The weekend of the 23rd January was sadly to be my last weekend in France for the time being, so what better way to spend it is there than in good old Paris? This was my third visit to Paris and, with each visit, my fondness for the French capital grows. Some may say that Paris is “over-rated” and “too touristy”, and yes, it is very obviously a tourist hot-spot but there is so much more to the charm of this alluring city than the traditional attractions such as Le Tour Eiffel and L’Arc de Triomphe. Don’t get me wrong, these landmarks are a must-see and have to be ticked off the bucket list on a trip to Paris (I hasten to add that there is absolutely no shame in taking numerous selfies with the Eiffel Tower in the background.) However, once these activities are out of the way, I urge you to soak up the atmosphere as much as possible in order to truly appreciate le facon de vivre and to encapture that Parisian charm which is so effortlessly portrayed in many a utopian, lovey-dovey sort of French film.
My favourite way to do this is to simply leave your map at home, forget about any planned agendas and get lost. This is what I accidentally ended up doing as I set off to find Les Galeries Lafayettes (a luxury shopping centre boasting brands such as Gucci and Louis Vitton situated in a VERY beautiful building). Anyway, after a brief moment of panic as I realised I had left my map back at my friend’s flat and was therefore alone in a foreign city and on a metro notorious for its pick-pocketing professionals, I found an ounce of courage within me and set off on an adventure; “Bobbie the Traveller” had now upgraded to “Bobbie the Explorer”.
After asking several commuters how to reach my destination, and at least a good half an hour journey later, I finally found the galleries and spent a mere ten minutes there before I felt entirely overwhelmed. What was I doing in a place that sold handbags worth more than everything I’ve ever owned?? I also remembered how much I hate massive, over-crowded places where the exits are never completely clear, leading me to feel trapped in some very expensive bubble land. No amount of intricate painted glass and exquisite architecture could make me enjoy this place – in reality it is a shopping centre, and I dislike shopping centres.
So I was therefore left with four hours to fill before my friend finished work and I decided I would visit a Paris attraction which rests among my firm favourites, the Centre Pompidou – a complex with a bunch of street artists performing just outside it. Fun and free: much more up my street. However, without a map and with limited geographical knowledge of Paris, I had no real grasp of how to get there, or how far away it would be. Again, I sucked it up and remembered my new explorer title so didn’t let this minor detail phase me. I figured that it was near Notre Dame, which is along the Seine, so as long as I could find a river I would be halfway there.
Upon this little voyage I found things I wouldn’t normally know how to get to, and places I had never really intended to visit. This included a street of diamond shops with scary looking security guards at every shop entrance. Important looking men would roll up in whatever chauffeur-driven luxury car they happened to own, escorted into the shop where they would spend barely minutes looking for a gift, and then they’d stroll out again triumphant with their purchase. Done deal.
The next thing I unintentionally found was WHSmith Paris. I know I was living in France, meaning that complete immersion in everything French was necessary and thus going into a British shop was absolutely against any rule that I had set for myself, but I couldn’t help but pine after a little bit of Britain from time to time. I therefore had a peek inside to see what I might find; I always find it interesting to see how my own nationality and part of identity is represented and perceived by other nations, so maybe WHSmith Paris could help in giving me a slight insight?
I wasn’t disappointed as I soon found a shelf which represented every sort of food that us Brits are apparently famous for; Marmite, Marmalade, Branston pickle, Heinz baked beans and Colman’s mustard (all other nations must think we eat everything out of tins and cans). Another thing which made me chuckle was the mountain of unwanted mince pies they had on offer, as it very much reminded me of my own family’s cupboards back home. Every year we are left with stacks of leftovers; mince pies are simply no good once Christmas Day has passed!
Feeling slightly guilty after my indulgent British detour, I once again set off on my quest to find the river which thankfully happened to be very close by. Part one of the mission down, all I had to do now was to walk along the river in the opposite direction of the Eiffel Tower in order to reach Notre Dame and then the Centre Pompidou was around there somewhere: easy-peasy. However, I didn’t quite consider how far that might be…
On the walk up the river I stopped off to look at the many second hand pop-up bookshops and was very very tempted to buy an old-smelling, classic piece of French literature which I knew I would never read but would feel very cultural and intellectual for buying at the time. However, having already dumped half of my books at my friend’s flat on the basis that my suitcase was far too heavy (sorry Lauren) I decided against it and instead bought a few souvenirs to take back to my family. These included: a quirky chocolate-based fridge magnet for my Mum, and a poster of a cow with all the body parts labelled in French for my brother – should he ever wish to go into a French restaurant and order a Cow’s tongue, he now has a handy guide to help him.
So maybe these gifts weren’t the most conventional, but I thought they showed a bit of thought and definitely beat the over-priced commercial items of all the tacky tourist shops! Moreover, I got to try and explain to the shop-owner where my hometown (Newbury) is, and talking about Newbury is something I will never tire of doing: (une petite ville historique dans le sud de l’Angleterre, pas loin d’Oxford, une heure de Londres par train, oui je l’aime bien…)
Two hours later…
I finally found the Centre Pompidou and there was absolutely nothing going on, a bit of an anti-climax to my whole mission really. It would seem a rainy Monday in January wasn’t the most popular time for street artists to perform… However, after an initial pang of disappointment, I realised that I didn’t really mind. I had spent the afternoon wandering aimlessly around the streets of Paris and along the River Seine, practised speaking French, spent minimal amount of pennies, and stumbled across places I would had never have planned upon if I were to stick to a carefully thought-out agenda/route. All of this and I had a thoroughly enjoyable time doing it.
So basically what I’m trying to say here is, if you really want to attempt to get to know a foreign city, just find a little bit of the explorer in you and go and get lost!