I recently returned from a ten-day stay in Paris (well, just outside) with my French friend Marie and family. I left home eager to explore the city I’d only seen before in romantic comedies and painted on Impressionist canvases. With guidebook in hand, I was ready to see and do the things that those visiting Paris usually see and do. How it is that, ten days later, I left not having visited the Arc de Triomphe, seen the Mona Lisa in the Louvre or even been up the Eiffel Tower seems strange.
The truth is a Lonely Planet or Time Out can only show you so much of a city. They can show you the places to be, the things to do and the people to see, but only someone who knows these things like the cereal aisle in Tesco can show you what you’re missing out on.
I stepped out onto the Metro platform on my first day there, only half understanding what we were going to be doing (as is the nature of these things) and followed the family along the cobbled streets of the Marais quarter, past the countless Jewish bakeries and fripe (vintage) shops.
After meandering the busy maze, we ended up a fair distance away from where we started at the Marché d’Aligre. We attempted to stroll through, a difficult task in itself what with the sea of regular market goers with their wicker baskets brimming with the fresh fruit and vegetables lining our path. We pushed past the outstretched arms of the stall owners – “Goutez! Goutez!” - and emerged amongst the tiny epiceries and shrunken cafes of the other side.
After this, we wandered through the park where Marie’s brother and sister learned to walk. It’s amazing how an area peppered with real memories and experiences, even if not your own, can change the way you perceive it. To an ‘I Heart Paris’ t-shirt-bearing school trip, it was just a fenced-in area of grass with a few benches and a couple of dodgy slides, but, as I watched the two siblings smiling warmly at the place that holds the memories of their childhood, it became more than that.
A quick falafel lunch break later and we were back on our feet. This time we headed towards a more popular area, picking up some tea in Paris’s first tearoom Mariage Frères, some ‘Bensimon’ shoes (apparently the shoe of the moment for the jeunes of Paris) and a Berthillion ice cream on the Isle de Louis, which we ate on the sunny banks of the Seine. I admit that last thing wasn’t exactly original, but you can’t go wrong with a quickly melting ice cream in good company. I felt very much like I was in Paris at least.
We stumbled upon English-language bookshop Shakespeare and Company (made famous by the likes of Ernest Hemingway) not long after that. I was left to scour the walls alone, being the only English speaker of the group, and was immediately stunned by the sheer number of books crammed into such a small space. Feeling pleased in my finding of some Fitzgerald short stories, I headed upstairs, where there were beds laid out amongst creaking walnut shelves welcoming struggling writers in need of a place to stay, and thoughtful-looking student types reading quietly in the library section. It was an amazing place, signposted clearly outside by all the trilbies and oversized clear-lensed glasses flocking towards it.
That was all for that day, but we returned throughout the week, checking out the sights that they all knew so well, like the apartment where the children grew up, the place where their mother used to work and the patisseries where they’d buy their croissants every morning (oh, how very French).
In this way I got to see a side of Paris that can’t be pinpointed in a Rough Guide. I felt lucky to be shown something that not many non-native visitors are faced with; I was staring at the face of something real, not the classic picture on a postcard. I may not have seen the Eiffel Tower, but to experience a place based not on touristy ideals but on those who inhabit it puts a whole different spin on a holiday.