These were my thoughts a few weeks ago on visiting Paris, a city that had played a prominent role in my youth, for the first time in twenty years. Since then, like many others, I have been saddened by recent events.
It was a hot summer day at the beginning of June that I set foot in Paris for the first time. I was eighteen years old and I had a spring in my step, believing with the conviction of youth that I would conquer the world. Today I am no longer eighteen and I live in Sweden.
Being back in Paris after two decades’ absence provokes a strange nostalgia. That summer seems to have been just yesterday, yet it is now twenty-four years ago and everything has changed. It feels like I have arrived back in early autumn in every sense of the word. The reflection that looks back from the mirror has long lost the freshness of youth.
How about Paris? Has it changed? As I write these words I am sitting in a cozy coffee shop in the 18th arrondissement. The scent in the air is that of roasted coffee beans. Voices rise and fall in conversation while others barely raise their eyes from the screens of their laptop computers. Outside the bay windows, the walls opposite me are covered in colourful street art and many of the faces passing me are African, which is exactly how it was on my first day in the summer of ’91, so things seem the same on the exterior at least.
The Honesty of Youth
Plus ça change, as they say in French. This jumped out at me on the train into Gare du Nord on my arrival. We passed a perfectly grim Parisian suburb with a burned out car and garbage strewn on the ground. One of the French kids sitting in front of me remarked to his mother that it had to be the ugliest city on the planet. She replied that people from all over the world came to admire its beauty. Yet in his youth and brutal honesty, he encapsulated a truth about this city. It is a city that shocks before it seduces. Indeed, a few Japanese tourists are apparently struck by a phenomenon known as the ‘Paris syndrome’ every year and have to repatriated, traumatized by the fact this most romantic of cities is far from perfect.
Tourist Fantasy and Reality
Seen from afar, it is hard to resist the images of Paris with its bridges, churches and iconic monuments. And all these things exist. However, in addition to all this, there are still the same fumes in the metro stations, not to mention the same unpleasant odours of urine throughout central Paris. There are even signs along the quays to remind us not to pee in public.
Plus ça change?
The saying encapsulates a strange truth, it seems. Everything has changed and nothing has changed at the same time. As I sip my coffee and type I wonder why it has taken so long for me to return. Perhaps, deep down, I wished to remain forever eighteen.
But that is no longer an excuse to put off returning to Paris!
Was there a place or first-time travel experience that you have never forgotten?
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