A lot of people don’t like Paris. Whether it’s bad experiences with rude French people or confusion on the metro or witnessing homeless guys peeing on the side of a building, plenty of dirty or frustrating experiences can ruin a trip to the City of Lights.
I’ve had my fair share of hair-pulling moments, dealing with French bureaucracy or trying to get myself understood (or ruining a family trip), but for the most part Paris and I have always gotten along. I love everything about it from the old cobblestone streets and 19th century architecture to the tiny cafés and numerous crêpe stands. I love speaking in French, even when I stumble, and walking along the Seine on a sunny day. I love cheap, delicious French wine, and eating croissants every morning. I love the layout of the city, how easy it is to find your way from one arrondissement to the next, and getting purposely lost in the winding side streets.
But I also understand why some people, friends and family included, don’t love the city as much as I do. If you don’t speak the language, it can be hard to navigate as very few signs are posted in English and many places outside of the center don’t go out of their way to accommodate English-speaking tourists. Parts of the city are dirty and foul-smelling. The metro system can be confusing for first-timers (though, personally, I think it’s the easiest metro out of all of them). Cab drivers will help you find God as they tear ass down the roads and you pray for your life. And when you’re sick of espresso, finding a full 8 oz cup of American-style coffee is impossible.
My mom is not the city’s biggest fan (though I implore her to give it another shot! It’s been 10 years, woman!), and several of my friends have been pick-pocketed or nearly assaulted somewhere in the shadows of this city. But I adore this place, and every time I come back, I feel a small sigh of relief. I know this town. I know these streets. I don’t have to try as hard here as I do in other foreign places. Here, I feel almost at home.
• • •
And so this is why I was actually un peu nerveuse to bring my husband here for the first time. What if he didn’t love it? What if he never wanted to come back? What if Paris was a big fat meh to him? We don’t have to love ALL the same things (and actually, we probably share fewer likes and passions than other married couples), but we do love traveling and I was crossing all of my appendages that he would find Paris as charming as I did. Or, at the very least, not hate it.
We had less than 72 hours in Paris. I wanted more time, a week at least, but decided to devote extra time to a city unfamiliar to both of us (Barcelona) and only risk three nights in a city he might end up loathing. If he hated it, then I’d only have to put up with complaints for a couple nights before we could move on.
And what if he loved it? Well, we’d just have to come back. But I didn’t want to get my hopes up.
• • •
Our train was late. Not a great start. We were tired, sweaty, and I’d been desperately trying to get online to communicate with our AirBNB host (en français!). After finding a tenuous wifi connection, I let Greg know we’re late, he tells me not to worry, and had already sent me full instructions (in English) for finding the key to the apartment. He wouldn’t be meeting us, so we didn’t have to rush. Phew.
“Let’s just get a taxi, get to the apartment, shower and find food.” Sounds like a plan.
Only, when we exit the train station, it’s madness. I had hoped we had left the insanity behind in Barcelona, but here it was following us to Paris. A million people. A cab line rivaling the one outside of Vegas airport. And then a line of cabs trying to get out onto the street. It would easily take 45 minutes just to get out of the train station. And it was only a 30 minute walk to Rue Mouffetard.
“Screw this. Let’s walk.”
And so we trudged on, bladders full, backs loaded up, dragging our luggage over cobblestone. But at least the rain had cooled the air, and we were grateful for the grey, overcast skies.
I pointed out sites along the way. “That’s the Eiffel tower in the distance. That direction is Notre Dame. We’re crossing the Seine now.” We trudged through the Jardin des Plantes, earning a few sideways looks from locals enjoying the park. I asked someone where the exit was, was successfully understood and understood her, and even though I had to pee and was already tired of walking, I felt pretty good. So far, the little French I’d had to use on the train and now on our hike to the apartment was proving to be adequate. If nothing else went right, at least we wouldn’t struggle with language barriers.
I’d forgotten how hilly Paris is; you don’t always notice it, until you’re dragging overstuffed luggage around behind you. “Are we there yet?” “Almost.” Justin and Google navigated us down some side streets to get us there faster, and finally Rue Mouffetard emerged, lively and full of people and smells and noise. We find number 66, type in the provided code, open the world’s heaviest door, find the keys, open the world’s second heaviest door, climb some dangerously uneven stairs, struggle to unlock the apartment door and VOILA. WE MADE IT. We were home.
• • •
The studio was not tiny, but it was also not clean. It was hot. A pile of stuff lay tossed beside the door. Not a very welcoming site. We open all of the windows to get rid of the musty smell and get some fresh air, and turn on the fan only to find it’s kind of broken and has no cage around the blades. The kitchen light doesn’t work. The bathroom door doesn’t shut. And the bathroom is pretty filthy.
My great Rue Mouffetard AirBNB find was failing me. Justin’s very first glimpse of Paris was disappointing in every regard. I tried not to let it get me down as we unpacked, got online, and took cold showers. The location should be fine and at least we had a bed and a toilet and privacy. We wouldn’t spent a lot of time in the apartment (which I would leave a very honest review of upon leaving), and I could show him the Paris I loved.
When we left the apartment, I was smiling, partly because I was so happy to be in familiar territory, but also to cover my worry that these three days would not go well. I take him up to Place de la Contrescarpe, the little square where Rue Mouffetard connects with my old street Cardinal Lemoine. I show him where Hemingway lived during his brief stint in Paris and a few meters down the road where I lived during mine. We stop for a glass of wine at a cafe in the square, people watching and enjoying the cool breeze. It’s not as crowded as I would expect, and we catch our breath for a minute. After, we grab some essentials from the market and go back to the apartment to unload and decide what to do about dinner.
That’s when I confess my fears. “I’m so sorry about the apartment. The pictures were better. And the street is really noisy but it’s a good location, in a neighborhood I know well. We’ll have lots of fun, I promise. I don’t want this to ruin your first time to Paris.”
He looks at me, surprised. “You can’t ruin it! We’re in Paris!” He reassures me that a crappy apartment isn’t going to ruin a whole city, and that already it was a nice reprieve from the heat and crowds of Barcelona. “And you speak French, so just don’t leave me anywhere.”
I won’t leave you, I promised. I couldn’t. There was too much to do and not a lot of time to do it.
• • •
In the end, we didn’t do everything I had originally planned. We never made it up to Montmartre to see Sacré Coeur or the view of the city from the hill. We didn’t go to Butte Chaumont and we didn’t ride the subway. We didn’t buy any art from vendors along the river. We didn’t even walk down far enough to see the le tour Eiffel up close. (It’s his first time to Paris and we DON’T see the most famous icon?! Blasphemy, I know!)
We do spend a lot of time walking around the 5th and 6th, through the Jardins Luxembourg, along Saint-Michel, and down Saint-Germaine. We examine dozens of restaurant menus planning meals we don’t have time to eat. We watch guys play beer pong in the back of an empty bar called The Fifth in the 5th. We walk in the shade along the river, stopping to watch street musicians and ogle old buildings along the way. I buy too many books from Gibert Joseph.We visit Notre Dame and wander around the 4th and 1st, catching the hideous exterior of le Centre Pompidou and the renovated exterior of Les Halles. We watch French teenagers enjoying their last days of freedom before la rentrée.
We find a kickass cocktail bar a street up from ours, where they make inventive craft cocktails you’d see in the states. The craft cocktail culture is just starting to make its way to Europe, it seems, but this place felt ahead of the curve. The bartender was knowledgeable and friendly, ready to discuss spirits and make recommendations. It’s directly across the street from a Michelin-starred restaurant, and Friday night is oddly slow. Justin’s hankering for a cigarette but seems a little nervous to try out his non-existent French to ask for one, so I approach one of the cooks on break for him.
We drink interesting rum concoctions at La Rhumérie, a rum bar on St. Germain. We eat at whatever restaurant looks good and has a relatively inexpensive menu prix fixe. I’d forgotten how easy it was to find food I could and would eat at a French restaurant – they always have chicken or fish readily available. Justin discovered tons of items he wanted to try. The bread was always fresh, the wine always smooth. Two meals are spent at Japanese places since sushi and sake are so cheap in this city. We get free champagne at one of them. We eat and drink well for three days.
The one super touristy thing we did do was spontaneously visit the Louvre. I hadn’t planned on us going to any museums only because I assumed they would all be insanely crowded. But on our walking tour of the 1st, I take him by the Louvre so he can at least see the grandeur of the building itself and the famous pyramid at the entrance. When we get there, and see there’s no line, we assume it must be a trick. “Let’s peek down in the lobby and see if there’s a long line down there.” Nada. We walk right up to the kiosk, and decide on the spot to buy the two 15 euro tickets. That’s the benefit of not having any plans for the day.
“Let’s do the Louvre!”
• • •
I hadn’t been to the Louvre since 2009, when I was still under the age of 26 and could get in free on Friday nights after 6. So it was a treat to get to walk around, see my favorites, and catch a few new things too. It was a double treat to get do so with the man I love.
Only one previous time in my life have I spent time with a romantic partner in the place many think of as the most romantic in the world, but I was younger, dumber, and still learning my way through college, a new language, and relationships.
This time, roaming the streets, my hand in Justin’s, everything felt that much more special. Drinking wine at a street cafe and ordering for the two of us. Taking a selfie in front of my favorite fountain. Criticizing the Mona Lisa. All of it is even more romantic and dear to my heart this time because I get to do it with my husband, mon mari, the guy who wants to put up with me for the rest of my life.
“I think I really like Paris.” He smiles at me over his dinner of steamed mussels and escargot. “The food, the wine, the architecture.” He goes on to say he might even like it more than Barcelona. Be still my heart.
He may never love reading or understand Harry Potter the way I do, and I may never care half as much about sports, but we’ll always have each other to go on adventures like these and explore new places. And now, we’ll always have Paris. ❤