Mixed feelings

Trip Start Nov 15, 2005
Trip End Aug 15, 2008

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Probably the easiest hitch so far - I only had to wait half an hour, and someone picked me up just outside of Brussels, and took me all the way to Paris! Even better, he was a professional circus performer. I love how you get to meet interesting people when hitching :)

My feelings towards Paris are somewhat mixed; certainly, I am not so in love with this place as so many people are, probably for the fact that I'm trying to do this leg of the trip on quite a tight budget (and failing miserably, but there you go). Paris is most definitely not a cheap place to be; prices compare with London, which is kind of frightening for me.
Enough about the cost, that wasn't really ever so important. Paris is everything you've heard about it, but also has an oddly welcoming feel to it that I hadn't expected. Maybe because it's quite a centre for immigration, and maybe because so many people from all walks of life pass through here, but I didn't encounter the famous Parisian snobbery at all in my few days here, and found most people I spoke to were actually quite patient and helpful, despite my French being quite atrocious at best. Also, the familiarity of the city was unexpected. I could be walking around, completely lost - this happened frequently - and all of a sudden, I would come across an image so familiar, except in the flesh (as it were) instead of the behind a screen or on the back of someone's camera. The Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, the Louvre - images I've seen a hundred times, and there they were in front of me, and so much more impressive for it. It's hard to deny just how striking these landmarks actually are.

Then there were the things I hadn't expected. The irresistable smell of freshly baked bread all over the city in the mornings, the dozens of boulangeries and patisseries with beautiful cakes to tempting to resist in every part of the city (I would grow so fat living here), the thousands of little cafes in which to shelter from the incredibly unpredictable weather (I've never known it to go from clear blue skies to light rain to clear blue to heavy rain to clear blue to hail and back to clear blue again in the space of 3 hours before!) and the small, almost village like districts that seem to exist. In particular the Latin quarter was actually good to walk aorund, and Montmarte (to the north of the centre) has such a relaxed, unprepossesing feel to it, it was one of the few districts that got me into the whole cafe culture side of things, something that has never appealed to me much before. There, it seemed right to just sit over a cup of hot chocolate (I don't do coffee, and the French have no idea how to make anything even close to a good cup of tea, unfortunately) and watch the world go by. The nightlife district of Chatelet les Halles was good fun too, with fantastic crepe stalls on every street corner :) Not that I spent my entire time here eating, or anything.
Walking around the Pere Lachaise cemetery was oddly peaceful too. The world's most visited graveyard and home to the graves of Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde (amongst many, many others), the size of it meant there seemed not to be anyone there, and it was interesting to walk around and see the occasional name on a headstone that I recognised.
Absolutely my favourite unknown-to-me-but-apparently-quite-famous landmark was the Basilique du Sacre Coeur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart). As much as I don't do religious buildings, both Notre Dame and this place have something special about them. Here, it wasn't so much to do with the building itself (which was in itself pretty impressive), but more the atmosphere surrounding it. Set atop a hill, it commanded some of the most impressive views of the city (aside from climbing the Eiffel tower, of course, but here you don't have to go up 670 steps!) and was the only really relaxed open space I found in Paris. Whatever time of day, there seemed to be dozens of people just hanging around on the steps leading up, or (preferably) the grassy verges on the hill, doing nothing but letting it all sink in. A perfect place to rest the aching feet after a long day of walking and muse on life a little.

Which leads me on to what I really didn't like about Paris - the size of it. It's huge. In four days of walking, I barely covered the centre and didn't really have time for the museums, unfortunately (the one time I attempted to get into one, I went slightly late in the afternoon and found an estimated hour and a half queue, which would have left me with all of one hour inside the museum. Not good). As an unwritten rule, I tend not to use public transport if I can help it, on the principle that you get a better feel for the city by walk, and see a hell of a lot more, but in Paris it's just painful to do that! Also, the districts all take on a slightly monotonous tone after a while - there seems to be no distinct separation between areas, no change in architectural style or anything so obvious as that. One minute, you can be walking around one of the more upmarket shopping districts, watching the pretentious people walk by in all their overpriced finery that they will probably wear once and then throw away (or whatever "fashionable" rich people do), the next minute you're walking around and keeping a tight grip on the wallet, as everyone around you looks so sketchy.
Worst of all by a long way (in my opinion) is the pollution. Everyone drives here, and when walking, I found myself having to stop every couple of hundred yards to wait for the traffic to stop so I could carry on. The stop-go made everything seem so much more tiring. After a day of walking around in all these fumes, I had developed a really unpleasant, irritating tickle in the back of my throat that just got worse as time went on. I can't explain just how nasty it seemed to me, coming from so much fresh air when hiking to this.

So, mixed feeling then. Some aspects of the city I liked so much more than expected, especially as I only stopped by here to visit a friend (who I only saw briefly, but it was great to catch up with, until the digusting drunkenness took over) and hadn't ever considered Paris as a place I had any great desire to see, but other aspects I really didn't like, and above all I could not spend much time here for the fact that my lungs could not take the pollution. One day I think I will come back (especially as it's so close to home) on less of a budget and do things properly, but for now, I was happy to leave.
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