Many people think of Paris as the epitome of French cities; a prime example of fine foods and haute French fashion, laced with stunning Haussmann architecture and a healthy dash of culture. It’s not untrue that the French capital is representative of these things. I spent more than my fair share of time sipping hot chocolate and coffee in pavement cafes, staring into the gates of hell at the Musée d’Orsay, and peering lustfully through the windows of Zadig & Voltaire, however these hollow pastimes aren’t reflective of my experiences in other French towns and cities.
From rustic Roman influence down in Provence, to snowy Alpine ski resorts; from the banlieues of Lyon and Marseille, to the open-airiness of Breton and Norman seaside towns; the French landscape is as varied as its inhabitants and, save for the superbly diverse population, I just don’t see much of it reflected in Paris. My experiences in France have been richly varied, often picture perfect, and thus far incomplete. In Normandy I’ve walked among the clean white graves of British and American soldiers, looked inside the sandy remnants of the D-Day landings, and walked the length of the Bayeux Tapestry. In Burgundy I’ve drunk red wine fresh from the vineyards, been woken up by hungry cows from an afternoon nap, and swum in lakes with freshwater fishes. I’ve been catcalled and harassed in the suburbs of Lille, sunbathed in the quiet leafy green parks on the outskirts of Tours, and danced in the Place Stanislas in the city of Nancy.
When I think back on my times in these places, there’s something very French about the way they felt, but the way I remember my time over those past eight months is distinctly Parisian, and not just because it was set in Paris. It’s true that it’s beautiful and fun, but it’s also expensive and polluted. In many Parisian parks it’s forbidden to set foot on the grass, and if you do find yourself with permission to graze you’ll have the equal privilege of a lungful of carbon monoxide. Much of the evidence of history is gone, whether through circumstance or shame, and indicated only by a tiny blue plaque, and yet there’s something intoxicating in the air (and it’s not the car fumes). Nowhere else have I sat-in on catwalk shows, partied on the metro, been gifted free Longchamps, suffocated outdoors while running, or seen in the New Year in front of a giant sparkling tower while drinking champagne. Paris is Paris and Paris wonderful; you just have to consider it as a standalone entity – the capital of its own little chic and dirty and magical world.