Paris: the good, the bad and the ugly

OK, I’ll admit it. There is nothing too ugly about Paris. It is truly a beautiful city. But at least I got your attention.

I’ve been struggling with this post because I do have mixed feelings about Paris, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to say what I need to say without being rude, crude or unfair.
Let’s start with the positive. Paris is bold and beautiful. There is nothing understated about Paris. Nothing that is subtle or untapped. Being someone who loves boldness — in style, flavour, people and architecture, I liked that about Paris.
In fact, referring back to my notes of Oct 13, 2009, I say, ” I am liking Paris better than I thought I would. It is charming, with lots of lovely old architecture and great style.”
It’s true. I did come to Paris not expecting to like it. And that is surprising for some to learn, as they think I am generally too positive in my observations of a place and too glowing in my reviews. But being an innately positive person brings that out in me. I look for the good in everything I do, in every place I go and in every person I meet. I never intentionally overlook the bad, but I never dwell on it.
However, as a journalist and an intently intuitive and observant person, I cannot overlook what I have seen and what I have felt. There is truth to the stereotype that the French are arrogant. I did not see smiling faces on the streets of Paris. I did not feel a sense of warmth from its people. We did not receive help from them when needed, even after politely asking (in French) on more than one occasion.
Coming from the Canadian Prairies, and specifically “Friendly Manitoba” where we deliberately go out of our way to help neighbours and strangers alike, this lack of overt compassion for one’s fellow man or woman made me feel uncomfortable in Paris. Yet I enjoyed the city, the quality of its museums, restaurants and other attractions.
I’ve visited quite a few world-class museums and art galleries (the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the Prado Museum of Fine Art in Madrid, the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the National Gallery in Ottawa and the Gehry-infused rebirth of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto are a few of my favourites.) But I was blown away by the magnificence of the Louvre.
If you go to Paris for but one reason, let it be the Musée du Louvre. The physical presence of this massive institution of art treasures is completely overwhelming. Parts of the main structure were built in the late 12th century, but this location did not become a museum until 1793. The newest addition — built in the shape of a glass pyramid — forms the new entrance to the Louvre and was opened in 1989. There was certainly some controversy about combining modern architecture with old, but I think it works. It was amazing to see an Apple store, Virgin books & records and other indicators of ultra-modern life located within the confines of the Louvre. But they’re there. And it works, providing visitors to the Louvre with every imaginable shopping opportunity.
We spent a full day at the Louvre and had to move like the wind to even catch a glimpse of all there is to see. You can see much of the museum’s exhibits and learn about its past, present and future online at: http://www.louvre.fr/llv/commun/home.jsp?bmLocale=en
In line with the recommendations made in Frommer’s “Paris day by day” guidebook (which we found very useful) we had lunch at the Café Mollien and liked it immensely. The views from this cafe are stunning, and if you are visiting from May through September, the outside terrace is open for you to enjoy.
Paris is filled with outdoor places that enable you to bask in its beauty, and we did take one full day to stroll along the Seine, the Champs Élysées and past the countless statues of beauty you pass with every breath. But with the city being so big and our time short (3 days, 4 nights) we spent too much time hurrying in and out of dark underground Metro stations and not enough time sipping coffee or fine wine in the light of the sun. C’est la vie.
We were fortunate enough to have accommodations at the lovely Le Meridien Montparnasse, part of Starwood Hotel’s global network of properties. The location was convenient, with two Metro stops within steps, many restaurants within easy reach and a safe and peaceful place to retreat to every evening. Find out more about the hotel at: http://is.gd/4ZgB4.
With all that good, you’d think I could overlook the bad. And I may have. But unfortunately, our departing moments from Paris were the worst.
Our cab dropped us off at the railway station so that we could catch the train to Provence. On exiting the cab we were overwhelmed with the stench of urine. It took my every effort to refrain from heaving. This is completely unacceptable for a world-class city so very full of itself.
And on our departure, we boarded the wrong train! There were no staff available to ask (and none to help with our heavy luggage.) Train departures were not posted to gate numbers until about two minutes prior to departure. Try running with heavy luggage in tow. We asked someone who looked like they knew something which train was heading for Aix-en-Provence and were pointed in the direction of the train we boarded. Turned out to be the wrong train. Read next week’s post to learn more about our French adventure.
And in the meantime, don’t refrain from commenting. I’ve love to hear about your own adventures in Paris.

Doreen Pendgracs

Known throughout the Web as the "Wizard of Words", I've been a freelance writer since 1993. I'm currently researching and writing volume II of "Chocolatour: A Quest for the World's Best Chocolate". Volume I was published in September, 2013.

15 Responses

  1. Kathe Lieber says:

    Ah, Paris! With hindsight, I think I consider our flying visit to have been a reconnaissance mission for me. I want to go back and do some more wandering, now that I've more or less figured out the metro system and the trains. The Louvre was a fantastic highlight for me as well. Next time I think I'd leave at least three days for the Louvre alone.

  2. Virginia Heffernan says:

    I like it when you go to the dark side. I will join you there when it comes to the Louvre. Unsurpassed collection of the world's greatest art, no doubt, but within a cold, forbidding structure. Not to mention the overwhelming crowds of point-and-shoots hovering around the poor Mona Lisa, and the overkill on the early 19th century French painters (main theme: buxom women whose dresses have somehow ended up around their waists, looking distraught). I'll take the Musee d'Orsay anyday, where the impressionists can feel at home in a breezy, light-filled old train station.

    After the fall visit, Paris has surpassed New York as my all time favourite city for its sense of the aesthetic and deep understanding of the important things in life: good food, good wine, good friends, and the time to enjoy them.

  3. wizardofwords says:

    Thanks for the comments, gals. I think Paris is a city that really brings out the emotion/opinions in people — whatever they may be. I'll look forward to hearing from others. Not to discredit Kathe in any way (as she truly is a lovely travelling companion,) but I think that had I been in Paris on vacation with my husband/lover, I may have overlooked some of what I see as negatives and instead … may have seen the city through more romantic (rose-coloured) glasses.

  4. Christine Peets says:

    I've visited a number of museums and galleries but my attention is never as long as others, and I can usually see what I want to see in half the time as others want to take. So I'd join you at the Louvre, and then meet you later in the cafe after you'd wandered to your hearts' content. I'd like to be proven wrong on this one.
    I've never been to Paris, but I've been to New York, and given what's been said about the two cities, I think I'd go back to New York before I went to Paris. But I could be wrong. It's been known to happen. Thanks for the wonderful descriptions of the good, the bad, and yeah, the urine in the cab, that was ugly.

  5. AngelaCorrias says:

    Paris' beauty is truly overwhelming but I have to agree that its inhabitants can be quite unpleasant. I was born and raised in Italy but my mother's family is French and I know very well their culture. I think the stigma you refer to is better applied to Parisians, as in other parts of the country people are completely different.

    True, in Paris they do appreciate when you speak French, and sporting English language doesn't help, but I do speak French mother tongue, and a police officer replied to my question in a very rude manner, anyway. Only when my reaction was as rude as his, he got the message and toned down.

    I love French culture, history, literature, and this kind of behaviour makes me quite upset. Sorry they made you feel uncomfortable, I hope you'll have the chance to explore other regions, they are less famous but not less beautiful.

  6. wizardofwords says:

    Thanks very much for your comment, Angela. Yes, I did spend some time in Provence and did find the general atmosphere to be more pleasant and the smiles to be more prevalent. My next blog post will be about Provence — coming in the next day or two. Have never been to Italy but it is high on my list as several of my closest friends hale from Italy — and I hear that Italy has good chocolate as well! Always an important criteria when choosing my travel destinations these days.

  7. Suzanne Boles says:

    I spent some time in Paris a couple of years ago when my daughter did a term for university there. She had her own apartment there.

    The city is beautiful but I had mixed feelings about it. For example, we found this great little restaurant that served muscles (which we both love) and the wait staff were amazing. Near the end of the trip we decided to relive the experience. Big mistake.

    The waiter we had this time ignored us and when we asked for something he refused to get it. In the end we left him a note saying we were friendly Canadians and that his behaviour was not acceptable and put a small Canadian flag pin on top of the note. He probably threw it out.

    But, overall, it was a good experience and I would probably go back, though there are many other places I haven't been so I'd like to go there first.

  8. wizardofwords says:

    Thanks for your comment, Suzanne. I think you mean mussels! And yes, They are indeed delicious.

    Kathe & I also had some experiences with less than friendly wait staff on our travels in Paris. Mostly, we noticed the bad attitudes coming from unionized workers like the Metro and the trains. The personnel just didn't want to do more than was necessary and didn't seem to know the first thing about customer service. They could indeed learn much from their Canadian counterparts.

    I agree with you. There are many places to visit, and I will choose to return to places and cities where I get the friendliest reception and the best service.

  9. Lori says:

    I've never been to Paris, but I want to go there someday. Your post is a very interesting one – and it's also a good teading – to check out Paris and see how it is 😉

  10. wizardofwords says:

    Thanks. Lori. I see that you are based in Romania! Welcome to the blog. I hope you'll come back often.

  11. Lori says:

    Yes, I will – you can count on that 🙂 And, yes again, I am from Romania 🙂 I hope I'll see you on my blog often as well 🙂

    Have a great day!

  12. Heather Kent says:

    Someone I met when I was in Paris just behind you guys, told me that it was a city you either love or hate (he was originally from Germany). Certainly it has captured my son's heart over the four years he has lived there. He is young, living in vibrant Montmartre and works in the fast-paced film business. While he has had to deal with the notorious French bureaucracy, these days he shrugs off any communication frustrations with this: "They're just being French!"
    I think you probably need to spend more time there as Kathe mentioned. It's a big city. I found helpful people when I asked for directions but no doubt others are less so, as in any city.
    I agree with Virginia about the Musee D'Orsay; I love the Impressionists and the gallery's building.
    In any event, as long as my son is in Paris, I'll be back there..

  13. wizardofwords says:

    Thanks so much for the comment, Heather, and welcome to the blog! You are right in that there are many things to love about Paris, and I will likely return. But it just hasn't enamoured me as so many other places have. I would love to have it shown to me from an insider's perspective as you have. I think that often makes the difference when travelling to a new place.

  14. Nathalie K says:

    Hi Doreen, finally got to your blog. It was fun to share a little bit more of your trip.
    How on earth did you manage to take the wrong train? I suspect overindulgence of wine and chocolate… I just can't see how it's possible with the destination posted on every door of every car of every train, with the itinerary clearly marked at the beginning of quay… oh dear!

    Otherwise, I have mixed feelings about your review. To paraphrase an expat: "After six days in Paris, I knew nothing, I was lost. After six months in Paris, I thought I knew everything and was ready to write a book. After six years in Paris, I knew nothing, I was lost." Certainly, a few days is enough to leave with a personal impression. Yet I would be cautious about trying to formulate any sort of objective analysis or even fair appreciation. After twenty years of living there and over 60 business trips there in the past few years, I've realised that most attempts to figure out the French are futile and most remarks are made without context.

    My usual advice to tourists to the city are: suspend judgment, surrender to the city's embrace, seek individual contact, stop comparing (the reference points are completely different between our countries so any comparison is irrelevant). Most importantly step into any slightly opened doorway to get a closer look: the best surprises are behind closed doors. Both literally and figuratively.

    Am reading Julia Child's "My Life in France" – I think she and her husband Paul Child embody the values and attitude that make loving Paris possible. A real inspiration.

    Cheers!

  15. wizardofwords says:

    Thanks so much for your comments, Nathalie.

    With regard to the train, there were no signs posted whatsoever. And the gate where each train was departing from was not posted until minutes prior to departure. So we literally had to "run" with our heavy luggage in tow. That was fine. Until we got to the gate where 2 trains were leaving in the same direction — at the same time! Kathe (who speaks fluent French) did ask whether we were boarding the right train and were given the nod. So we boarded — without any assistance with our heavy luggage, I might add.

    But c'est la vie! We survived, and lived to tell the tale.

    In response to my impressions of the Parisians, everyone is subject to comparison to what we know. I agree that it often takes more than one trip to a destination to get a true sense of it. I did appreciate many things about Paris. But there is no getting around the fact that the French (Parisians for the most part) are an arrogant breed. If someone wants to bring me back and show mw otherwise, I am always open to changing my mind.

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