I spent the last weekend in the City of Light. Although, Paris can’t hold a candle to glorious Strasbourg, but it was pretty swell nevertheless.
I began my travels in one of the most European of ways: trains. I had the fortune of riding an SNCF train from Strasbourg to Paris in a little over two hours. This quick, smooth jaunt made my prior trips on Amtrak feel like a set of anemic mine-cart rides in comparison. Once I made it to Paris Est, one of the many train stations (“gares” in French) in town, we headed to our final destination by metro.
Have I mentioned before how much I hated public transit? Well, since living in Strasbourg, I’ve learned to tolerate it, if only because the tram is necessary for survival. Now, I thought I was relatively experienced at public transit…but the Paris metro blew my mind. The metro itself was a sprawling labyrinth, byzantine in construction, making it arduous to attempt to comprehend how to get from point A to point B.
Regardless, I ended up using that metro a ton during my time in Paris. There’s nothing quite like the eery blue-white glow of the metro at 2 in the morning…
Back to the story though. I ended up staying in Minerve Hotel, just a few blocks South of Île de la Cité, IE thewhere Notre Dame is located. Now, this hotel is pretty old-fashioned. For one, there is only one room key and it is held up at the front desk. If one wanted to get into their room, they have to the foyer and request it. Then, once they were finished, they’d give it back to the attendant. It was made abundantly clear that under no circumstances was I to take the key outside the premises. Go figure. Still beats Shiloh Inn.
I spent the following days eating fantastic food, traveling to museums and having a rancorously good time. Now, I won’t bore you with the inane details of what kind of food I ate or how many Van Gogh paintings I saw. Instead, here are a set of observations.
First and foremost, Paris is a very different city from Strasbourg. Crazy thought, I know, that a predominately French city would be different from a historical German city. Still, the differences were markedly obvious. The architecture in Paris, particularly within the central city, was eerily uniform. All of the buildings were of the same height, with the same blue-grey roofs and limestone facades. In contrast, the buildings in Strasbourg are far more varied. There’s the very Prussian, utilitarian buildings near Place de la République, the colorful half-timber houses in Petite-France, as well as the Gothic-style Cathedral and surrounding buildings in the centre-ville.
Speaking of cathedrals, the difference between the two cities can be evidenced by their two large centers of worship. Both are suitably massive and opulent, as well as sharing the same name Notre Dame, it is in my honest opinion that Notre Dame de Strasbourg is frankly better. It’s worth knowing that these two Notre Dames have been in a rivalry for hundreds of years and I’m totally willing to continue that rivalry through a blog post.
Notre Dame de Paris is more subdued and minimalistic in its outward façade, although its flying buttresses are suitably flamboyant. In comparison, Notre Dame de Strasbourg is Gothic, with thousands of ornate statues, gargoyles, and other figures. It’s outward façade is a veritable smorgasbord of Medieval iconography, and when the Cathedral is lit up at night, those ancient figures come to life, threatening to fly off into the night.
Of course, I could just be biased at this point. I live in Strasbourg now, after all. With all that being said, I have to admit that the uniformity of Paris created a wondrous sense of verisimilitude. I distinctly remember standing on the top of the Arc de Triomphe, marveling at the stunning city skyline. There’s something distinctly magnificent about that particular uniformity: it creates a sense of place like no other.
In any case, it’s time for the second large observation: poverty. There were times when I was walking down the opulent streets of Paris that, if not for the architecture, I could have sworn I was in the Tenderloin of San Francisco. The amount of beggars, homeless folks and refugees was astounding. There was a very visible plight that lingered in my thoughts over the weekend.
In addition, there were many enterprising immigrants ready to sell hokey trinkets to unsuspecting tourists. I have to give them credit: some of their ideas were pretty clever. Sure, there are the basic blokes who sell lead-based Eiffel Tower keychains for pennies on the Euro, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are the men with bouquets of roses who roam the streets and barge into restaurants, guilt-tripping young men into buying flowers for their female companions, romantic or not. Then there are the geniuses who sell wine and vodka under the Eiffel Tower, carrying the bottles in white painter’s buckets. Let me tell you, the latter group is relentless — the underbelly of the Tower is crawling with them at night.
This isn’t even addressing rampant petty theft and scams. Of course, that comes with the territory: big cities naturally have that problem in spades, doubly so for tourist capitol of the world. Still, it was something noticeable and unavoidable.
Finally, the third observation is this: Paris is a weird place. I suppose it’s only to be expected that a large, old city like Paris would have a few quirks. For example, I saw an absurdist play about a metaphorical female ‘student’ and male ‘professor’ called La Leçon. Over the course of this play, the student slowly unlearned everything do to the professor’s lesson, eventually being unable to speak or move coherently. It ended with her being stabbed by the professor with an invisible knife over and over. It was a psychosexual play to say the least. There's definitely plenty of people at Lewis & Clark who would like it — I certainly did.
Here's another example of peculiar: how about the massive over-saturation of comic book stores downtown? Seriously, it was ridiculous! I couldn’t walk a block without seeing a video game or comic book store. Star Wars paraphernalia practically overflowed onto the streets. Hell, there was one particular square where there were three different establishments of a comic book shop called Album, each on their own corner! It was like Starbucks, to be honest.
Speaking of nerddom, video games are a huge thing in France apparently. According to one of my professors, France is the number 3 producer and player of video games in the world, behind the U.S. and Japan. Apparently the massively popular Assassin’s Creed series is created here. Neat, right? Oh, it gets neater. There’s a whole museum dedicated to French video gaming…and I went to it, of course. It was awesome.
Oh, and did I mention that Chipotle is like a religious event for people there? I thought I was going to get a burrito and be done with it, but no, my meal there turned into a veritable Last Supper. The guacamole wasn’t too bad at least.
Or what about Shakespeare & Company, an antiquarian bookstore just across from Notre Dame? A labyrinthian bookstore, with old, first edition copies of Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac. Not to mention that all of the normal books were in English as well — All things French were noticeably absent. Hell, even all the employees were dyed in the wool English expats. Their accents alone made the place all the more magical.
But I digress. All in all, my trip to Paris was awesome. It was a huge change of pace from the comparatively quaint Strasbourg. It was a little big large for my tastes, to be sure, but it’s a place worth visiting. However, I can’t wait to come back to my newfound home in Alsace.