Studying abroad last semester created a series of first memories, from the first time I traveled to a country where I knew no one, to my first trip to France. My suitemates and I used our fall break to visit the “City of Love,” an apt title for Paris since I totally fell in love. After a couple of mishaps, which led to me taking a different bus to Paris then my friends, I finally found myself in one of the many places I had dreamed of visiting when I was in high school. At first, I wasn’t too impressed with anything but my ability to make it to our apartment with some handwritten directions and a sheet with French phrases. I arrived two hours before my friends, and since I could not get into our apartment I spent the first two hours people-watching from a Starbucks patio in the St. Germain neighborhood.
My introduction to Paris did not start out on good footing, and then my allergies started acting up, partly because of the smog, partly because of the millions of fashionable Parisians smoking all around me. It was gross; my clothes had taken on a faint tobacco smell, and my eyes watered every time a breeze carried the smoke and little burned paper pieces past my face. Then there was the bird situation! I have never seen more reckless birds then I did while I was in Paris. One pigeon came right up to the table next to me and tried to put his beak in my neighbors croissant. The fashionably dressed man just waved the bird off and kept on drinking and smoking.
When I was finally reunited with my friends, we started on our two day adventure by taking the metro to Notre Dame. I have been fascinated by it since I first saw it in the “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” only I was not interested in actually climbing to the top. Somehow about an hour later I found myself breathing heavily as I made what seemed like a thousand loops up a tiny circular staircase. When I finally made it to the top (387 steps to be exact) I was rewarded with the most amazing view. All of Paris was laid out in front of me, and a security guard pointed out many different landmarks. We quickly learned that talking to the guards was the best way to learn about the area and the monument itself. It was truly one of the most amazing things I have ever done. There I was, standing on top of a cathedral built hundreds of years before I was born, touching the same stones that were crafted by masons in the 12th century. I felt insignificant for the first time in my life, a small part of the history of humans. I stood on top of Notre Dame for an hour and a half; partly from exhaustion, partly from awe.
If Notre Dame represents historic Paris, then the Métropolitain, Paris’s subway system is the cultural representation of Paris. To say I was underwhelmed it would not be an exaggeration, especially in comparison to the Underground, in London. The Underground is very clean and you can always find a transit agent to give you directions. Paris’s metro, on the other hand, is notorious for being dirty and rat-laden with a nausea-inducing smell and a somewhat complicated layout. Add to that a morning rush and my paranoia of being pickpocketed, and every trip I made that first day was anxiety-ridden. This is where I was able to truly interact with native Parisians, and while it mostly consisted of me clutching my bag and muttering excusez moi as the natives scowled at my horrible American accent, I can now reminisce on the quirkiness of the experience.
In Paris, personal space is nonexistent, and the streets weave across the city, in no particular order. I fell in love with Paris while climbing to the top of her one of her oldest monuments, going the wrong way on the overly crowded metro, and breathing in the smoke as I wandered down her narrow alleys in search of treasures like Oscar Wilde’s grave, and my apartment in St. Germain. Even the Seine was beautiful, if somewhat murky. In Paris history and art come together in such unique ways, you just have to stop and take it in, smells and all. Two days was all it took, and I am counting down the days until I can go back.
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