My relationship with the City of Light was not love at first sight. The first time I laid eyes on the French capital was in March of 2004, when I snagged a $350 round-trip ticket from Washington to Paris for Spring Break. I spent much of that week trying to not slap the hell out of waiters, cashiers, and one metro station attendant who better be glad there was a plexiglass window separating my hand from his face. But the people on the street were polite and courteous and gave me no attitude whenever I asked what arrondissement I was in or for directions to the nearest McDo (in my defense, I was on a student budget).
Because of that, I decided to drag my family along for another try. Maybe it was because we had a ten-year-old traveling with us, but everybody, including the amazing waitstaff at Café Odeon, showed us the utmost respect and made sure we enjoyed ourselves. Many thanks to “Shrees le chef,” as they dubbed my little brother Chris; he’ll realize when he’s like 30 how much we pimped him on that trip.
Also, forget the Paris you see in Meg Ryan-type romance movies. I mean, that’s Paris too, but real Paris is very colored. Folks from all the former French colonies – from Africa (North and Sub-Saharan) and the Antilles to Indochina and the Indian Ocean – paint Paris more shades of brown than you can get mixed at Home Depot. Good-looking brown folks, too! And this diversity is manifested in the thousands of nook-and-cranny nightspots dotting the city, where hip-hop, house, rock, lounge, soul, samba, and salsa all get played sometimes under the same mansard roof. I don’t want to even start on the food in a place where even a dollar-bag of cheap croissants from Ed is packed with lip-smacking buttery goodness.
Paris is like New York in the sense that when you exit almost any metro station, the scene is on-and-poppin, and each neighborhood has distinct characteristics that keep you firmly rooted on the same side of town. Barbès, Montmartre, and Pigalle in the north are all different, but united under an urgent energy transcending Barbès’ controlled chaos, Montmartre’s bohemian chic, and Pigalle’s titillating trashiness. More centrally located, Le Marais is all nouveau flash and glamour, whereas the Opéra and Place de la Madeleine are old-school opulence. The Champs-Elysées in the west and the Bastille in the east form the poles of Paris nightlife, while the Puces de Saint-Ouen flea market just outside the Périphérique has hotties, hoodies, and hummus all in one place. And that’s just the Rive Droit; Left Bank, I hardly knew you.
There are, of course, the “must-sees” – the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe – but I was moved more by the ethnographic busts and scale models at the Musée D’Orsay, or the intriguing design and exhibits at the Institut du Monde Arabe (where, incidentally, I had my first official Parisian date!). But, like anywhere, it’s the atmosphere that seduces you: the stylish old ladies with poodles in pea-coats, the inexpensive wine and inattentive drivers, the canned mackerel with mustard sauce, catching the eye of someone still on the train as it pulls away from you and the platform, movies like Amélie,First Ladies like Carla Bruni, and the packing of as many unnecessary letters into a language as possible.