[note: This is the first in a series of articles about Alternative Paris.]
They make their way from Dubuque. New York City. Portland, Maine and Dallas, Texas. But also from Moscow, Frankfurt, Tangier and beyond.
They come to write, to paint, for fashion and film. For the perfume and the promise of bosom-heaving, bodice-ripping romance. They pass through on the eve of a pilgrimage to the beaches of Normandy, or during a layover enroute to Cape Town, or Istanbul, or somewhere else. They eat the food, drink the wine and the café, then wake up the next morning just so they can eat and drink some more.
Even the ones who believe that they hate the French show up eventually, because it is Paris, which is not so much French as it is…Paris.
Paris is for lovers; for writers and artists, for the fashionable and the hip, for the rich and nouveau-riche. But guess what? Paris is also for students hauling backpacks stuffed with unwashed clothes and mildewed copies of Tropic of Cancer; for the divorced mom and her crazy friend who are maybe looking for love in all the right places this time. It is for tourists wearing plaid shorts and white socks on their sandaled feet, and for drunks and fools who suppose they would be writers and artists if Paris would only let them.
Travelers of all stripes and solids (and plaids) make their way to the City of Light, which accommodates each one and in return, expects them to feel grateful for the chance to walk her streets.
You could live in Paris for a year, devote each one of those 365 days to giving all the city has to offer the once-over and you would still fall short of taking everything in. In fact, if by some miracle you really did have an entire year to devote to Paris, you would probably be as lazy as I would; instead of hitting the cultural highlights, you would spend your time drinking wine alongside platters of brie, bread, and paté, then stroll through markets awash in a sea of blooms and farmers’ crops, crowing, “A year! Haha! I’ve got an entire year to explore Paris, you fools!” and you would barely scratch the surface. The savvy traveler knows to take it a few days at a time and absorb what you can. I have traveled to Paris 4 or 5 times over the past 25 years, and I am still scratching.
Very nearly every single locale in the universe that you can think of has sites which have been declared must-see by every other person who got there before you and is, therefore, an expert. Go ahead: search top 25 things to do in Paris. The know-it-alls are there, full of advice for you. Expectations are high for travel to a city like this. Are you feeling the pressure? I am here to say that if you do and see all of those things that visitors are expected to in Paris, you might be delighted that you did. However, if you are a normal human being you might instead be cranky, exhausted, and speaking to your travel partner only through bitchy post-it notes left on the hotel bathroom mirror. I’m betting on the latter.
The list of museums alone makes your head revolve in ways guaranteed to give you cultural amnesia by the end of each day. The Musée d’Orsay, the gallery of Jeu de Palme, and the Georges Pompidou center are just the tip of the iceberg. It goes without saying that the Louvre makes your list. As you glide along on the first Metro ride of the day, picture yourself perched alone on a polished stone bench, gazing in undisturbed tranquility at the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile, and know in that moment you have unraveled the mystery of the cosmos. Next, your smartly-shod feet lead you to stand before Winged Victory, where you have never in your life felt more understood. Your conquest of Paris proceeds according to plan.
Never gonna happen. Thrust into the midst of a herd of tourists sporting wildly inappropriate beachwear and Birkenstocks, ambling glacially past the Louvre’s ‘top ten’ artworks, your vision will narrow considerably. The fusion of body heat and duty-free perfume will make you wonder whether Venus de Milo didn’t give her right arm trying to get out of the Louvre. The lack of ventilation and the ceaseless camera flashes in clear view of NO Flash Photography signs will bring out the deal-maker in you:
Sweet Baby Jesus, if you get me out of here alive, I will never disparage Disney World again. Then you will plead, God, it’s me, Barbara. B-a-r-b-a-r-a. Seriously? Now is not the time, God. Anyway, I promise not to maim the next guy who breathes near me, not even a swift poke in the eye with my pen, if you will just part this sea of humanity and show me the nearest exit.
Happy to be alive after your escape from the crush of tourist hell, you proceed with your plan to conquer in three days the city that Hitler couldn’t entirely manage in 4 years. (Probably because his officers were busy quaffing wine, sipping better-than-average wartime coffee, and packing up as much art as they could manage to transport east.) But you have a better strategy. You’ll traipse from monuments like the Arc de Triomphe and the cathedral of Notre Dame to Père Lachaise Cemetery. You will head to Montmartre, take a selfie in front Le Lapin Agile caberet, then climb to the summit at Sacre Coeur, stopping for lunch at a restaurant recommended by a co-worker, whose sister read about it in Fodor’s, discovering to your dismay that the prices have hiked fifty percent due to its formerly warranted popularity and the food is now mediocre at best. It’s not your fault—blame TripAdvisor. Or the Russians, who seem to be everywhere you turn—but you keep going because you must see the must-see places!
Visit enough of those must-do sites, and you’ll start rummaging through your bag for the stack of post-its and a pen that hasn’t stabbed anybody since lunch.
What is a shrewd traveler like you do? First, stop. Stop at the next café you come to, order an espresso or un bier and squander a bit of time watching other people scurry by. Next step: Ditch the must-do list and instead, do the unexpected. The off-beat. Or, because we’re in France, the outré.
Take a deep breath traveler, because in Steal Just One Day’s next post, we are going underground. To the Catacombs, Mesdames et Messieurs!