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Wow. I can’t seem to begin to express my utter delight in this city. It is everything, and more, that people have told me it would be. Indeed, the one city in the world I was most skeptical about, the one I was sure I would just see the big sights and move on from, has become a source of endless fascination—the soreness of my feet attest to it, such excruciating pain that I limp until I’m numb, yet I can’t help but to press on, deeper into the city.
My tired legs have learned their way around the cobblestoned streets. When I first arrived, my cowboy-booted feet would slip and slide through the unfamiliar spaces, but now I stride across without effort, the rounded pavement massaging my worn soles
Paris is what it is supposed to be. It is, indeed, very French. The Seine passes through the heart of the city, coursing past the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, around the Notre Dame cathedral. Along the shores, and permeating the heart of Paris are buildings that seem passionately wrought—their shutters open to the cool Parisian Autumn with flowers sitting in pots against iron terraces in the window.
The uneven streets wind about, grant passage into thousands of barely-regarded alleyways, lay home to hundreds of brasseries, pattiseries, chocolateries, fromageries, cafes, libraries (oh, the libraries!), and further fresh-food shops. Along the major through-ways I’ve stumbled across many a street fair, vendors lining the road as far as the eye can see.
It is the City of Love—the Parisians amorously embraces at all turns, kissing with passionate abandon, and no one bats an eye. For Parisians, passion seems a good thing.
And they are friendly, to my naïve surprise. My American-ness has not been an impediment as I presumed it would be. Most Parisians smile, amused as I stumble about in their language, and bid me adieu with pleasure. A small handful have been less thrilled about my French illiteracy, but the worst I have suffered is a grimace and a few heavy sighs.
My experience with the language has been full of exciting revelations. I remember the first word I saw in France, as I got off the bus in Paris. “SORTIE.” At first it almost sent me into a panic! I’d never before had to rely on inference and intuition in this way. I had never seen or heard the word before, but it was positioned over a doorway and was written in bold, red, capital letters. Plus everyone was going that way. I discerned that it was French for “Exit.”
I next made my way to the metro where I found myself completely surrounded by strange words, accent marks, dashes, and those c’s with the funny squiggle at the bottom. Nothing looked familiar a first. For a language that supposedly donated enough words to English to comprise about two-thirds of my mother tongue, I was having a hard time finding my linguistic relatives. The entire time I was on the metro I was more anxious than I’ve ever been on public transportation (except maybe the 6 train to Pelham Bay at 3 AM).
The discomfort and unfamiliarity dissipated after a while. As the novelty wore off I was able to think more clearly and apply my knowledge of English, Spanish, and Latin, as well as use context clues, to understand almost all of what I saw. Now, I feel utterly confident in my surroundings.
When first visiting the Eiffel Tower, I walked quickly towards it, under it, and beyond it, across the river to the opposite bank, and peered ahead only to see that, perhaps a kilometer away, was a monolithic office building—black, gleaming, towering—alone in its space and seeming to challenge the great symbol that is Paris. I cringed with something like fury, then abruptly turned from it and went on my way. I could not stand to look at it any longer, but the thought of its unnatural presence stuck in my mind, and suddenly I became terribly aware of all the 21st century around me, its buildings seeping between the ancient ones.
I am much repulsed by the modernity and graceless corporatism I see creeping into the city. You see, I arrived in a section of the city called Montmartre, just a block away from the steps of the Sacre Coeur. It is a vision of the Old World. As you walk from Montmartre to the Louvre and through to the southern bank of the Seine, you are surrounded by the Paris of yesteryear, the Paris of our collective imagination, perfectly preserved. But, if you pass outside of certain bounds, you quickly become aware of a metamorphosis. Suddenly, the charming edifices give way to glass-and-steel constructions—cranes rise ominously in the distance.
But I guess that’s what makes this such an authentic city, at ease with its past and its future, yet focused on today. Americans seem uncomfortable about their future, the British about their past (or is it vice versa?). The French are okay with both, they sit in the moment, and, as such, present a city that seems to sit both in and out of time.