There are some cities that are almost mythic. They’re so revered and lauded by virtually everyone in the world that they’re elevated to legendary status. You know the ones — New York, Toyko, London, Shanghai, Los Angeles, yadda yadda yadda. Those places. The cultural capitals of the world.
But none of those cities really hold much significance for me. Yeah sure, I’d love to visit them (Tokyo in particular), but they’re just destinations. But Paris is one of those mythic cities that’s actually been on my mind a long time. I took French in school from sixth grade until my freshman year of college. That’s eight years of essentially being force-fed French culture.
I think it was this experience that initially led me to want to explore some of the lesser-traveled places of the world. Prior to beginning French, I very much wanted to go to Italy because I’m Italian-American. I remember really wanting to go to Venice. But then I started French, and my interest shifted — briefly — to France.
In my eight years of French, there were a lot of projects that were meant to focus in some way on the Francophone, or French-speaking, world. Things like planning dream vacations or pretending to find an apartment. Most of my classmates did projects on France or French-speaking Belgium. But whenever given the choice, I did every project on Morocco, Algeria, and Madagascar.
Fun fact — before I took my job in Nepal to teach English, I had actually accepted a job in Algiers, Algeria that fell through. This blog would’ve looked pretty different.
Yet despite my eight years of refusal to do my French projects on France out of some desire to be different, I ended up with some genuine curiosity about Paris. Which is saying something, because given the choice between somewhere in Western Europe and virtually any other country, I’d choose the other country. For the adventure.
So when my brother talked me into booking a ticket to Paris while we were still in Georgia, I almost immediately got a positive vibe. As he put it, “You need to spend some time outside the old Soviet countries. Because that’s a vibe.” My only experience in Europe thus far has been those two days in Greece and a study abroad program in Iceland after my sophomore year of college.
And lemme tell ya — I’m happy I decided to go. I arrived in Paris with absolutely no plan in mind except to just practice my French and probably drink too much coffee. I picked a very serendipitous time to come as well. I arrived on the hottest day in the history of France — which was awful — and was there for the Tour de France finish.
When I arrived in Paris, it was 108°F. For any of you that aren’t American, that’s almost 43°C. It capped out around 110°F/43.33°C. At the time of my arrival, it was hotter in Paris than in Ashgabat. You know, the capital of a nation that occupies one of the hottest deserts in the world?
I’m not gonna get on my environmental soapbox here, because I shouldn’t have to tell anyone how fucked up that is.
For the first couple days in Paris, it was an oven. Black pavement on narrow streets lined with light-colored buildings makes for the perfect environment to amplify heat. It was more tolerable in the desert in Turkmenistan where at least there was breeze. I tried my best to get out an explore, but ended up spending most of those first few days chilling on a street corner with a beer. That’s fine though, because that was my plan for Paris anyway.
In the ungodly heat, there was an unexpected effect. It was so hot that the majority of the leaves on trees just shriveled and fell to the ground. Any breeze down the streets would rustle up a cloud of brown leaves and blow more down from the trees. It felt like autumn! I don’t know how to put it into words, but anyone who lives in a region where there’s an actual autumn knows the feeling. Leaves change color and fall, and the sound of their rustle in the wind stirs up fond memories and feelings of past autumns.
Except it was 110 goddamn degrees. It was very dystopian. You can even see the haze of the heat in a few of the photos I took.
But in spite of the absolutely oppressive heat, Paris was cool. It’s weird to spend the better part of your life in school reading about places like Le Tour Eiffel and Champs-Élysées without any real intention of visiting them, and then going there.
The First Sunset
The first time I saw the Eiffel Tower, I wasn’t actually expecting it. I got on the metro and got off at Champs-Élysées-Clemenceau, not realizing that’s essentially the stop you take to get there. When I passed the Grand Palais Museum, it was just suddenly there. I had to stop and laugh. There it was!
The five days I spent in Paris were a series of small moments like that. Stumbling across things I’ve spent my formative years hearing about, and finding the things I didn’t even know were in Paris. Was I the only one who didn’t realize Moulin Rouge is an actual club in Paris? Probably.
In any case, my first foray into Paris was for the express purpose of finding a spot to have a beer and relax. I couldn’t make myself not bring my camera.
Perched under an awning with a Stella Artois, all was well. It was the first time in quite a long time where I not only recognized the language spoken around me, but actually generally knew what was being said. Things didn’t feel quite so foreign.
Now obviously Paris is going to feel less foreign to me than Kathmandu or Bishkek. But it was the first time in a year where I didn’t feel quite so conspicuous. It was a nice change of pace to be able to sit on the street without any sort of acknowledgment from passers-by. I was incognito. And since this particular bar was about two blocks from the Eiffel Tower, there were plenty of visitors who were much more overtly foreign, which made it easier to fly under the radar. At least until I opened my mouth.
I took my time with my beer so I could people-watch from my seat. The streets are busy in central Paris. It was the height of summer and everyone was out. Armed with a longer lens, I recorded all that I could see from my stoop.
When it came time to pay for my beer, I flagged down the waiter. He was talking to another guy who was paying for his food. I watched the exchange. The other guy was also not French, but tried to pay his bill using French. The waiter saw through it pretty quickly, and took his bill in an annoyed fashion.
The pressure was on. I was mentally committed to speaking French as much as possible, and this was going to be the first time. I was not going to let this guy know I wasn’t actually French, and I was definitely not going to let him snap at me too.
“Qu’est-ce vous voulez, jeun homme?” (What do you want, young man?)
“Je voudrais l’addition, s’il vous plait.” (I’d like the bill, please.)
I forgot just how quickly normal French is spoken, and caught absolutely no part of the cost. I wasn’t gonna out myself, though.
“Ah ouais, bien, merci.” (Oh yeah, good, thanks.)
So it wasn’t a flawless exchange, and none were, but it was fun. I had been learning Nepali before I left Kathmandu, and the most fun parts of a given day were when I was able to have a complete interaction without English.
If there’s one thing about Europeans I’m legitimately jealous of, it’s that most speak way more than just their native language. Really, that goes for most people. Most native English-speaking Americans only speak English, which is honestly kind of unusual. I used to think I was hot shit for being able to speak another language. When I started making international friends, I learned how wrong I was quick.
But I had managed to get through my first exchange, and it was time to be moving on from my spot.
Rainy Night on the South Side
The apocalyptic heat wave didn’t last long. My first two days were well over a hundred degrees (41-43°C), which meant I did a lot of sitting in coffee shops and bars. But on the third day, the temperature dropped dramatically. Like, it felt chilly. The clouds rolled in and the wind blew. Just like that, it was a normal summer night again.
My hostel was a little outside the most popular area of Paris, in a neighborhood called Porte de Vanves. That was actually the metro stop I used to come and go.
I was continually surprised at how often I could see the Eiffel Tower. I figured that I was a little far away here, but it took very little time to round a corner and find it.
I think it was also during this particular walk that I realized how much I love neon signs. They’re a bit of a novelty that’s coming back in most American cities, but I was all about how liberally they’re used in Paris. Neon reflected in a puddle on a dark and stormy night is a vibe I can get behind.
At one point, I rounded a corner and was looking down a street with the Eiffel Tower looming overhead. Everything else was washed in cool blue hour tones of navy and blue, but the Eiffel Tower glittered in golden light overhead.
These were the photos that solidified my interest in neon as a subject for photography.
And last but not least, the photo that’s been my phone background ever since. Maybe you’ll like it too 🤷