Like most Americans, I have a pretty tortured relationship with Paris. This is not unlike my relationships with other iconic cities, especially those in the USA – Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago.
Cities are cities. Big, messy, crowded, dirty places where people rush from A to Z while the moments tick by.
But, Paris is another story. I want so badly to love Paris. It is, in the words of a dear friend from Barcelona, one of the most charming places on earth.
He also wants to love Paris but can’t quite help himself from hating it more than he loves it. Mostly, I love it more than I hate it.
I’ve held different explanations for my Paris Syndrome over the years. At various times, I’ve identified the source of my discomfort in the constant chaos on the sidewalks and narrow streets of this congested city.
Or, I’ve surmised that Parisians are chauvinistic to the degree that they can’t even recognize how deeply so they are. Coupled with a lack of civility and laced with dourness, you have the recipe for a deadly cocktail of Gallic arrogance.
I had an epiphany today, as I wandered through the 4th, the 5th, the minor fall and the major lift, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah rising up in discordant tones and a wonderfully flat monotone over the Seine as the sky closed in on itself and opened up again and finally threatened to dump a torrent of rain only to offer up a rainbow just before dumping that torrent of rain.
The light was beautiful.
I am a tourist, one of many in a city full of us. We are underfoot and generally in the way of everything from the metro turnstile to that decent cup of coffee that is finally to be found in Paris.
Understandably, Parisians do their best to disappear us so they might get on with their lives. Perhaps tourists should just be tourists, surrendering any conceits about our own exceptionalism.
Parisians would be able to enjoy that enviable two hour subsidized lunch break at their secret haunts without having to wait in a queue of tourists who want to eat like a local.
They might just be able to snag a reservation at that hip new bistro if the more sophisticated amongst us would just accept our lowly status as mere travelers, instead of scouring blogs and reviews for the place du moment.
We would all be so much happier.
On the other hand, is Paris all that? Probably not, unless you navigate in cliches of frozen nostalgia and stale kitsch. Cities evolve, morphing and undulating through centuries of human habitation and invention.
If you’re hell-bent on ferreting out the Paris of the Belle Époque or even a perfect pastry, you will probably be devastated. Or, you will invent a city that mirrors your fantasy of it.
Even so, you will eventually be devastated when that fantasy has to be wiped off your shoe or snaps at you in the metro or picks your pocket at the Louvre.
My advice? Let it go.
Stop reaching for the myths of travel from distant eras and just immerse yourself in the moment. Stop trying to figure out why you are standing in a really long queue for ice cream at Berthillon, in the shadow of Notre Dame, instead of looking for that perfect snapshot of a cobbled road, lined with trees and ancient buildings.
Even if you find it, there will always be a German tourist in the middle of your picture, wherever you are.
The Alhambra, Mt Fuji, Annapurna. I don’t care where you were when you took that picture. Look closely. You will find a German tourist somewhere in that perfect photo.