I’ve returned to Paris after 12 years. One of the formative trips of my travel style and of my life for that matter. So coming back here gives me the chance to revisit myself in a way, too. Like the military man of World War I, paying tribute to the Marquis de La Fayette who, during the American Revolution shaped our country, I have come to Paris.
There’s definitely some of the old snooty Paris I remember. Like when I sat down at a place, asked for a menu and was told it was not a restaurant indignantly in French and nearly shooed away. Maybe a cafe only I thought as I stood up to leave. Then noticed the “Restaurant Boulangerie” sign above the awning. It was this attitude to which my friend muttered “frog” under his breath last time I was here.
But that’s the exception and definitely not the rule. Most people here are very friendly to foreigners, once you engage them. Like the waitress where I ended up eating that night. She apologized for her poor English (in fairly good English) and helped me navigate the menu. When she wanted to describe her favorite dish – the daily special not on the menu – she dragged the sandwich board over and walked through what it was. Madagascar cuisine. Not particularly French (she also apologized for being a bad French and not having a French food as her favorite), but very hip nonetheless. And very tasty too.
Some things which must have been here but I didn’t notice. Like the North African market by my hotel. And all the other foreigners who are not here for vacation. The diversity of this city and this neighborhood is astounding with dozens of different cultures coming face to face. Lots of evidence of France’s colonial past and their hold over their former territories. Unlike the Spanish who tried to assimilate the cultures and genes. And unlike the English who tried to displace the native populations. France had a very laissez-faire attitude, preferring more of a partnership than a more heavy-handed rule.
Has it changed? Sure. There’s wifi, electric cars for rent by the hour, you pay in Euro instead of French Francs. But I don’t think I can get a good feeling for any changes that are deeper than that. My memory is too hazy and my observations too superficial with the time I have here. So sadly you’ll have to get that information from someone else.
And there are changes in myself. I’m less apt to visit a tourist site than just meander around. To practice cultural tourism at the street level – as it is now being defined, not how it was shaped in the past. I used to force myself to do the normal tourist route and try to see the famous sites and scenes, no matter how much they didn’t interest me. But I don’t any longer, for instance I didn’t see the Eiffel Tower or Champs Elysees this past trip.
And I don’t try as hard to act like a respectful tourist. Instead I’m just myself with deference to the unknown, like the language and mannerisms. Respecting the culture but not trying to eat it all at once like the proverbial elephant. And not as ready to assess an entire culture based on experiences from a limited exposure (despite my treatment in this post to try to categorize everything).
And I’ve learned to break myself of the habit of being too prepared. I used to pile everything I thought I might possibly use into my bag. But I quickly learned that made it impossibly large and heavy. For more on that, see my series on travel skills and packing tips.
But I do still love discovery and travel for its own sake. Meandering is something I used to space between doing what I thought I ought to do. My game was to get lost and then find myself when I got nervous. Now I don’t worry about nerves and just trust that I can either find my way or ask someone. Some of that has to do with the technology I travel with, but some of it is just confidence that everything will work itself out even if it takes a bit longer than I’m expecting. That attitude has served me well and gotten me to some great spots that most people never see or know about.
But there are changes that I don’t like. I’ve never thought twice about a several hour detour just to see something I wanted to. For me getting there really is the fun part. But those trips are much fewer and farther between now. That’s a shame because it’s almost as promising a prospect as it used to be. I just don’t make the opportunities like I used to. True, I travel a lot more now, but I’m not sure I’m not missing something here and there. Long road trips with good music and audiobooks used to be a favorite activity of mine. I miss those days, and maybe I can recapture the feeling of meaning and purpose some other way.
But what about the places I remember so fondly from my first time here? I’m sure you’re asking that question, as I was. I guess I was avoiding those places. I didn’t want to find that they were gone or that they weren’t the same. But even worse I didn’t want to find that they were the same but horrible, with my mind polishing them to a shine and setting them on the windowsill of my memory. For my last night in the city I went back to my old haunts.