minute.
The next stop was The Louvre. I didn’t have any intentions of going inside. I had visited before and there really wasn’t time to do a full fledged tour so I walked by content to just be there. Eventually, I found my way back to the Champs Elysees. So far, the day had been a huge disappointment. I figured things would have to get better. I was wrong. I walked a good 5 minutes before I saw a shop that wasn’t American. I am in the epicenter of French culture and all around me was American wares. There used to be boutiques and cute cafes and charm and….all that was gone. We could have plucked this street from Paris and placed it in Times Square and you wouldn’t even have notice the difference. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that Paris would change. After all, it had been many years. New York looks completely different now. But for some reason, the thought of Paris changing never crossed my mind. It was perfectly etched in my memory untouched by time.
I decided I was ready to get something to eat and as it so happened Ladurée was directly across the street. What better time to splurge. One of my girlfriends had been talking about this place for years and here I was a few feet from their doorstep. It was expensive but after the day I’d had, I needed it.
There is no way to describe the inside of this restaurant. Opulent, lavish, gilded…none of them adequate descriptions. You felt rich just sitting there. The food was superb and the staff was delightful. Dinner lasted almost 3 hours. By the time I got back to the apartment, it was close to 1 am.
I didn’t realize there was a code to get into the building. Somehow that wasn’t mentioned. So when I arrived at the door at 1 am…alone…in the dark…on a not so savory street of a questionable neighborhood, I couldn’t get in the house. I called Gerard but it was 1 am so he didn’t answer the phone. So now I’m standing on the street corner trying to get a hold of the host (who inexplicably was never there) to get the code to enter the apartment. Pissed doesn’t begin to describe it. I wasn’t concerned for my safety. I grew up in worse neighborhoods but they didn’t know that. And there is no question that there was an element on the street at that hour that could easily have done me harm.
I finally got a hold of Yannick and she managed to wake up Gerard and have him let me in. The look of disorientation was the only thing that kept me from yelling at him when he opened the door. (That and the fact that he spoke NO English. Cursing in French is a bit over my current skill level) I went to bed angry and disappointed. This was not how I had envisioned my Paris excursion. It did however make it easier to consider other places in France. Paris no longer held any sway over me. The starlight had all but disappeared.
The next day, I was meeting an American friend recently installed in Paris. It would be nice to speak English again and get another perspective on life in France. Tomorrow was another day.