When the rain came through and the temperature fell to tolerable, autumn-like levels, it was time to hit the streets for real. I had a few days worth of walking to make up. But as usual, I didn’t really have much of a plan or idea as to where to go. Luckily, my brother’s girlfriend is a Paris aficionado.
To the Streets
By her recommendation, I went off to find the central neighborhood of Montmartre, a name which I’m sure anyone remotely interested in Paris has heard. I’m pretty sure I hadn’t heard it before, because I live under a rock as far as Europe is concerned.
In any case, it’s probably Paris’s most famous neighborhood, excluding the area around the Eiffel Tower. And it’s easy to see why. It’s gorgeous! It’s historically an arts district. As in, some of Europe’s — and by extension, the world’s — most famous artists have lived there at some point. People like Picasso, Monet, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Renoir. The Dali Museum is there. For those who love art and art history, it’s pretty amazing. My mom would’ve been all over it.
But I’m not really one of those people, unfortunately. Plus, nearly everywhere was fully booked anyway. To my credit, I went to the Rodin Museum, which was nice and quiet. But that was it. Sorry mom.
I’m much more interested in the architecture of a place, and especially how people interact with and live in it. This is part of why I didn’t end up staying too long in Montmartre — it’s a prohibitively expensive place to live, and is quite a tourist destination. Because I was looking at Paris through the lens of 1) a street photographer, and 2) someone who may actually try to live there one day, Montmartre was not quite my priority.
However, as I came to realize soon after, Montmarte is much more than a hilltop arts village and a street of clubs and sex shops (featuring the Moulin Rouge). Sure, it’s probably one of the nicest parts of Paris so it’s not a realistic depiction of the whole city. But it really didn’t take much effort to satisfy my itch for lively streets and radical architecture. I also found a bomb-ass pho spot, which was pretty neat.
I had a lot of fun walking around Montmarte. It was a good reminder of the genuineness of Paris. I had never seen any photos of the area, but the vibe was undeniably Paris. I feel like it’s a quintessential Parisian neighborhood, so I’m glad I got pointed in that direction. Furthermore, the areas around Montmartre are just as cool.
The People’s Canvas
I feel like when I hear mention of the graffiti and general street art in Paris, it’s shown in a negative light. People complain about it. It was actually the same when I was (briefly) in Greece. There was a lot of graffiti and street art there, too. People like to complain about it. And that bothers me, because I feel like it stems from an unrealistic expectation of what these places are.
Personally, I really liked all the graffiti and street art for a lot of reasons. I’ve always been into graffiti. Every city has its own graffiti culture, and every tagged wall or sign post is a window into that. Regardless of your opinion on graffiti, there are some undeniably talented people doing it. There’s a lot of uber-famous artists who started as graffiti and street artists. Obama’s famous “Hope” poster was done by Shepard Fairey, the founder of OBEY who began as a skater and, you guessed it, a street artist.
JR is another artist (a photographer) whose whole thing was putting huge black-and-white portraits of people on city walls. You might know his famous Face 2 Face project, where he put up giant portraits of Israeli and Palestinian people on the West Bank Wall. And that project wasn’t legal in any way.
But that’s the main point of why I like graffiti. If artists like JR followed the rules, we’d miss out on a lot. And now for the cool part — JR is from Paris. The Parisian street art scene produced one of my favorite street artists and photographers, and a whole lot more.
There’s another famous street artist from Paris, known as Invader. He’s someone, just like JR, who I first learned about in my high school French classes. His art isn’t so much my primary interest, but it’s still super cool, and I saw one in the wild.
The second reason I love graffiti is that it grounds the city. I already talked about how some cities are elevated to mythic proportions. Graffiti-covered walls are not only free museums for anonymous artists, but also reminders that it’s a real place. And real places can be dingy and maybe a little unsightly. Even Paris. But why’s that a bad thing?
So yeah. Street art. It’s important. Let’s be real here — the art world can be pretty pretentious and inaccessible. Street art needs to exist because it’s communal. For better or worse, everyone sees it. Sure, everyone has to see the shitty graffiti that doesn’t really serve much of a purpose except to take up space. But that’s the price we pay for the continuance of the anonymous culture that produces artists like JR, and C215 (also from Paris), and Banksy.
From Kathmandu to Paris and everywhere in between, city walls are mediums for a lot of good work. Work that, if in a museum, would be lauded and praised. But it’s out in the open for everyone, and often no one even knows who made it. It’s art for art’s sake and nothing else.
The Tour de France
When I made my first Instagram post from Paris, a couple relatives of mine commented that I’d be there for the Tour de France finish. I’m sure they thought they were pointing out the obvious, but I had no idea. But my last night in Paris just so happened to be July 28 — the finish.
I toyed with the idea of going for a couple days. I wasn’t exactly sure where it was going to be, and furthermore, I wasn’t sure if I was even going to be able to see it if I went. If all my previous attempts to see the sights in Paris had been any indication, then there’d be a huge crowd and I wouldn’t even get close.
But on the day of, I had one of those wtf is wrong with me moments. Like, how happy would I be with myself if I just decided to skip the chance to see the Tour de France? Not very happy, that’s for sure.
So I got on the subway, got off at Champs-Élysées-Clemenceau, and followed the crowd. Sure enough, it led me right to the marked-off street and a whole lotta bike hooligans; my people. If there’s one possession I missed while abroad, it’s my bike.
The crowd was pressed up against the fences, eagerly awaiting the first group. I had arrived with about 15 minutes to spare. I saw quite a lot of Colombian flags waving, and for good reason — it was a Colombian guy that won! I saw Egan Bernal become the first ever Latin-American Tour de France winner. His fans went nuts, and I got some of my best photos to date. Win-win!
Final Thoughts on Paris
Since I had no real plans for my time in Paris and just focused on covering ground and mellowing out, I didn’t really end up with that much to actually say about it. But there’s one thing that, for some reason, I’ve ended up thinking a lot about since leaving.
Are Parisians rude?
Paris is known for many things, good and bad. Mostly good, I’d say, but it’s not escaped the unfortunate stereotype that a lot of big cities get. I’ve heard a lot from a lot of people — rude, snobby, impatient. When I first met my French friends who I spent a lot of time with in Nepal, we even talked about it. “Don’t think we’re rude because we’re French — we’re not from Paris,” they said.
But I’m not sure if I found anyone who I’d consider “rude.” Granted, I just spent five days wandering the streets, but I had enough encounters to be confident in my disagreement. Yeah, people aren’t exactly coming up to you on the street and being like, “Welcome to Paris,” or whatever. When I busted out my admittedly rusty French, fucked up a sentence, and outed myself as a foreigner, no one was snooty about it. Maybe a little bit annoyed because most people speak English as well, which would’ve expedited the conversation, but never hostile.
At one point, I had a random Frenchman rescue me from a pickpocket. I was at the Louvre and someone was trying to get me to sign a petition. They wouldn’t take no for an answer, and before I could get away, a guy came running and went off on the people talking to me.
Overall, I suppose I’d describe most of my interactions as being slightly abrupt, but I’d only consider them rude if I was looking at them in a pessimistic light. Paris is just a big city. People are busy. It’s the same reason New Yorkers have a reputation of being gruff or downright mean (which I also didn’t find when I was in New York). It’s just a city thing. Which makes me think about all the people I’ve ever met who went to Paris and came back saying, “Wow, they were so rude.”
Like, what were you expecting?
So for the last time, let’s revisit this conversation about city personalities. Is Paris like Kathmandu, where the city feels welcoming and glad that you’re there?
Is it like Baku, where the city feels like it not only doesn’t care that you’re there, but is also a little annoyed by it?
Or is it like Beijing, where it’s just big and busy and no one really has time to care about yet another foreigner bumbling around?
I’m inclined to classify Paris the same as Beijing. If you show up expecting a warm welcome, you’re probably not going to get it, and then you’ll end up feeling like Paris was unwelcoming.
But if you show up with the expectation that Paris is just another big city that doesn’t have the time to make you feel special, it’s totally different. It won’t go out of its way to make sure you’re comfy and feel welcomed. But it also (generally) won’t go out of its way to let you know that you’re a nuisance.
I remember reading about this thing called Paris Syndrome. It’s a legitimate, documented condition where visitors to Paris exhibit extreme shock as a result of their preconceived notions of Paris not matching the reality of Paris. The symptoms are pretty hilarious, honestly. Delusion, hallucination, derealization (where the real world seems unreal), and vomiting have, among others, all been observed. I don’t mean to say that these symptoms themselves are funny, but let’s be real. The idea that Paris is so hyped-up that there are people who go into shock when they realize it’s literally just another city is pretty funny.
It’s essentially very severe culture shock, and it’s mostly been observed among Japanese travelers, but it’s a thing. I think that a lot of Paris’s reputation has come from generations of travelers experiencing Paris Syndrome to some degree. One common symptom of Paris Syndrome is feelings of persecution. In other words, feelings of being the target of prejudice, hostility, and aggression from others. Sound familiar?
Paris is a victim of its own reputation. But don’t let me make it sound like I didn’t like Paris, because it’s not that. Despite the unbelievable hype that elevates a city to the stratospheric mythology and legend, Paris actually delivers in a lot of ways. I think that a lot of its reputation for rudeness and hostility comes from waves of travelers experiencing Paris Syndrome who simply can’t deal with the fact that Paris is a real, genuine city, complete with graffiti, homeless people, and yes, occasional rude people.
But don’t let this long ramble make you think that I didn’t like Paris or Parisian people. I loved both. Definitively. It was a good and proper way to close out this past year. Because Paris was my last stop.
And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go watch Ratatouille.
Also, obligatory RIP 😢