Paris has a funny way of drawing you in immediately, like the first sentence of a novel that you didn’t expect to turn into your favorite book. The city is sprawling and complex, carefully crafted, grimy in mostly the right ways, and timelessly sexy. The City of Light presents this intricate, dramatic personality almost humbly, like it knows its beauty but lets its admirers write their own stories of it.
Traveling alone in a city practically made for lovers without speaking the language can be isolating, but this solitude does bring reward. It forces you to experience and appreciate. It urges you to carefully observe and leaves enough room for imagination. The week I spent in Paris felt like it flew by, but it was plenty of time to take in the air, the style, the attitudes, and the messages said and unsaid by communities throughout the city.
In many ways, the city is a juxtaposition of the romanticized ideas many hold from film, authors, photos, or stories. The Seine does not snake through every arrondissement to paint a fairytale page on every corner. Parisians are often in a rush and present a pretty serious demeanor. Children are not adorned in berets or skipping with baguettes. Tourist traps are everywhere and poverty exists, for it is a big city in 2018, after all.
Yet, somehow at the same time, the city embodies the love you remember or the love you wish you had. There are pockets of the city where you see a couple hold each other near, stopping time in a quaint park at dusk, just as the streetlights begin to glow, while Parisians shuffle in and out of the underground metro. This couple does not care, unbothered by anyone’s pace but their own. With careful attention, you can see this piece of Paris is home to them and it is clear why. Their backdrop is a painting, work rarely leaves the office, and those passing by hardly differentiate a kiss from a drag of a cigarette. It is a beautifully normalized thing.
Surely, Paris is similar to other European cities for its hurriedness and its history, but it distinguishes itself by its classic sense of style, by the French language sounding like a song, by the unapologetic public displays of tenderness, and by the ease of finding small communities within every café or brasserie.
These communities are what made Paris so inviting despite traveling alone and knowing little to no French. These communities felt not as exclusive as they felt fleeting.
A line of trenchcoated men and scarf-buried women will stand at a café bar every morning, sipping espresso, reading the paper, dipping one hand in the assorted basket of croissants, without shifting their gaze from the day’s briefings. Exchanging brief banter with the bartender and other caffeine-dependent commuters, this community charges an initiation rate of a mere two euro for an average stay of 5-15 minutes.
The largest, ever-changing community I found underground. Little is shared here besides a “pardon” or a brief glance up when spotting an empty seat. The Metro system is as impressive as it is busy. By the end of my time in Paris, if I was waiting more than four minutes for a train I was sharing annoyed head shakes with disgruntled Parisians. Riding the metro strangely felt like both shaking hands with the city and becoming a ghost. Public transportation in a new city is usually fun for me, for it’s impolitely welcoming, with no hierarchy amongst all walks of life.
The night time is often my favorite time everywhere, but Paris has a knack for drawing people out on any evening of the week to join friends or to sit alone at a bar. Winter turns into mid-July when you keep your coat on around 25 other people huddled around small tables lined three deep against brasserie windows. This community brings life and laughter to the streets, with every neighborhood gathering its unique clientele, some lifelong Parisians, some travelers, some twenty-somethings.
It was here where I really, truly noticed the uncomplicated confidence of Parisians. Women wearing minimal makeup. Men not appearing very overbearing. There is something striking about Parisians gathering outside bars under heat lamps on winter evenings to drink and smoke together, unbothered by sitting inches from strangers. I thought the Spanish were the only Europeans that knew how to really slow down, but it seems another country is also keeping this kind of secret on their side of the Atlantic. It was here that I felt everything from anxiety to infatuation toward a culture that seemed so much more graceful and gentle than my own.
It can be frustrating to visit places that enchant you so quickly or to feel unsure of what to make of the passing but deep connections made in temporary cities. It’s always worth it, though. You will always be learning, whether you’re alone or with another. But I won’t say what lessons these will be, because just as the city is different for everyone, so is the kind of appreciation that it leaves you.
Paris can be all that you want it to be if you leave traditional expectations behind. I guess it all depends on where you are, presently. Maybe traveling alone right now would feel inadequate, maybe it would be exactly what you need. Maybe the language barrier is too overwhelming, maybe you’re ready for a challenge. All factors aside, Paris, and all of its mystery, complexities, dismissal, and beauty, is a space that will surprise you. If you slow your pace and look at it from the right angle, Paris is a city of serendipity, awaiting those ready for the unfamiliar.
Here are some of my favorite photos I took in Paris.
From the sky
From the eyes of the artists
From the eyes of the powerful
From the eyes of the devout
From the eyes of Parisians