Is Paris Burning?

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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.

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10 Comments on “Is Paris Burning?”

  1. christy Says:

    Abra, have you checked egullet for recommendations for Sunday and Monday dining? I know there have been threads because I’ve used them to plan our own meals, and there are quite a few good options for those days.

    I’ve only been to Paris twice as a tourist, so by no means am I an expert, but Paris dazzles me. It’s funny you mention that you see a gritty side–that was my reaction to the cities of Provence (Avignon, Arles, and even some of the countryside in between), which are portrayed so much differently in travel shows and guidebooks that they appeared to me in real life, But I feel very sheepish for even writing that, as if these places should be spit-shined and polished for the American tourist.

  2. Terry Says:

    Abra, I agree that Paris has a gritty character, which my family and I experienced when we were there last spring. Yet, that was one of aspects that endeared the place to us. The cultural diversity in the Metro made the city seem vibrant, alive. My daughter found the long black coat/blue jean look very chic indeed (and my tweed sport coat and wool pants very frumpy). I’m sorry to hear you have not had luck with the food. We ate well when we were there (but alas, paid dearly). I would recommend Le Petit Troquet at 28 rue del’Exposition in the 7th, it was a little pricey, but very much worth it.


  3. Hi Abra –
    My friends Stephanie and Charles directed me to your blog and asked if I could give you some dining advice for Paris. (I’ve been living in Paris since June, and am a bit food-focused.) Shoot me an email (you can do so on my blog) letting me know what neighborhoods are most convenient for you and I can try to give you some suggestions!

  4. PK Says:

    Hello- I found your site through eGullet and have been enjoying reading about your adventures in France. You didn’t mention where in Paris you stay when you visit, but one suggestion for Sundays in Paris is to go to the Marais. You will find many shops, cafes and restaurants open there. You will find a mix of parisiennes and tourists; it’s quite fun for people watching. If you post more about the types of food experiences you are looking for in Paris, I could make some more specific restaurant or cafe suggestions.

    Another suggestion would be to take Paris buses in addition to the metro. Some of the bus routes, for example bus 29, take you from the Opera to the Marais and can be thought of as an inexpensive tour of Paris, rather than just a means to go from point A to B.

    Hope this is helpful, -PK

  5. Abra Says:

    I really appreciate all of your suggestions. We do stay in the Marais, and there are places open, but so far we haven’t found anything really good on those days, even having consulted eG quite extensively So fire away with the suggestions, please! And Terry, I’ll check out Le Petit Troquet for sure.

    I hope no one thinks I’m complaining about Paris. I’m just revealing what we see, which is a different view from the guidebook one. Or rather, as the picture at the top of this post shows, the beauty is all there, but it’s not all that’s there.

  6. Lucy Vanel Says:

    Abra dear, you might pick up a guide that has affordable recs (like the Pudlo Paris). I think you might have difficulty finding the English version of it here in France, but the French versions are available just about anywhere in the city. It’s funny you should talk about the grit of the big city – in many ways, navigating through it on a mission when you’re not sure what’s around each corner can be very gritty indeed. I spent some time in London recently and was thnking the same thing. I hope that as you come to know the places and neighborhoods you like, you find the sparkle you were hoping for. L

  7. PK Says:

    Hello again,

    It is great that you stay in the Marais, so I’ll try to suggest in that area. It would be helpful to know where you have been and what about it disappointed you. For example, have you tried:

    Le Loir dans la Théière
    Café Hugo
    Café des Musées

    and what did you think of them?

  8. Mikki Says:

    I remember The Metro all to well on my only visit to Paris. Very colorful to say the least. The two things that stick in my mind were two drunks. One was a drunk old vagrant throwing up his last drink. As I took one look at my husbands face I wanted to laugh. He was so disgusted by the whole thing and I found his tolerance or lack of rather funny. We were there during the summer. Apparently, the first day of summer brings a huge street party. The Metro was so packed the people on the outside were pushing the people on the inside in order for the doors to shut. I was sandwiched next to a drunk drummer with drumsticks in hand. I’ll I could think of was, please don’t throw-up on me. I could barely move and there was no place to go. The Metro is a trip in itself.

  9. Chef Bill Says:

    I have just discovered this website from another PCN Member.
    My Bride of 26 years and I will be in Bordeaux and Paris the first part of May.
    I look forward to reading more of the posts about France.

  10. Sylvia Says:

    If you’re in the 14th, try the Bistro Montsouris (just across the street from Parc Montsouris) — small husband and wife establishment, modest, good. Then, if you go straight down the street that the Bisto is on, about 4 blocks, you’ll find a Pakistani buffet restaurant that is clean, cheap and very good.


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