It would be folly to say that Paris has only two faces. If there is any city that varies according to the time of day, minute, sunlight exposure, baguette-consumption, inner mood, it is certainly the French capital. I experienced this many times when I lived in Lyon and a trip to my Parisian family was only a short, blurred TGV ride away.
But removing myself from France meant I had removed myself from its capital as well, and this spring when I had two overnights in Paris due to airport changes and flight scheduling, I saw and felt Paris much as a foreign traveler, not a seasoned French inhabitant, would.
On the first try, I landed at Charles de Gaulle and checked myself into a hotel that was a 20-minute shuttle ride from the terminal despite suggesting in its name a closer proximity. On the shuttle ride, I was immediately
accosted befriended by a middle-aged American medical company executive, eager as I was to pop into Paris for a visit but much less well-versed in the intricacies of the RER and RATP public transportation system.
His company served me moderately well until what should have been a 40-minute train ride into the center of city morphed into 2-hour long ordeal which had us taking two buses and a derelict subway train into the city. At some point, fueled undoubtedly by the excitement of the multiple modes of transportation, the middle-aged CEO started accentuating the story of the multiple mortgages he is paying for his daughters’ houses and the large-busted clothes he buys for his wife by pats on my knee and references to his age (which he probably wanted me to deny – a hope he fostered in vain). Sensing my obvious discomfort, he launched into a hymn of love for his wife.
How is it that men who are trying to seduce you are always telling you how their wife is their best friend?
I reached Paris at 7 PM, forcefully shed my new-found ‘friend’ at the station, struggling to shrug off his inappropriateness, and promptly lost myself in Chatelet Les Halles, my hopes of reaching a church in time to catch a Mass (the only accessible one in 3 weeks) soon shattered as I walked in dazed circles in this gigantic shopping mall, bumping against groups of rowdy teenagers celebrating the Saturday night.
Desperate, I finally gave up on navigating towards a church and wandered outside, planting myself in a decent-looking bistro. After failed attempts at making eye contact with the waiters, I navigated to an outside table and found myself promptly enveloped in smoke. As a wave of frustration washed over me, I suddenly remembered why I detested Paris – the nonchalance with which people blow smoke into your face, the questioning stares if you are not boheme or chic enough, the critical half-looks if you sit by yourself at a restaurant, the dirty table, the waitress who finally takes your order, thrusts your plate towards you so that the fries roll off onto your lap, and then the magret du canard that you don’t even like lies in a pile of grease on your plate in a destruction of burnt fries.
My shock was perhaps even greater as I had just come from Jordan, where the hospitality, smiles but also and even the signs of anger or street catcalls were somehow more authentic.
I counted down the minutes to my train back, bolted for the RER with nary a tip for the waitress (at least I was spared that injustice) and spent another 2 hours trying to reach my hotel (this time, the first train broke down and it was 30 minutes at a suburban train station in the dark before another arrived).
A mere 2 weeks later I found myself in Paris again. Jaded by my first experience, I read up on all weekend track work before setting my foot in the gare and shot menacing glances at any men over 30 who attempted to smile at me.
By a miraculous coincidence, I had managed to make plans with a French friend I had met 6 years prior at a volunteer camp and not seen since. This bright, aspiring medical student swooped me up from my waiting place by St. Michel fountain and took me on a foot tour of local student haunts.
As the rain started drizzling, we ducked into a petite pastry shop, where we sat on rickety chairs, constantly shifting a little to the side to allow other customers to pass. I feasted on a delicious crepe with smoked salmon and watched her devour an elegant polonaise. The hot chocolate I ordered for dessert was hot but unsweetened, the whipped cream slowly melting and working its sweet magic on the bitter beverage.
We laughed, exchanged confidences, switching easily back and forth between our native languages, realizing that the 6 years of non-communication were unimportant, that all it took was a rainy March afternoon in Paris to re-forge a friendship.
After a few hours she ran off to class and I meandered my way to my favorite place in the city, Notre Dame Cathedral. I flowed into the church with an Italian sightseeing group, detached myself from them as they walked the side chapels and found myself a spot in the main nave. A Mass was being celebrated, and not just any Mass, as it turned out – it was the Feast of St. Joseph and the auxiliary bishop of Paris was leading a special celebration for the newly-elected Pope.
As I sat in that most beautiful of cathedrals and let the rest of my Parisian coldness melt away to the tune of the classical choir, I remembered what I loved most about Paris – its century-old history and beauty that any outsider can drop into and find comfort and understanding in, the centrality of its existence to the rest of a beautiful country, the gathering of people it welcomes, among whom one can always find a kindred spirit.
The paradox of Paris had struck yet again.