As my plane landed on the runway of Charles de Gaulle, it suddenly dawned on me that it had been 5 years since my last visit to this country. For a self-professed francophile, 5 years is an awfully long time to not be visiting a place that you have such a strong affinity to. I asked myself pointlessly why I hadn’t thought of returning here earlier.
So I landed in France with a mixed feeling. There I was, about to visit the country for the second time after all these years, and yet I had no idea what to expect. The only thing I recalled was that 5 years ago, there were only very few things about France that I didn’t like. The frequent strikes was number one while Paris was number two in that list. I couldn’t do much about number one, but I fully intended to give number two a second chance especially because my husband tagged along this time. Who knows, perhaps strolling Paris with another person by my side might change my opinion of it.
For purely a reason of convenience, we drove straight to St. Malo, Brittany, the moment we landed. Hence, it wasn’t until 4 days later that I was able to give Paris its second chance. I was hoping that after spending several days in a more laid-back region, we would be better ‘equipped’ to tackle Paris. On top of that, I wanted my husband who was visiting the country for the first time to see the other side of France, the one I’ve loved before and continued to love, before going down and dirty among the rude and the touristy. I spent our 5-hours’ drive from Pont-Aven to Paris reminding him over and over the reasons why I disliked Paris just to manage his expectations a little bit.
Well, Paris is definitely a different kind of France than the one you see in the provinces. I guess no amount of warning could ever prepare you for what would await at Jardin des Tuileries and Louvre, especially if you decided to visit on a Saturday afternoon of all times. If it weren’t for the unique architectures that could have only existed in Paris, I would have believed I were in another country. Our ears were assaulted by the sounds of American English, Mandarin, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, even bloody Indonesian (not us, by the way!). We had to jostle and fight our way across throngs of people toting large shopping bags with Prada, Gucci, Coach and the likes written on them. If our journey had been made into an anime, you would have seen an aerial view of the two of us standing in the middle of the garden while the scene zoomed out further and further until we’re just a dot on earth, a voice echoing “我々はどこ???” (please excuse my crude Japanese).
Yes, the Seine was still as murky; the bridges, the churches and the squares still as crowded; and the impressive Parisian architectures tainted by groups of tourists taking selfies in front of them. And as expected, I did struggle to fight the urge to go back to the hotel and hide under the blanket but to be fair, that afternoon I also observed some changes and improvements that could make me see the city in a better light. The most noticeable improvement was in the metro stations. The French cleaned up their metro stations real good in the past 5 years, particularly in the central districts. I no longer felt as if I was about to be mugged while standing on the dingy platforms anymore. The walls have been scrubbed clean, maps of metro network could now be found everywhere, clearer signs pointing to the exits and to the connections, there were even newer trains with connecting carriages and automatic doors so you wouldn’t have to struggle with the lever anymore every time you wanted to exit. But what impressed me the most was the announcements being made in English on several metro lines. That certainly didn’t exist 5 years ago.
There was a certain sense of comfort in hearing more English being spoken by the French, and that was another observation I made in this visit. I found more Parisians speaking in English to tourists who lost their way, but on the other hand, I also encountered cases when my asking a question in French was quickly replied to in English. That was kinda discouraging cos it seemed as if they knew instantly I wasn’t a native speaker and would rather converse in English to save the trouble of miscommunication. This never happened to me in the provinces, where the locals were always more than happy to entertain my terrible command of French. Nevertheless, when the going gets tough, it’s still better to have more English-speaking Parisians who look down on foreigners attempting to speak French than to have a bunch of Parisians who refuse to speak English at all.
And so my second visit to Paris wound down as we descended the staircases of La Tour Eiffel at 1 am on Sunday morning. The Champ de Mars was completely dark and deserted, but we saw a couple of policemen patrolling around (more security patrols, that’s another improvement I noticed) while we waited for the last light-up so that my photo-obsessed husband could take one last picture. I must acknowledge that Paris wasn’t as bad as I kept telling myself it would be (that’s the joy of setting a low expectation, it becomes easier to be satisfied with something). There were definitely some things about this place that I would never be able to change, such as the crowd, the attitude of the people, or the smell of piss that seemed to permeate the air everywhere. But at least the improved infrastructure has helped to make this place less intimidating than I remembered it to be. Though I won’t be spending anymore time around the likes of Louvre and Eiffel, twice is more than enough, thank you, I actually won’t mind revisiting the other, quieter arrondissements if I come back next time. Until then, I would be content with just a pat in the back for having survived a Saturday afternoon here 🙂