If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast. –Ernest Hemingway
For Paris is a movable feast. As a student living in Paris for the year, I have saved up a few questions to ask Mr. Hemingway if I ever had the chance to meet him in another life. The first would be what exactly will be served at this tantalizing feast of his? Should I imagine the traditional baguettes, croque-monsieurs, soupe d’oignon and, dare I say it, snails and frog legs? Or should I prepare myself instead for the Royal Cheese burger from McDonalds, a Starbucks coffee, and a greasy kebab? Secondly, who is invited to these festivities? If Hemingway plans to invite all of Paris, he won’t only serve his fellow writers and artists. He’ll have to include the bums sleeping on benches in the underground metro, the gypsy women begging for money with a baby in their arms, and the gangs of aggressive and destructive juveniles who smash out the lights in the train cars just for fun. Often I wonder to myself just what would Hemingway think about Paris if he could see it today.
Always a romanticist, I hate to strip anything of its magical appeal. I am all for the perfume commercials that show beautiful women in ball gowns frolicking about the Eiffel Tower. I would do that too, except for the fact that I would be harassed by groups of illegal immigrants all trying to sell me flashing plastic Eiffel Tower key chains. They surprisingly don’t show that in the commercials.
Although my vision of Paris has evolved over the course of several months living here, there was one particular event that made everything crystal clear. My friends and I had just left La Musée D’Orsay, which is a simply beautiful art museum housing the works of Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet, et Gauguin amongst many others. It was, in short, a very enriching cultural experience and I felt extremely satisfied as we walked down the stairs into the metro station. As we were waiting, we looked over and saw a bum with his bare backside propped up against the wall to take care of his needs. In this moment, as we all screamed and shielded our eyes, the true essence of Paris dawned on me. She is a most indecisive city, unsure whether to open her doors and show off beautiful masterpieces, or to exhibit less desired “works of art.”
Paris is not the city of love, but instead the city of enigma. Walking through her streets, some beautifully cobbled and others lined with dog droppings, we as travelers don’t know where we stand. Paris is our very own bipolar girlfriend. One minute she is ready to embrace us as one of her own, and the next we find ourselves on the curb. What power and mystique she must have to keep us coming back for more!
I have come to the conclusion that once we strip away the delightful architecture, the traditional accordion music forced upon us on the metros by starving musicians looking for a centime or two, and the awe inspiring monuments that are steeped in history, Paris is simply a large city. And as with any big city, she is prone to hordes of tourists, graffiti, bums, and people who wouldn’t give you a smile even if you paid them.
I did not grow up in a big city, so it took a while for the shock to settle in. One day before class I popped in to McDonalds to get a cheap bite to eat. A man sat down next to me at the bar, and kept staring at me while making a strange slurping sound with his mouth. Unable to properly digest my food with the revulsion I was experiencing, I quickly moved to another part of the restaurant. I picked a nice looking old man to sit next to. I thought I had chosen well until I realized he was singing to himself. Needless to say, I gave up on my meal. Deeply puzzled about how anyone could enjoy the big city life filled with interesting and unavoidable personalities, I thought back on all of the books I had read and all the television shows I had watched that glorified the city experience. The women on Sex and the City adored New York, so why couldn’t I feel the same about Paris? And then it came to me. These women took taxis everywhere they went, spent their time shopping at designer stores, and ate at high-class restaurants. I, on the other hand, was eating at McDonalds in an inner city shopping mall. I thus decided that being a student struggling with the Parisian prices and the dollar-euro exchange rate, I am feasting off the bottom of Paris’s ecosystem. I am at the watering hole, and surrounded by animals.
Can Paris, then, live up to her romantic appeal? If we have the money. For those of us who have a slightly smaller budget, we have to make the most of what is given to us. Once we get over our expectations to see lovers dancing on the banks of the Seine and perfectly trimmed white poodles that wouldn’t dare leave any messy trace on the sidewalks for us to step in, we can finally accept Paris for what she is and for what she isn’t. This doesn’t mean that Hemingway was wrong by any means, for Paris truly is a moveable feast. I know I will take the good and bad with me for the rest of my life. This paradox of a city, this enigma hiding behind each corner ready to delight or disappoint, truly makes Paris an adventure to be had every day. There certainly is romance in the air, and there is inspiration every which way we look…unless we look down. What these romantic perfume commercials on the television overlook is that these flouncing women in flowing dresses have to step very carefully on their way to the Eiffel Tower.