A First-Person Guide To The City of Lights From Street Level
My first look at Paris upon emerging from the Metro onto the streets of Paris was of a McDonalds. Great, I thought. Here I am in one of the world’s most vibrant and oldest cities and the first thing I see is America’s great contribution to world culture, the fast-food hamburger franchise.
A day later, I was in a cafe, lunching on a French Country Toasted Sandwich – Croque Seguin – with a glass of excellent French wine in the shadows of Notre-Dame. I had found the true Paris.
My feet ached. My shoes had split wide open from all the walking I had been doing and the right foot began a slow retreat to inactivity. It required a limp – and wine – to survive. Still, I walked.
I walked to the Louve. Down the length of Champs Elysees. To the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffer Tower. The length of Rue Saint-Germain. Around Ile St.-Louis, the quaint village in the middle of the Seine. Through the Latin Quarter. To Bastille and its row of small bars and pubs. Massive building after massive building greeted me at every turn with a majestic presence. Guided only by instinct and inspiration rather than a guidebook, I wondered what they all were, though.
The people were friendly. Prepared for the worst, I was pleased with the best. Snooty? Arrogant? Impatient with foreigners? Didn’t see it. Fortunately, the only stereotypes the French lived up to were of being great wine makers and chefs.
For dinner the first night, I wandered around Saint-Germaine looking for an active cafe with a menu I could understand. I settled for a place that was relatively quiet but had one of those waiters that looked as if he were on the French Olympic relay team. Come to thing of it, he should have been on the French Olympic relay team; perhaps his performance could have won the city the 2012 Games.
He dashed around as if on hot coals or being chased by a jealous husband with a shotgun. Air France didn’t fly that fast. The contrast to the slow-paced dining experience was not lost on me. While I sipped wine, he was hooked up to an oxygen tank, I presumed.
One of the first things I learned about Paris was the use the street crossings.
I went in cautious, to say the least, due to the French and their driving reputation. On the plane to Paris, I was reading Bill Bryson’s entertaining book Neither Here Nor There, which warned that “Paris has the world’s most pathologically aggressive drivers.” It goes on to say “the French have had this reputation for bad driving since long before the invention of the internal combustion engine,” meaning going back to the days of the horse-driven carriage.
So it was with much caution that I approached each street crossing. The drivers didn’t seem that bad – Bryson apparently has never been to Mississippi – but why take chances. Some streets do come from all angles and others are multiple lanes.
The crosswalks seemed to offer safe passage. Parisians use them too, though they are bolder than I, walking when it’s red if no car is immediately on top of them. Sometimes, it’s difficult to see whether the rather primitive stickman figure is red or green in bright sunlight and this presented some tricky decisions, especially as the limp became more pronounced and my ability to quickly elude danger diminished.
Paris turned out to be a very pleasant experience. So what if it has the occasional McDonald’s? Surrounded by structures like Notre-Dame and the massive Louvre and absolutely captivated by the lights and sights along the Seine at night, I hardly noticed.
What really stands out about the city is its tremendous buildings, history, cafes and landmarks.
And also, I’m quite happy to report, its people.