An Eiffel and an earful: A trifle shabby but it’s still Paris
Though missing some of her sparkle, the old lady is fine
Last year in Paris I was splishing-splashing though puddles while rain soaked through my clothing after a language confusion meant we missed our dinner reservation. The wrong restaurant was also closing around 10pm. Jamin (right hand) versus Jardin (garden) is a common mistake, I thought grumpily, remembering my last meal at lunchtime. Raindrops fell off our eyelashes as we searched for an open door.
Hungry, soaked, we committed the biggest travel travesty. In desperation we ate at a tourist spot in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, which was playing Edith Piaf songs and covered in signboards with English menus (a sign of trouble is to eat where you can understand the menu. Best to learn a few words and get authentic fare). But the wine was cold and the croque monsieur was tasty. With the famous sandwich, toasted (still pale but invisible) ham and cheese covered in béchamel sauce and topped with more cheese, you couldn’t go wrong. We were sitting at a restaurant in sight of the actual Eiffel Tower. Sure, the chicken was boiled and flavourless, the lamb still bleating, but the snails were good in garlic, and life was great. We were in Paris.Our group of 10 was a mix of media and competition winners – all guests of an alcohol brand that was treating us to a visit in its signature city. Some first-time travellers, as the city cast its spell on them, did not care about the rain or the puddles or restaurant muddles. There were overpriced dotted plastic umbrellas to buy as souvenirs, after all. We chatted about whether the route we had taken meant we had driven through the underpass that claimed Princess Diana’s life years ago. Unbelievably, it was 22 years ago. She must have loved the city too, to come all the way for a bland dinner.In the day, we discovered that spring in Paris is decidedly different from dreary, Dickensian winter days. Yes, there were sprinkles of rain, but we learnt to do as the French do. Or don’t. They don’t care. They don’t get wet, either. Pulling out a brolly and tightening their trench coats, they carried on.
When the sun came out, it bounced off the limestone buildings, so you had to wear sunglasses … instant chic. It created dappled shadows from leafy trees all along the wide, pretty, cobbled streets. A postcard of Parisian perfection. If you looked up, the apartments with colourful flower boxes against a blue sky and warm air, sidewalk café at the bottom waiting to serve lunch, created things to aspire to in life.
Of course, being sponsored meant staying in a lovely arrondissement, brilliant for shopping and walks to find your way. No need to use the metro, neither for warmth nor transport. We walked and walked on the cobbles, stopping for photos, taking a moment in awe at the 12th-century Gothic treasure with stained glass patterns to lose yourself in, inspirations for kaleidoscopes – Cathedral de Notre Dame, complete with gargoyles. More walking found intersections, river views (not sure if it was the left or right bank of the Seine, but no matter) and suddenly that famous architectural monument was in front of us.The Eiffel Tower’s wrought-iron latticework would impress even the most sceptical of the tourist-cliché avoiders. To visit, you must queue with patience (many women carried wine) or buy a higher-priced tour ticket for which a guide will share facts, like how it was completed in 1889, and remained the tallest man-made structure until the completion of the Chrysler Building in New York in 1930.
You might walk up the 1,600-odd steps, but the lift is well marked, and shoots more than halfway up the 324m erection in 30 seconds, which apparently shrinks in cold weather by 15cm yet remains at 10,000 tons.
On the way home, we walked across that monument where I had cursed the metro for closing at midnight that wintery January. This time it was bathed in sunlight and welcomed lingering. A man with an electric violin and speaker played Despacito to the crowd. It was not quiet and cold; there were friendly Africans with knickknacks to sell, young people on spring break. We stopped for crepes and Nutella, and the tiniest cups of coffee to listen and dance a little sway.
Passing the Jardin du Luxembourg, we spotted some romantic moments, students among chestnut and plane trees. Five minutes further, some medieval fun at the Cluny National Museum of the Middle Ages. Imagine it, a 14th-century space built over the ruins of a Roman bath complex filled with memorabilia from the days of knights.But there was something else that is new about Paris. Alas, macaroons are now R32 apiece! The must-see Laduree has created macaroons since 1862 but this is surely the height of their demand and their price? Yet snaking queues of sugar addicts are lined up out of the door, waiting to lap them up. It is just almonds, eggs and air, people.People-watching in Paris has changed. While the iconic image of a chic lady in obscure, androgynous fashion, large sunglasses and a poodle has changed, giving way to the global boyfriend jeans and white sneakers, the citizenry looks different in other ways. The myriad faces and races show how political and economic tough times have hit the city. Queues are longer with security checks after terrorist attacks and the resurgence of protests against colonialism catching up, again. Dark-skinned Francophone Africans abound, selling Chinese toys like a little man on a bicycle (not more suitable to Amsterdam?), Eiffel Tower keyrings and wooden letters to make up your child’s name.
And the refugees. They sit along the Champs Elysee, the exclusive shopping area where you can rent a Lamborghini for an hour to race around noisily, at the cost of a month’s petrol in South Africa. In hijab and headscarves, the refugees create human metaphors, juxtaposed against the Louis Vuitton store, where similarly dressed Arab shoppers skip the queue because of welcome trade relations and large bank balances, plus an insatiable taste for easily reproducible niceties.
The rest of us queued awkwardly, perhaps because we are more likely to gawk at the leather goods and their astronomical prices than buy, but perhaps because while we queued we were in sight of the beggar’s outstretched hand for some change. As we pound the Champs Elysee for anything affordable, even McDonald’s, drained of its signature colours to a dull grey so it fits in on the street, is not saved from the families in layers of rags.
How does a family of four, including a beautiful baby whose gem-coloured eyes pierce you as you pop fries into your mouth, get here? Did the four/five-month-old arrive with them, or was she born here on these fancy streets. It was enough to make you look away, in great discomfort, toward the Arc de Triomphe at the end of the street. Ironically, the monument was erected in honour of the fallen …Oh, and there was also no Uber service when we first visited. Perhaps it would have saved my near-pneumonia. Drivers with profile pictures more suited to Tinder, creamy olive-skinned, dark haired and handsome, they are from Morocco, Algeria: handsome chaps with generous smiles. Despite technology upgrades, Paris is poorer, as France is poorer, because Europe and the world are poorer.
Look, it’s probably not as bad as it was after the Hundred Years War, and the city definitely looks better than it might have after the (luckily limited) destruction of the world wars, but there is a definite sparkle missing from this illuminated place. One of the top tourist spots in the world, because few would not want to come to gawk at the tower, dirty river, dogs and their droppings, et al given half a chance. But you can tell the polish is gone, perhaps even from the reluctant helpfulness the notoriously unwarm French have recently adopted to give tourists comfort.
The age-old Art de Vivre movement, dedicated to art, theatre and music, has been reignited. Come see the opera, the ballet, the art, dress how you want to, they say. If nothing else, perhaps a yearning for culture will remind people why this was the place to be, for pretences of refinement and, that ironic drawcard, romance. With the reality of refugees, poor immigrants, slight sadness, it is even less easy to find romance. A refuge for the world’s castaways, topped with a harsh euro and constant checking of belongings for arms and dodgy backpacks. Even the fancy dining, light-up walks, lovely macaroons and pretty dresses are a little dampened, and not by the rain.
Yet all this might be a stop on the way to a full circle. Lest we forget that, in the Paris of the 1870s, alongside the splendid buildings, cafes and philosophers and educators like Victor Hugo, there was severe poverty, squalor and so many rats! Beheadings, plague, wars: she has seen it all, this lady with many faces, most of them pretty but others to rival the gargoyles. She found her light again in the 19th century, and maintained it for decades.Perhaps she will come back, more lit than ever, for this generation that does not stare at the tower unless it is through a shiny cellphone and filter that can create augmented reality tours which share infographics, like how many people it took to build this thing that is famous because they saw it on a generated screensaver that time.
Today, there is a young president with a fresh face and fresher ideas. Named after the macaroon, too. Perhaps the old lady will have a facelift of an ideological nature, because she may have many sides but we will always love Paris.