An American in Paris

Colin Tripp '14, Columnist

I traveled to Paris back in November and again in January. I think it’s almost impossible to capture the city, for Paris was Paris and different than I imagined: seedier, older, and bigger. Whereas Amsterdam felt almost quaint, despite the coffee shops and prostitutes, I never got over the foreignness of Paris, the sheer European feel of the boulevards and brasseries. I was struck by the combination of old and new, evidenced everywhere from small rues of cramped buildings covered with street art to the Louvre, the formidable wings encircling I.M. Pei’s glass pyramids. I don’t think I could give my overall impression of Paris even if I was forced to: I’m still left confused by my extended weekend in the city of baguettes and espresso.

Attempting to save money for future travels, I booked a round trip fare onboard Megabus: a nine-hour bus ride including a trip on a ferry to cross the Channel. We arrived in Calais and drove to Paris under cover of dark, rain and night obscuring most of the French countryside. On my way back to Calais at the end of my trip I was able to see bucolic farmlands and sweeping hills surrounded by small French villages.

My arrival in Paris was remarkably anti-climactic—my bus cruised by the Arc de Triomphe before I could even register it. We were an hour and a half later than the expected arrival time and the bus pulled into a different station than listed. I stayed at a friend’s apartment in the first arrondisement, located in Châtelet, which was at the top of an apartment building built sometime in the nineteenth century. We had to hike up six flights of rickety stairs to a one-room apartment that consisted of a pullout bed, a table, a mini-fridge, a stove, sink, and a shower in the corner. The toilet was half a flight of stairs down. The view, however, was spectacular: Parisian rooftops, chimneys, and the spire of a church rising above it all in the not too distant distance. Sensory memories from this weekend include the smell of frites frying, cold air and siren wails coming through the window, and the simple warmth of a white duvet.

Over my three full days in the city, I completed many of the typical tourist attractions. I walked along the Champs-Élysées, dutifully impressed, awed, and frankly bored with the wealth and overpriced merchandise on sale. We wandered into Coach, minimalist shelves of bags stretching to the vaulted ceiling while carbon-copy salespeople scurried around glamorous individuals surveying the latest haute couture eye wear and shoes. The Arc de Triomphe was reached by an underground tunnel: the French flag billowed proudly at its center.

The Louvre was everything I expected and more. I was particularly awed by the sheer size and grandeur of the building, each room distinct from the one that came before it. Modern atrium of marble gave way to cramped wood-paneled rooms that in turn became long halls hung with panoramic paintings. I usually get bored in museums: my feet hurt, my attention wanders, and the crowds of people make me annoyed and anxious. I saw the Mona Lisa just so I could say I did, and it was as disappointingly small and unremarkable as everyone told me it would be. The Egyptian wing was cavernous and dense, open coffins lined up next to artifacts from antiquity. I got lost for a while and spent about twenty minutes walking the same polished floors, wandering by the same bust of Ramses II until I felt delusional and slightly nauseous.

I saw Manet and Monet, Delacroix and David, sculptures and replicated bedrooms. There was a special exhibition of Raphael’s work from later years that I wandered through, and I was slightly reprimanded by a composed Frenchwoman for taking photographs. I feel impotent attempting to describe the museum simply because of how unique and simultaneously typical it is: I had seen all these paintings before in better resolution online, with the added benefit of being able to observe them by myself with no pants on in my bedroom. The experience was more than worth it, and I am incredibly glad I went, but the more museums I visit the more I realize how much of their worth now is from the information they impart and the atmosphere they provide rather than a simple exhibition of their treasures. There is nothing compared to seeing the fat brush strokes of Van Gogh on the original canvas, or the chiseled marble abs of Adonis, but the time of shock and awe at the mere sight of great artwork has mostly passed.