Paris is probably the most romanticized and fantasized about city in the world. That translates into practice too, for it is also the most visited city in the world as well. Deeply rich in history, art, and today - fashion, lifestyle, the city has been a trend setter for the rest of the world for centuries. Think art, and you think of Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo. Think buildings, and you think of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and Eiffel tower. I can go on, but I am already sounding like I a reading out Paris tourism promotional guide. Its practically impossible to talk about Paris without going overboard in praising her!
No, I am not in the position to give a first hand report on the head-scarf controversy, though it didn't seem to be a big issue there. I could be wrong though. The first thing that struck me when I got here from Amsterdam was the lack of English speaking skills - Amsterdam spoiled me into believing that all Europeans speak better English than I myself. Another barrier, with those that spoke English or when asking about places, is the very different pronunciation in French. A lot of alphabets sound so similar in French - I wonder why designed a language that uses so little of their vocal facilities!
I have been told that many French who know English well refuse to speak it in France. Soon after I landed, a French non-English speaker attempted to give me the subway directions to my destination - he had to write down "RER" and "rue" because I wasn't familiar with French pronunciation of "r". The difficulty he went through explaining it to me in all French - its hard to believe he will go through this pain just for the language pride. I will dismiss those stories as another example of French leg-pulling that we all so very much like to indulge in.
I landed in Paris around 11pm, and reached my friend's metro station about midnight. While getting out of the station, I noticed a pleasant-looking non-East-Indian girl in an Saree--a traditionally Indian dress. Its pretty likely that she is an Indo-phile, and if I am lucky, I may get her to show me a bit of the city. Besides, I didn't have anything to lose - I can always pretend to have lost my way, always easy to do in a new place. I got out and followed her, semi-running to catch up with her. She must have been scared at the thought of kinda being chased on a very deserted street on Sunday midnight, for she kept looking behind her back. As I caught up her, she turned right into a street. I termed following her further as too risky, turned back, and headed towards my destination.
Ask me how it feels to be stuck in one of the prettiest places of the world as a tourist, but instead of going about admiring, spending one of the three days there running around the banks and shelling out a fortune talking to your bank in Boston. My credit card payments online hadn't yet been processed due to the weekend, and I was stuck with my credit card close to the credit limit and my having practically no cash - whatever I had was spent on getting those phone cards, that in addition to ripping me apart, blackened my finger nails from peeling the code on them. If you ever see me with dirty nails, its not because I am untidy - its stupid Paris that you must blame!
In the hindsight, I could have spent the day walking through wonderful Parisian streets - but god knows who invented the word "hindsight" and gave us so much more to feel sorry or guilty for. Seriously though, there is lot to watch on the streets of Paris - shops and showrooms flaunting latest fashion products, cars, and anything that makes you look or feel cool. And there are buildings, pillars, capitals, statues, and gardens that are littered all over the city but diminished in stature by their sheer abundance - each of them such that practically any other city in the world would love to have it and gladly put it on top of tourist's-to-see list!
Other than getting a crash course on International Banking 101 that day, there is only one other positive thing that came out - I saw a theater performance in arguably the grandest opera house in the world for free on the opening night. It was in French, and I didn't understand a single line of conversation, but to my credit (or simplicity of French stories lacking Shakespearean melodrama?), I understood the story. And, in my battered jeans, t-shirt, and shoes, I got to hang out among the who-is-who of Paris, all impeccably groomed and dressed.
Let it be known to all ye travelers - no amount of travel book reading can replace the experiences of local resident in enjoying the best of a place. It was the Parisian friend of mine who know about the cheap student tickets to the shows in Opera house; it turned out to be a premiere night, the attendance was by invitation only, and since there were seats still left, we got in for free. All we had to do was to pretend we were students of some local Lecoq drama school - pretty easy to do if you don't understand what others ask or say to you, and you are dependent on someone else to guide you and translate things for you.
My credit card balance was restored the next day, I was ready to do the normal touristy things. I began with Notre Dame Cathedral. It was impressive and huge, no doubt, but the lesson of the hour for me was not its grandeur, but the concept of renovating/ adding on to historical monuments. Let me try to explain.
I had thought of historical monuments as being almost untouched since the time of their construction - that was my idea of antiquity. But the cathedral, like many other monuments, had undergone many renovations since then, and as I write, was undergoing another one. It begged question whether its reasonable to start the age of the monument as when it was first built. The case in favor of making the monument look it was first built or envisioned of instead of letting it fall apart is strong enough.
The majesty of Notre Dame cathedral is easy to see