Paris is a city with secrets. It’s one of those cities that even after several visits you still feel like you don’t quite know it and feel as though it has more to reveal. Of course, the attractions of Paris are well-known– the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame, but there are places to visit in less heavily trafficked areas, less well-known areas that are no less magical.
I was 13 years old when I went to Paris the first time. I was on a school trip with 20 other junior high school students. It was my first international trip. I was scared about going because I had been warned that the French were rude to you and basically spat on you if you attempted to speak their language. But though I was quite nervous about the trip, I was more excited about the thrill of experiencing my first taste of foreign travel. So armed with my B average in French, I steeled myself and awaited the inevitable dismissal of my French ability.
The trip began with the usual tour bus calisthenics — get on the bus, drive to “insert name of a landmark here,” get off the tour bus, take a picture, and repeat. My first impressions of Paris from the bus were neutered. Yes, I could see that Paris was a beautiful city, but it didn’t seem to have that magic that I was led to believe I’d experience. It didn’t have that “je ne sais quoi” as the French would say. I was not seduced.
However, Paris is a great temptress. She smiles coyly at you, draws you in, flirts with you, but she knows that she doesn’t have to try hard to get your attention – this ain’t Vegas baby! She might even flash you, á la Cage aux Folle style, bewitching you with a glimpse of her secrets, but even then she does this for her own benefit, not yours. She knows you’ll fall for her charms in spite of yourself. And fall I did … hard.
My group was staying at a small hotel tucked away in the Latin Quarter on a street so curvy it could’ve given Mae West a run for her money. One day, I looked out of my window and peered around one of those curves and I suddenly noticed that this street was laden with ordinary sights, ordinary yet magical.
I watched as a Parisian woman gracefully maneuvered the uneven cobblestone street with high heels so tall and thin it looked as if she were on stilts. I saw a procession of motorbikes zoom by, dodging in and out of traffic, the drivers shouting profanities and making lewd hand gestures at any pedestrian unlucky enough to get in their way. Very often they had a baguette or two strapped to the back of their bike. I marveled that the baguettes remained intact and wondered if the bread tasted like exhaust. I saw groups of raucous school boys on their way to school, and upon seeing me in the window they threw kisses at me. I laughed, enjoying being the “older woman” to these pint-sized Lotharios.
But my true taste of the attractions of Paris came when I went to Porte de Vanves, a Parisian flea market. It is less well-known than the famous Les Puces de Saint-Ouen, but still contained a king’s ransom of treasures. I was giddy standing in the middle of it all and felt cheated for having only gone to bland shopping malls, one interchangeable with another. I was like a baby again experiencing everything as if it were for the first time. I walked around the market without an explicit purpose merely wanting to soak up the essence of Paris through osmosis.
In this large outdoor wonderland, there were rows upon rows of intriguing items for sale, some displayed with care and others simply dumped on blankets. There was a long purple velvet coat with beautiful iridescent buttons guaranteed to make its wearer feel like a queen, lace tablecloths so intricately sewn it seemed as if only a spider could have made them, paintings from eras in art that I had only read about in school, and foods laden with spices that I had never tasted before – foods from Algeria, Tunisia, Martinique, and other countries that reflected France’s colonial legacy.
I stopped by a vendor selling crepes with ham and Gruyere cheese. My mind exploded with the knowledge that there was food this good in the world. Of course, I ordered another … and another. Vendors called out to me in rapid fire French trying to get me to stop by their table and perhaps to buy. I had my eye on a vintage emerald green jumpsuit that would’ve been too much for me to wear at 13, but perfect for my grown-up self. I still pine for that jumpsuit!
This trip to Paris still resonates with me as any first love does. My fond memories of the trip aren’t really about the famed attractions of Paris, it is more about who I became — an explorer and citizen of the world. It opened up a whole new world to me. Even before I returned home I knew that my destiny had changed. I learned to be led by my curiosity, to always peer around the corner of a curve, to see the magical in the everyday. Since that first trip, I have traveled to more than 15 countries and have lived in Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Brazil.
Perhaps the reason people keep coming back to Paris, this City of Light, is not so much about how she shines, but about her ability to reflect that light back onto us. I look forward to returning to Paris and uncovering more of her secrets.