Paris – everyone raves about it, even those who’ve never been there, perhaps especially those who’ve never been there! A must-do for the romantic tripster… the City of Lights… fashion capital… and a score of other complimentary handles. What did I think of it? Overrated, vastly overrated.
The city is not very clean…no, this is not the NRI in me speaking. I am perfectly used to filth in the streets, dust in the air, slime in waterbodies etc. – but in India, not in a “developed” European nation.
Cigarette smoke – all over the place. The stereotypes that I nurtured about “healthy-looking” types fell apart pretty soon. Absolutely anyone could be a candidate for a cigarette. As a sight-hungry tourist, I found myself in queues every day, and unfortunately for the smoke-intolerant me, more often than not, my fellow queuers would light up several times each before the queue achieved its aim.
Prices – exorbitant. People may be missing one factor (besides wine, walking, vegetables and garlic) contributing to the celebrated French slimness, vide all the hype about French women never getting fat etc.– food is bloody expensive. This goes for raw and prepared foods. Portion sizes in restaurants are modest – actually sensible, except that they’re overpriced. I can’t think of a more effective deterrent to overeating. Add smoking, and the utter stupidity of driving yourself in the crowded, parking space-deficient city, and the mystery of the French figure is considerably demystified.
Thieves – unethical by definition, I know, but the extreme sadism required to steal from freshly arrived tourists in a train (train, not taxi, read not people who can afford to blow money) boggles the mind. If you must thieve, and have the sophisticated skills called for by the occupation, how about being as considerate as possible under the circumstances, and sticking to locals or blatantly rich tourists who have a base in the place or wouldn’t be deranged by material losses? Thieving is almost traditional in Paris, and the police force (who ought to be outraged, chafe and finally take decisive steps to monitor favoured thief-zones and contain the menace) talk of it with the same ease as they would of the Louvre or escargot or champagne. I wonder why people think of Paris as a good option for a honeymoon spot – it is poorly endowed with unspoilt topographical beauty, for one thing, and for another, with the high level of petty crime, could you entirely discount the possibility that your spouse may get stolen along with a piece of luggage?
Who might find Paris romantic? Someone with loads of money and a chauffeured vehicle, preferably someone white and slender (i.e., with European looks, to sidestep the shades and tints of racism/suspicion/hostility that clearly different looking people stimulate), someone supplied with a knowledgeable, even omniscient, tourist guide to direct one through the ill-organised museum routes and procedures, someone with a hawkeyed bodyguard to deter or deal with the ubiquitous thieves that the city literally boasts, someone who needs to have no interaction with the lackadaisical police force, and someone who is immune to inclement weather. Or then someone whose idea of romance includes hunger, poverty, air-pollution, some dirt, winds in combination with downpours that whip poorly made (French, by the way!) umbrellas out of shape and puddles that allow you to squelch your way to an overpriced (surprise, surprise!) hotel. Would I call Paris romantic? Not with a ten-foot pole!! I’m a comfort-lover myself, and failed to detect romance in the travails alluded to ibid.
Saving graces? (a) I could guess at the contents of signs because I can read the script even if I find the spoken language inaccessible, and English has borrowed a colossal lot from French (one notices that this transaction is not mutual). (b) Public transport is good; the metro is expensive (nothing new there) but remarkably well planned with very, very frequent and timely trains. (c) The physical structures that characterise Paris are beautiful – churches, objects d’art, the Seine, the Eiffel Tower, and so on. (d)Toilets were clean, or at least I was lucky!
Go to Paris if you must. But follow these bits of advice: Staple your valuables to your body from the moment you get there till you reach your hotel. Entrust said valuables to the safe deposit locker in your hotel as soon as you get there. Buy foods from grocery stores if possible. Eat crepes (mildly boring pancakes) to keep body and soul together. Learn some French, or at least carry a phrasebook around with you. Watch your companions so as to intercept pickpockets making off with their good(ie)s. And well before you embark upon your trip there, scan your passport and visa and email it to yourself, and for added precaution, keep a hard copy in each piece of luggage as well. If you lose your passport, you will find yourself in the Embassy, which need not be a place staffed by geniuses. The Indian Embassy certainly isn’t.