Like with any iconic city, one cannot help but be predisposed to certain images and expectations. New York evokes flashes of the Empire State Building and watching the ball drop on New Year’s Eve. Sydney recalls the smell of the ocean air while surfing Bondi Beach or staring up at the Opera House. London brings to mind Big Ben in the rain, snug in boots and a pea coat.
And as for Paris? Well, that goes without question. Both romance and the Eiffel Tower are the trademarks for which the French capital is revered.
So what business did a group of 20-year-old American girls have in the city of love and lights? With the opportunity to study in Europe for the summer, a weekend in Paris swiftly became a reality. We imagined twirling down the Champs-Élysées, baguette in hand, donning berets while stealing looks with French boys. We thought of champagne and violins, statuesque women and men with facial hair, art and sophistication. But, as usual, the unexpected always has a way of sneaking in.
We stepped off the train and right into a world of grey. Soggy newspapers bled onto the already ashen walkways, rain pelted the buildings and dripped down the sides, and black cabs rode by without a glance. It was not a promising start to the trip, but we sauntered on. If black is the chic color of fashion, Paris was just showing off.
When the rain finally calmed, we found ourselves enticed with the details of the city. We sipped wine at lunch in back-alley cafés. We lounged under the Eiffel Tower with fresh fruit for breakfast, and glimpsed beautiful statues that were so common we almost overlooked them. These small snippets of luxury were all the more meaningful because the rest of the trip was not nearly as smooth as that fragrant Parisian wine.
Never being one on the cutting edge of fashion, I thought the least I owed this city was suffering through the day in heels. This was the first, and most painful, faux pas I made. I edged through the crowds and into the Louvre, where every step became excruciating. After peering at the Mona Lisa through tears, I did what any bunion-fearing female would do: I took off my shoes. What was more surprising than a barefoot girl in the Louvre, was how I made it all the way to the Sphinx before getting yelled at and almost thrown out!
Tottering through the rest of the museum, all I could think about was how I wished I had sucked it up and glorified the American stereotype by rocking my Nikes.
We ticked off a few historical and educational boxes and went out to celebrate with a nice dinner in search of those famous heartbreaking Frenchmen. What we got, instead, was the entire Scottish Rugby team who, although uninvited, sat with us anyway. The maître de promptly moved us outside where we surrendered to noise complaints for the rest of the evening. As each moment went by, thoughts of nicely accented invitations to the French coast were replaced with grunts, snarls, and a nearly impenetrable version of English. While standing, these men used our heads as beer coasters and attempted to teach us the Scottish anthem.
As entertaining as it was, if we had wanted to meet a Scotsman we would have gone to Edinburgh.
In tune to that night, we saw and experienced the absolute “musts” of Paris in our own way. We posed like hunchbacks outside of Notre Dame, pretended to be royalty at The Palace of Versailles, slowly shopped up the cobbled streets of Montmarte, and rummaged through designer stores with the Arc de Triomphe peering down upon us. We had our first run-in with European Techno music as we danced through the nights, yet we always seemed to make our way to the Eiffel Tower in time for the daily light show. It’s funny how every girl falls for this building of iron, when usually we gravitate towards decorative diamonds and gold.
Although I found that Paris was not the city that I had romanticized in daydreams, the experience was more significant because of it. We looked the other way when confronted with curt smiles and cigarette smoke because the art, architecture, and food were unparalleled. Paris is a proud city, and one that does not hide behind its main attractions.
Standing at the top of the Eiffel Tower at sunset, with a ridiculously overpriced flute of champagne in hand, a group of college girls toasted to feeling at the top of the world (sore feet and all).
Photo credit: Stuck in Customs