I first came to this city as a teen, delirious and in love with the fact that it was as beautiful in life as it was in the images I had seen in photos and films. It charmed me, even as I had a sense of unreality in walking the streets of a city in which every square foot was marked with a depth of history–of other feet walking those same steps–that I could hardly begin to comprehend.
My subsequent visits were enjoyable, albeit not as delirious–but the city still enchanted and engaged me, both for its contemporary culture and ambience, as well as because it marked the site of such an immense accumulation of history.
It’s been a few years since my last visit–long enough that it’s hard to know to what extent the city itself has changed, and to what extent my latest impressions are formed by the ways in which I have changed. I am still enjoying the feel of thickly-painted history, infusing every inch of this place. But I’m also struck by the feeling that I’m visiting a theme park version of Paris rather than the actual city itself. Were there really this many tourists here on previous visits? Now admittedly, we’ve been visiting the sites and the sights of the city–places which I expect most inhabitants would avoid the way that I avoid Yonge and Dundas on Saturday afternoons. But even so, it feels as though there’s barely space for Parisians, and instead, the streets are thronged by fellow tourists.
The lineups for the Eiffel Tower and other such attractions are memorably absurd–I’m sure I would have remembered such long waits if I’d been forced to experience them on previous visits (or, I’d remember that I’d decided to give the attraction a pass because of the wait. This kind of thing stays with me).
Paris has cleaned up in many good ways as well, I’ll admit. There’s far less dog poop, and the ubiquitous cigarette smoke in restaurants that was a feature of my previous stays is no longer present. I was also happy to note washrooms that are a significant improvement from my past horrified recollections (Toronto, you could take a lesson on that last point).
And then, there are the opportunists and pickpockets seeking to take advantage of the throngs.
We’ve witnessed the ring scam being attempted on at least three occasions (someone pretends to find an apparently gold ring, asks if it’s yours, and goes from there, in an attempt to get some money out of you). We’ve also been exhorted to sign at least two petitions (also a standard scam in which the petition-signing is apparently a smokescreen for pickpocketing). Everywhere, including in museums, there are announcements to watch your pockets and bags, because of theft.
The presence of such suffocating masses saddens me–not because I count myself any different from any of the other tourists in the city, but because it makes me feel as though the real Paris is ever more distant and more elusive. The city of natives, immigrants, and expats–the people who live and work in this place, is all the more difficult to glimpse because of the ever-thickening layers of tourists. And, while Paris has been a destination for centuries, it’s starting to feel as if now, more than before, the two realities of transient tourists and long-term residents, are becoming ever more discrete and sealed off from each other.
The Paris I visited seemed, strikingly, a city of sites and monuments–not of inhabitants and lives, except as glimpsed briefly, out of the corner of my eye, like an illusion, flickering on the outer edge of my vision.
But then again, perhaps the real illusion is any belief that holiday travels ever do provide anything more than such brief flickers and glimpses of actual lives, no matter the city or place.