I have always had a tense relationship with Paris. I grew up with my dad's amazing stories about the Summer of '69, when he was a student there and he and his group of fascinating young people from all over the world had adventures like being taken to the Moulin Rouge by people he met in secret jazz clubs in the catacombs, or rescuing the women in the group from inopportune Frenchmen. Based on those stories, I took four years of French in high school and three in college, struggling through irregular verbs and dreaming of the day when I would go to Paris speaking French so well no one would know I wasn't a native.
Reality, of course, turned out to be quite different. No matter how well I may speak French (which is, for the record, not all that well), I don't have enough practice to be all that good at understanding. (I try to think out interactions in advance, and as soon as the other person says something I don't expect, I'm lost.) My first visit, in May 2005, was more stressful than anything else: there was too much to see in too short a time, and it was the first time I really had to face how thoroughly I do not speak French.
I've been back several times since then, and have now gotten to the point where I feel a bit of withdrawal if I go more than six months without a visit. (Yeah, yeah. I live in London. Trips to Paris are easier and cheaper than trips to DC used to be. Come to that, I've had trips to outer Brooklyn that took longer than the Eurostar.) I still find the city exhausting, and I'm still reminded of the inadequacy of my French each time I go, and I never do everything on the list of things I've decided to do with each trip. But I can't stay away.
Last week, I got to spend almost five days in Paris, following Gino on a business trip--and I think I finally got the hang of enjoying Paris.
For starters, I didn't have to be a tourist the whole time! I get sensory overload from too many sights seen. On my usual trips to Paris, I feel overwhelmed by how much I try to see, and disappointed by how much I miss.
This time, I didn't even try, half the trip. Monday and Tuesday I spent hanging out, drinking coffee and writing, with my grad school friend, the lovely and talented Coe Booth.
Fun new fact: even in Paris, the city of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Balzac and Zola, the best place to sit and write for hours and hours is still Starbucks. You can sit in the cafes with a notebook, or the papers, or an espresso and a blank look, but a laptop will totally kill the atmosphere.
So, Coe and I would meet for lunch at a cafe, then wander out into the streets of the Left Bank or Beaubourg, looking for that green-and-white sign. (You can't see it in this picture, but there's one hanging between us, in the window of this Starbucks near the Centre Pompidou.)
Step 2: Know your priorities. There's so much I haven't seen in Paris, but this trip I made a very limited list of what I wanted to tackle.
The last day I devoted to Stuff from the Guidebook: the Orangerie, the Musee Rodin, the Tuileries. Gino wasn't going to be done with his meetings until late, so at seven I talked the nice lady at Le Fumoir into giving me a table for the hour before she was going to need it for a dinner reservation, and had a Tom Collins and a plate of charcuterie before heading back to La Defense for supper with my husband in the hotel bar.
Step 3: Dress the part. My favorite part of the trip? On my way to Le Fumoir from the Musee Rodin, a man pulling a suitcase stopped me to ask directions (in French!). I was so tickled to be mistaken for "someone who would know where things are" in Paris that I felt really bad I couldn't help him! It was actually part of a theme of the week: usually French people switch to English as soon as we get past "bonjour", but this trip I often had to ask people to speak English. I'm convinced it was because, before the trip, I discovered a blog post (now sadly lost to the wilds of my browser history) about scarf-tying, and made it my mission to wear scarves in Paris. I planned whole outfits around the scarves I own, and for the first time ever, did not feel under-dressed on my visit.
And, the final step to de-stressing in Paris: I have learned to admit I don't speak French. Before getting into a complicated interaction, I apologize for my broken French. When I don't understand something, instead of pretending I do, I ask the person to switch to English or speak more slowly. It stops me feeling like either an impostor or a fish out of water, and no one ever minds.
It's taken six visits, but I think I have finally learned to appreciate Paris the way she deserves.