Last night, as I was getting ready to go to bed, I was suddenly struck by the urge to have une infusion and some Speculoos to dip in it. As the smell of the hot tea's steam mixed with spicy cookie crumbs wafted toward my nose, a Proustian involuntary memory suddenly leaped into my mind, one of many evenings spent in a similar manner huddling in the kitchen of my 18th-century French apartment, trying to shut out the cold damp winds of a rainy Brittany winter.
As I was remembering things past in France, my mind wandered and I got to thinking about how at precisely this time three years ago I was there, gaining a new perspective, not on Brittany (which I dearly love), but on one of my least favorite parts of the country.
It was Valentine's weekend. Because Spain is amazing and people there work to live rather than vice versa, I had a couple of days off for Carnaval, and I was very excited. Being that I was a weary singleton, I wanted to escape the lovey-dovey couples all around me and go on an "I love you, self" getaway. So since
I am a masochist I had a burning desire to see the timbered houses of Strasbourg, I of course booked a budget flight to the most romantic of all cities--Paris.
After arriving in Paris late on a Friday evening and basically just crashing, the next day I used my brand-new first-ever douze vingt-cinq SNCF train card to get over to Strasbourg for much less money than anticipated. But freezing my bum off for an unexpectedly snowy two days in the timbered city pushed me to decide to cut my trip short.
Strasbourg's Petite France looked like something out of Harry Potter, but wet frozen feet combined with happy couples everywhere had me feeling pretty crummy!
So I soon found myself back in Paris again with a few days to kill before my flight back to Vigo, knowing no one and having no real plans. For many people and most francophiles in particular, an unexpected couple of days in Paris sounds like a dream come true.
Not me, though. Ever the aberrant, I have to admit: I've never really liked Paris.
Sure, as a kid before I'd ever been there I used to dream of café au lait in bohemian cafés along the Seine, strolling the Champs-Élysées in chic outfits, having a picnic in front of the Eiffel Tower.
And then at sixteen, I went and I got rudely bumped on the sidewalk, saw a fire in the street, and told that my accent in French was horrible et incompréhensible. (This was probably true, at least when I was in high school and had never actually spoken to a real live French person before). I went again several years later and was given counterfeit Euros, slept in a hostel with bedbugs, narrowly avoided being pickpocketed, and witnessed a scary accident in front of l'Arc de Triomphe. Just last year, I got caught in terribly stressful rush hour traffic with my parents, then was propositioned marriage in a gas station by a clerk who still refused to take my American non-chip credit card. (How rude, amirite!?)
In fact, my second-scariest moment as a single female traveler happened in Paris (a story I'd tell, if it didn't make me queasy just thinking about what could have happened to me--thank god nothing did).
My plethora of icky memories of dirty smelly rude old Paris is only vindicated by the overabundance of non-parisien French people I've met who share my opinions (including nearly all my breton students)!
But still, on this particular Valentine's weekend, I tried to give Paris another chance to charm me, at the very least because I was stuck there for a couple of days and had nothing better to do. So I booked a room at a cute little Montmartre hostel whose name I don't remember and set out on a walk.
I was in great luck, because just as I was gravitating towards the Moulin Rouge, the Baz Luhrmann film about which first inspired me to study French back in 2001, I saw a group of people congregating by a young man holding up an orange sign that said "Free Montmartre Tour!"
Intrigued, broke, and bored, I moved closer and hastily decided to join them just as they were about to leave.
The guide, it turns out, was an American with a French mother who had recently decided to rediscover his roots and had come to study at the American University of Paris. As he took us around the most interesting spots of Montmartre, he regaled us with stories of feeling strange in Paris because the French he spoke was only suitable for talking to little old ladies, and how he felt lost amongst his peers, who used verlan and peppered their speech with Arabic words and SMS abbreviations. I could relate, having learned formal French from textbooks and teachers who had studied abroad there decades ago.
Not only were the guy's stories interesting, he took us to places in Montmartre that I hadn't come across in my previous visits and told us about the history of the village, which I'd never heard before. As we moved from the market behind the Sacré-Cœur to the original pre-19th-century mills that gave the Moulin Rouge nightclub its name, from Van Gogh's old apartment to the café where Amélie worked, I began to remember what it was about Paris that had attracted me in the first place.
Actually, it wasn't "Paris" at all, but that little village nearby on la butte that was once the center of la vie bohème, and still houses the best view I've ever had of all of the city (even if the locals do think that the Sacré-Cœur is an eyesore).
I ended up meeting some fellow travelers on that Montmartre tour who took me first to an art show in a warehouse, then to some of their favorite Parisian spots for dinner later in the evening. The whole night was such a positive experience that, eager to compound it, I decided to join the full Paris tour with the same company the next day, which ended up being private because no one else showed up!
That Valentine's weekend is, to date, the only time I've ever felt anything approaching love for Paris. It's amazing what one tiny good experience can do to your feelings!
Still, you'll have to excuse me for not jumping to proclaim ‹‹Paris, je t'aime!›› That one weekend helped my opinions change from ‹‹Paris, je te déteste›› to ‹‹Paris je te...(je ne sais pas.)›› I feel apathetic about the city now more than anything else, and it's still probably my least favorite part of France in general. It's better than outright hate, but I don't see Paris ever being on my favorite worldwide cities list.
However, in the spirit of verité, beauté, liberté et amour, I have no qualms whatsoever about shouting over the rooftops ‹‹Montmartre, je t'aime!››
...And hey, since it IS on a hill, it shouldn't be too hard to get myself back there one day to do exactly that!
But Montmartre, my love, I'm certain that we will meet again one day. You're worth the effort, even if I do have to brave yucky old Paris to get to you.
Mon valentin, Montmartre
By the way, in case you all were wondering, the orange-signed tour company's name is Culturefish, and I'd highly recommend their free tours of both Montmartre and central Paris. And no, they have no idea that I'm writing this...I just took their tours three years ago and have been meaning to promote them to people ever since! Timely, I know. ;-)