Is Paris Burning?
We’ve been in Paris the past couple of days for a medical appointment. When we arrived home we learned that during our visit a part of Paris had been in flames, riot-stricken. So separate are the various lives of Paris that we’d had no idea anything was amiss. The strike was over, the trains were running, and that’s all we knew. We heard a lot of sirens, but then, one hears a lot of sirens in Paris.
The Paris of everyone’s dreams is not quite the Paris we experience each time we go there. Sure, some of the women are chic, and most of them wear scarves and high-heeled boots, but if you take the Metro, as we do, almost everyone is in jeans and a black coat. In a dark teal-colored fleece jacket I’m often the brightest person in view.
The haunting, heartbreaking Paris skyline is still there. The streets are cleaned religiously each morning. The smell of croissants can still surprise you by blowing down the stairs and into the Metro, where a virtuoso accordion player plays for hours. Into the Metro where there’s the occasional crazy person, the occasional blind person negotiating the flights of steep stairs, and the exhausting reality of thousands upon thousands of people packed underground on their way to work and school and home again.
Paris is gritty in a way I hadn’t imagined before we began to make regular trips. And when I say gritty, I’m not talking about the really and truly gritty suburbs where kids burn schools and police stations. I’m just talking about your everyday heart-of-Paris life. I’m sure the glitter is there somewhere, besides in shop windows, but we’re not crossing its path. I’m imagining that the average Parisian leads a fairly glitter-free life as well.
And Paris is expensive in a way I hadn’t imagined. We spend a fortune on food when we’re there, and believe me when I tell you we’re generally eating quite badly. A truly mediocre dinner in Paris can cost $100 for two. Truly, a mediocre dinner at best. A really nice French dinner, not that we’ve had one, would be much closer to $300. For that reason we find ourselves eating Asian food in Paris, not that we mind that exactly, it’s just not what I expected.
Partly it’s because we’re always there on Sunday and Monday. Paris is also closed up tight in a way I hadn’t imagined. Dinner on a Sunday or Monday can be next to impossible to find. If you live there, I expect those are “family dinner at home” nights. But for a traveler, it’s a shock to find oneself in Paris struggling to find a decent meal.
And I can’t help but notice that a lot of faces are closed to us, too. In the Metro, which I’m coming to think of as the “real” Paris, the ethnic mix looks as diverse as in any large American city. I hear many languages I can’t name, and generally their speakers look right through me. France’s colonial history is on display in the Metro, as I believe it is in the deep suburbs where the police and the residents face off in the streets. I say that I believe this because of course I haven’t gone to see for myself. I don’t have it in me yet to see any more dreams of Paris dispelled.