There are two cities where I feel at home despite never actually living in either of them. The first is New York City, which I visited countless times while living in Philadelphia, heading up I-95 for a random wine event and staying for a couple of days at a time.
The other is Paris, where I find myself on a beautiful fall day, staring out at the bustling Boulevard des Italiens from my 9th Arrondissement hotel window, a few blocks from l’Opéra. I am back in perhaps my favorite city in the world for just a few days, before heading south to ride my bike and sample some wines in the Dordogne Valley, but it feels like I have never left.
This is my third trip to Paris this year and as I strolled down the street to the local boulangerie in search of some morning sustenance, I tried to calculate how many nights, in total, I have spent in France’s largest city and capital.
I first visited the city nearly four decades ago as a college student, just passing through on my way to Strasbourg, on the Eastern border with Germany where I would spend the year perfecting my French and studying international relations at the Council of Europe. A handful of years later, I came back, this time as a fledgling bicycle tour guide, eager to travel the continent.
Those first few summers as a tour guide, I hated Paris. It was big, bustling, and brusque. I was there not to take in the many sights or experience the food, culture, or wine; I sat in a stifling hot office (albeit in a 13th-century building), trying to make my accounts balance after having been on the road for seven straight weeks, through eight countries, using as many different currencies (those first few years were pre-Euro).
It was miserable.
Gradually, both my bookkeeping and outlook on Paris improved, and at some point, the city I once despised (and I am pretty sure hated me back), became the jewel that I had studied in high school and dreamt about visiting.
At this point, I figure I have spent at least a year’s worth of nights in this incredible city, bifurcated by the Seine, and what I always notice first, whether emerging from the RER at les Halles, getting out of a cab on rue Montorgueil, or stepping off a train at the Gare de l’Est, is Paris’ smell.
I say “smell” since it is more pleasant (at least to me) than “odor” but not quite as enticing as “scent” or “aroma.” Paris definitely has a smell. Don’t get me wrong, I really like (maybe even love?) the smell of Paris but like an aged champagne, it is perhaps an acquired taste.
The smell of Paris is an eclectic mélange of freshly-baked bread, melted butter, cigarette smoke (nearly everyone still smokes here, it seems), and, well, stale urine. (I was not quite sure about that last element until yesterday when I saw a woman squatting in the street and….)
While those last two elements might cause one to recoil a bit, there is no doubt that Paris is a beautiful city. From the historical monuments to the Haussmann boulevards and bâtiments, to the mediéval neighborhoods and alleys, any casual stroll through Paris is magnificent.
Then there are the Parisiens. The denizens of Paris are foremost fashionable and even the most mundane of tasks requires sartorial splendor. Just a quick jaunt to the local grocery store is treated as if it were a runway walk, from heels to scarf, Parisiens leave no element unthought out or (gasp) out of style.
But Parisiens are also rude and, for the most part, grumpy. I will give them a pass on the first since inhabitants of most large cities are not known for their collective courtesy. (Having said that the French in general and the Parisiens in particular, have the most annoying habit of congregating in places that serve to congest and frustrate: Doorways, entryways, exits, you name it. If you need to get somewhere in Paris, there will be a group of Parisiens in your way chatting, smoking, and completely oblivious to the needs of anyone else in the immediate vicinity.)
As for grumpy, Parisiens complain about everything. You would think that living in, perhaps, the most beautiful city in the world would be enough for most people. Not Parisiens. At least every other day there seems to be a strike: taxi drivers, metro workers, railway conductors, air traffic controllers. Hell, even students go on strike in Paris.
On top of that, they complain about Americans, tourists (particularly American tourists, which, by the way, they consider anyone speaking English [no matter how broken] to be American), politics, American politics (Parisiens know more, a whole lot more, about American politics than most Americans), the upcoming 2024 Olympics. You name it and the Parisiens likely can complain about it.
So why do I keep coming back to this smelly, grumpy city? Well, I am not the first to proclaim that there is something magical about Paris. The architecture, the art, the food, the fashion, all of it melds together into an enchanting, extraordinary, inexplicable bundle of magnificence that has a distinct element of stale urine.
And it feels like home.