Dutch Diaries: Ideal or real?

Paris is a city of clichés, from eating a baguette while strolling through Montmartre to seeing the “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre. And when only there for a weekend, it’s hard to see much more than the main tourist attractions. Although it was my third time in Paris, I found myself retracing many of my footsteps through the city. My fellow travelers hadn’t been there before, and obviously wanted to see the monumental sites.

I like to think of myself as hardened against the romantic idealism of Paris. Yes, I like to walk over the love lock bridge, but I have also seen a man peeing into the Seine. There are plenty of adorable couples, but if you look past the kissing pairs you’ll see the homeless. There are cold realities, and having seen the romanticized version, I hoped to get something fresh from Paris — little more of the gritty history and tough Parisian spirit.

Yet the one native Parisian I know leads a completely romantic life: He lives in a tiny flat above a flower shop, where the widow in her 70s puts out her flowers at 6:30 every morning in the purple glow of pre-dawn. Even for him, even though this city is his home, it is still hard to be sad or cynical when he looks out his window and sees this old woman humming and knitting, smiling at passerbys.

In a strong French accent, he once told me that after spending a few years living in Amsterdam, he finally felt he could return to Paris. Living in the equally touristy but much less glamorous city of Amsterdam gave him a break from the romantic atmosphere of Paris. When he returned, he was comforted by the fact that so little of the city had changed, although the charms of Paris had renewed their influence on him after his time away. In a city where so many people come to fall in love and be amazed, he finds it hard not to feel the same way. Seeing the Eiffel Tower every day doesn’t diminish its magnificence.

On my third trip to Paris, when I was hoping to discover the day-to-day life of residents, I found myself instead rediscovering the magic of the city. It’s not a place to find something monumentally original, or experience a life changing epiphany. Paris, for me, is a place that reminds me of the excitement of traveling.

Our first stop was the Eiffel Tower. Arriving on an overnight bus gave us the opportunity to walk into the city at sunrise, and we were on our way up the massive steel structure by 10 a.m. 

My travel companion who’d never been to Paris expressed what I still think every time I see it in person: “Wow.”

As we climbed higher, we took moments to stop and stare at the view.

“I feel like I’m in heaven,” my friend said, as she took in the iconic sight of the Seine and Paris beyond, stretching out in the distance, for the first time.

In hearing her expression of wonder at the view from the Eiffel Tower, her awe at the Tuileries, and her amazement at the Palace of Versailles, I realized that these places, though touristy, still had an immense power over people, and that being charmed by them wasn’t something that was just for first time visitors.  I was looking for some version of Paris I could call mine, one that was different than the romantic city everyone else came to see. But I had to accept that it was okay to see what everyone else saw, and there was no point in trying to change the very nature of the city to fit my own expectations.

Every sight I saw in Paris, from entering Sacré Cœur for the first time, to visiting Notre Dame de Paris for the third, I tried to look at with a new set of eyes. And although I didn’t have the off-the-beaten path experience I was looking for, I fell in love with Paris a little more — something that’s not hard to do in a city that seems to stun one and all.