PARIS: The Romantic City?
I was sharing a bathroom with three other people, the four of us well into our third hour of throwing up something not quite legal we’d bought from somewhere near Montmartre when I began to ask, “What’s so romantic about Paris?”
When you first arrive in the city, you’re greeted with some of the most beautiful architecture you might ever see. Just from stepping outside Gare de Lyon, I was already sold. Everything is trimmed in fine detail, in elegant cream and gold colours. The thousands upon thousands of tall buildings, with their vertical windows and tapered grey roofs. There’s really no denying that it’s a spectacular city with centuries of dense history. It’s the second most visited tourist destination in the world (after Bali, almost its opposite) and you can see why, but is it romantic?
We wandered into the city on a rainy day, dodging cigarette butts and scammers. We took the metro from Gare de Lyon to Anatole France (I’m uncertain how many other cities have train stations named after poets) and stumbled around in half-French half-English to borrow a stranger’s phone so we could call our CouchSurfing hosts. We met up with them half an hour later, two Hungarian expats who (I’m sure they wouldn’t mind me saying) were about as bohemian as two people could be.
I drank a black coffee and looked out over the Levallois rooftops, still trying to take in all the minuscule Parisian details. The rain had dried up, and the sun came low through the clouds in the west, lighting up streaks of stone and tile. “What brought you to Paris?” I asked. “We just wanted to go Paris,” one of them said. And this seems to be a bizarre but very common truth of Paris. Nobody knows why they want to go there, they just know that they do. It’s sort of the idealised embodiment of travel – ranked only with Rome, New York, and perhaps London. Nietzsche once said, “As an artist, a man has no home in Europe save in Paris,” while Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, and Hugo shared similar praise. While walking through the Jardin du Luxembourg or visiting la Pompadour, I saw beautiful gardens and world-famous paintings, but I felt no romance.
We walked underneath the tour Eiffel, our eyes fixed not on the giant post-card photo, but on the hundreds of Roma women trying on scams with their clipboards. “No English, Svenska?” Anna told them – a favourite phrase of ours. The grass beyond it was muddy from the almost constant Autumn rain. People stood patiently, while their partners stood at the perfect angle for a photograph of what is perhaps the most photographed structure in the world. The tower itself is so iconic, an obvious must-see for anybody passing through Paris, but what I found most fascinating about it was the the disparity between the postcard Eiffel and the real one. In person it’s cold metal, harsh and grey like builders’ scaffolding, but massive, larger than it looks in any photo. That’s not to say I wasn’t fond of the tower, I was, but in the setting of the Champ de Mars, I found no airy romance, only a giant and familiar iron lattice.
There is a condition, especially prevalent among Japanese tourists, called “Paris syndrome”, characterised by a number of symptoms including delusion, anxiety, feelings of persecution, and derealisation. The French psychiatry journal Nervure said in 2012 that among other reasons (exhaustion, language barrier, cultural difference), a big cause of Paris syndrome is the disparity between the way Paris is represented in popular culture, and the way tourists actually experience Paris. It is reported that 20 Japanese tourists each year suffer from this condition partially as a result of not being about to reconcile their own idea of Paris with what they actually see when they get there.
Near Notre Dame, there are two bridges, each absolutely covered in locks, put there by lovers as a statement of undying romance. Rumour has it that there are in fact so many, that they are sometimes cut with tools to make room for more. So why these particular bridges? Paris is full of bridges, so why does a young man walk all the way from his building to this one to place a lock? The answer is simply that it is the love lock bridge. The more people said it was so, the more it became so. And just as this bridge is the designated place for love locks and nobody who ever put one there can tell you why, Paris is the city of love. It just is. Honeymooners and artists alike will tell you, “it just is.”
The four of us wandered along the Seine, drunk on vodka, watching the shimmering purple, red, and yellow lights which devour the city at night, and I realised Paris is one of my favourite cities in Europe, not for its lights or its canals, but for its grime and its dirt. For the dirty substances we got from shady men, and the constant smell of urine on the metro. I thought maybe I understood what Nietzsche meant, and that it wasn’t the same as what the tourist guides did. Maybe there was romance in Paris, but if there was, it wasn’t found it gardens or galleries, it was found in wine-soaked flats and half-empty basement bars. If you want a honeymoon, go to Venice.