When I was a little girl, I learned French, and I loved the sound of the words rolling off my tongue as I informed people that “Je m’appelle Caelli,” or that “J’ai cinq ans.” But while all the other little girls were dreaming of Paris – being Madeleine, wearing berets and climbing the Eiffel Tower with a handsome Frenchman – in my head I was trekking through the Amazon or excavating pyramids in Egypt or snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef. Paris simply had no fascination for me. But somehow I ended up travelling there, not just once, but twice – and then I moved there.
I swore I was going to hate it. I can’t stand places that make people squeal, “Oooh, Paris!” but don’t know why they get so excited about them when you ask. That’s the French capital to a T. Paris is the Kardashian sister of the geographic world – we like them, but no-one knows why and no-one knows how they became famous in the first place.
So I made a pact with myself long before I arrived that I would not fall in love with Paris. I would not even like Paris. Paris was a tourist trap with more wiles than a Greek siren. I had seen truly beautiful places and loved them and known why. I would not fall victim to a city famous simply for being famous without any true art and culture and light to validate its worth. I would not be a mindless Paris worshipper. I was stronger than that.
And for so long I did so well. I visited the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysees without swooning from romance. I ate crepes and baguettes and drank French hot chocolates without getting misty. I explored the Louvre and took the metro and even managed to get mad about all the delays. And every time I heard an American tourist exclaiming about being in Paris or seeing this or that monument or how ‘quaint’ or ‘French’ something was, I’d snort into my scarf and pity the poor ignorant soul who thought all this was so wonderful.
And yet, I found after I left Paris that the memories would recur unbidden. The tiny thrill I got every time I hopped on the train into the centre of the city where the old stone buildings had that much more personality than plain old glass and steel. The anticipatory delight of dropping into my local boulangerie on my way home where my copine would ask about my day and help me decide which insanely sweet French delicacy I would sample that day. The feeling of cycling along the Seine in the late afternoon summer sun to have a picnic dinner and lazy reading sesh on the grass beneath the Eiffel Tower and watch the setting sun turn the sky a million shades of gold. I realised I missed those feelings. This was the true art and culture and light that I had fought so hard to find behind the tacky façade constructed by tourists who think that ‘Monet’ is the French word for ‘currency’.
So after almost seven years, I’ve finally learned the truth about Paris – Paris is a city worth loving if you look past the surface glitz and find those things that actually give the city its personality. The way you can find the sole remaining tower of a destroyed 13th-century church hidden in a garden just metres from the biggest metro station. The way you can make one small turn and find yourself on quiet cobbled streets lined by quirky jewelers and florists and ice-creameries right in the middle of the city. The cute musos in the metro who flash their gorgeous smiles as they jam a tasteful instrumental improv. The gleaming warmth of the sun’s last light on the white stone of Sacre-Coeur Basilica. Window boxes in the Quartier Latin. Fountains in the Jardin des Plantes.
And the truth is that I’m no longer ashamed to say that I lost my heart to the real Paris.