Thus, emerging from the metro stop at Notre Dame, I envisioned cultural luminescence and mimes in the streets and that musical language with accordion accompaniment, because for whatever reason American movies all depict Paris to accordion accompaniment, and I climbed the last step with anxious anticipation to the wondrous sight —of grey. All grey. Grey buildings, grey skies, grey concrete streets. Cigarette butts littering the sidewalks, tossed by Parisians huffing billowing grey clouds. A hazy smog from diesel engines blanketed the city, such that the illuminated nighttime Eiffel Tower shone against it like a spotlight.
I met an old friend studying in France —naturally, my tour guide and translator. His task: embodying Parisian culture. But to his chagrin, every waiter and shop owner would begin their conversation in French, hear his accent, and switch to English. They rejected his foreignness. I empathize; when Spaniards do it with me, I become irrationally insulted: “How dare you?! Don’t make my life easier!” My friend even asked one waitress to address him in French and me in English. Given that my French is a mispronounced “bonjour,” I happily accepted.
We swept the city, enjoying tourist sites and charming cafes. However, as a Catholic on Semana Santa, whose high school European history teacher had lauded Gothic architecture, I had one main request: churches. Churches, churches, the Louvre, and churches. In particular, Gothic ones. In my opinion, Gothic architecture is the embodiment of stereotypical Catholicism: grandeur, power, gargoyles to instill fear and guilt, thirteenth century masterpieces now crumbling like the Church’s influence.
Breathe in the dust of cathedral ruins —ah, yes, the smell of Catholicism.
We waited two hours to walk Notre Dame’s tower, the crowning glory of Gothic cathedrals, and thirty minutes for St. Chapelle. I was determined. After my friend returned home, I even ventured out to St. Denis, Europe’s first Gothic church, alone. Which was hard. Fifteen euros in wasted metro passes and three subway changes later, I finally divined the route to it: incidentally, it’s outside the city. And then, arriving in Paris’ outskirts with little sunlight left, I detrained into a swarm of four dozen peddlers. I then realized that St. Denis was a disadvantaged migrant town. And I was the only white boy in sight.
“You’re fine, Nolan,” I said, drawing my sleeve over my Apple Watch. “Don’t worry. You’re safe. I’m sure. Sure, sure.” Every conversation sounded like the plot to kidnap me —I couldn’t know; I don’t speak French. But I was determined. I donned a poker face, power walked to the church, snapped a selfie, then power walked straight back.
I trembled inside the train. Heaved from relief. But here I am, alive to tell the tale.
My more harrowing experience in Paris, however, came later that night: ordering pizza. Without my translating friend and now hobbling on one foot, injured from power walking, I opted for an easy night in. And by easy, I mean American: Domino’s Pizza, ordered online with Google translate, delivered to the apartment. But it didn’t occur to me until late in the ordering process that I had no French phone nor, of course, any means of bartering with the delivery man once he arrived.
As a result, I spent twenty minutes fidgeting in my seat, next to the door, flinching at every sound on the staircase. Hiding like a fugitive. And jumping out of my skin when the delivery man rang, I apparently decided that speaking in Spanish —in a city of French and English— was definitely the best option. I mimed a credit card, which was promptly denied, then danced around the apartment until pirouetting before him with a twenty euro note.
I had ordered the wrong pizza. I frowned. I watched The Dark Knight and ate it anyway.
Little by little, though, Paris grew on me. The Eiffel Tower at night was breathtaking, although Parisians jogged around it —and around me, the tourist— with haughty indifference. The Louvre and Musée d’Orsay inspired awe, drawing me through four hundred years of French artistry like Delacroix and Van Gogh and entrancing me in a timelessness that only broke when Louvre staffers ousted me at closing. And in my last hour in Paris, as I crossed a bridge with love locks, the ones that couples plant to represent their everlasting passion, I caught a glimpse of that cinematic Paris: contented couples walking the turquoise Seine, street artists selling colorful Van Gogh recreations, a shimmering sunset basking the Louvre in gold —all until my free time expired and a grey subway car whisked me away.
This is Paris: The city of grey, the city of pride. A city whose inhabitants have deposed a half dozen governments in violent revolutions, whose literary and political prowess has disregarded expectations, sparked cultural revolutions, and commanded Western thought. The spirit lives on. Paris doesn’t care. This isn’t Disney’s Paris. It doesn’t belong to fairytales. It’s bloody. It’s dirty. And its dirtiness makes it Paris: trailblazing into the abyss, into the cultural and political jungle, returning with dirty shoes to prove it.