About finding the real Paris

La joie de Vivre

Here is a Paris Story. A real one. The one that tells the truth. It starts in a moment when you are out of sorts. Disgruntled. Uncomfortable. Disappointed. It’s a story of the wrong weather, aching feet, annoying crowds and too many monuments to be seen too quickly. You remember it exactly because it’s the very moment when you tumbled out of fantasy Paris and into a real city.

It was just after the waiter was terribly brisk and cigarette smoke was definitely violating your right to clean air. You realised the real reason to have learnt some French is to curse and swear effectively. Like you wish you could right now.

You have a mild headache because it seems a decent coffee can’t be had for any amount of money. Whats more the cute little poodle has just pooped on the path and Madame isn’t one bit bothered. Not like you are. There’s way too much pooping and rubbish lying about for a fantasy city. And that smell of urine in the metro earlier is still stinging your nostrils.

Yes this is the real Paris. Even in the springtime. Even with the roses. Its busier, dirtier, smellier and most of the time less glamorous than expected. You feel a bit let down. Frustrated. So many declare their love but the attraction has evaded you. Completely. In this actual moment.

You do the only sensible thing a woman can do in moments such as these. Throw out the plans. Abandon the queue. To hell with the itinenary. Its time for some wine.

So you take yourself out to lunch. A long lunch. Pick somewhere close by. Cafe Regis. It’s pretty in that old-fashioned Bistro sort of way. With French and English being spoken. You order ‘un grande verre du Rose du Provence’. Dare the waiter with a newly found attitude of mild arrogance not to bring a big glass. You drink it slowly. Allow the pink liquid to soothe you. Start to slip into a different space. Order the risotto with shellfish. Devour the bread. Then a dessert of raspberries and cream. Why not. The waiter seems to be warming up. So you linger. Mellow out.

Later you walk. Go leisurely. Along the river Seine. Cross to Shakespeare and Co to soak in some literary history. Turn up past the Sorbonne. Then down though the Luxembourg Jardins where children sail traditional wooden boats and older Parisians soak up some sun. You sit for a bit on the green metal seats. Notice the crunch of the gravel. The pop of fuchsia against the stone urn. Breathing in Paris. Losing all sense of time.

Later you poke about in antique bookshops and small galleries. You are startled to find yourself standing in front of a real Chagall. The colours swirling around a woman floating across a starry Paris skyline. Nearby there is poetry on a wall down the tiny rue Ferou. Rimbauds one hundred line ‘Le Bateau Ivre’. You can only read a little of the French. Pourquoi? Indeed. It is so unexpectedly beautiful. Moving. You feel inspired. Stop in the Place St Sulpice to write your own poem in your moleskin. Meanwhile the water of the fountain playfully splashes the couples smooching under its cover. Perhaps Hemingway and Beckett and Stein and all the others who came before you were on to something.

Along Rue Bonapartre you buy pastries and small chocolates and a scented candle. Each the perfection of a craft. You catch your reflection in the windows along rue Jacob. Ponder the Paris buildings etched into your outline. On an impulse you enter the Delacroix museum to find yourself alone in the charming corner courtyard and artists studio. You remember reading parts his journal once. The contrast of his wit and oily romantic paintings. Then make a sketch of the sweet Place Frustenberg. It is like your artistic soul is awakening. You follow your instincts along rue Dauphine to Pont Neuf and back to the river.

Now taking the Metro back to Montmartre. Wind your way slowly up the cobblestoned hill. Your thighs ache but your feet are adjusting. The tourist crowds are thinning out as the sun sets. As you arrive along rue Gabrielle the whole mood changes. Mainly locals now. And even though your room is at the very top of five sets a winding stairwell and there is no air conditioning you start to feel your way into the charm. There is a view over the city. Later the city lights come on and the tower sparkles. Then rain falls in heavy silver sheets across the grey rooftops.

It may have been in this moment that Paris got under your skin. Despite everything. Because that’s what happens. This sometimes impossible imperfect infuriating city gets into you. It seeps in. And after that the magic turns up.

So the ending. Well that’s part of the magic too. You will never really know Paris. At least not like you planned too. Because it can’t be known. Ticked off a bucket list. That’s why you will need to keep coming back.

But todays story ends in Montmartre. Your last day. For now. It’s still raining. You start a slow melancholic trek up a damp rue Lamarck. You want to watch the sun set over the city one last time. Then you hear the sweetest sounds swelling in the dusk. As you round the corner a plump woman is singing ‘la Wally’. Just for you. So you sit in the wet on the cobblestones and it is so wondrous you weep. And laugh. A perfect ending.

In this moment you give yourself over to the city. Completely. You become that Chagall woman and dance across the roof tops. Float high above the Lapin Agile and the white horse atop the carousel in Place Saint-Pierre. Sacre Couer glows softly against the night sky and the Tour Eiffel sparkles in the distance. As it always does. It may even have rained roses. Truly.

The real journey is the one you take from your head to your heart. Because real Paris is a place of the heart. A deeply human city. Imperfectly perfect. You experience it though the senses. Each of them. Seeing. Touching. Smelling. Hearing. Tasting. All the way to Loving. And whatever lies beyond. This is what Paris has always been about. This is what all the others discovered long before you came.

Paris is La joie de Vivre.

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16 thoughts on “About finding the real Paris

  1. wonderful reading your post and seeing the pictures..thanks for this perspective on a most wonderful city

  2. Bernadette thank you! Your story is very moving and evokes the real Paris. The je ne sais pas. The paris that gets under your skin and stays there for the rest of your life. If at anytime you’d consider contributing to MyFrenchLife.org magazine do let me know I’d love to have a chat.
    Warm regards
    Judy MacMahon

    • Thank you so much! For reading and for your kind words. Paris certainly gets under the skin and I’d be delighted to be in contact.
      Merci du fond de mon coeur

  3. I love this! It’s so real, and it reminds me of traveling Europe. There are just those times when you need to stop doing what you are supposed to do, and stop seeing what you are supposed to see, and make the city your own. <3

  4. I feel like I’ve found a kindred spirit. I’ve just spent a blissful hour discovering your blog. Thanks Bernadette for reminding me that I can and should find ‘my Paris story’.