I’ll be the first to admit that I like my personal bubble, and crowds sometimes give me anxiety. Paris was pretty much the worst for those two things. At the Eiffel Tower the first night, a Parisian man who seemed to be intoxicated wouldn’t stop trying to hit on me, despite my ignoring him, until he groped me and I finally inched my way over toward the (male) professor leading the trip and continued photographing Paris’s most famous landmark from there. The next day, I was photographing the gardens below the Eiffel Tower when a girl with a clipboard asked me if I speak English. This is some sort of scam we were warned about (although I’m not sure how), so I ignored her, pretending that I didn’t speak English, and she started blessing me and then kissed her fingers and touched them to my cheek. It… was weird. Later, at Montmartre there were men who try to put bracelets on you then charge you for “telling your fortune”. We all managed to get away without paying anything or receiving bracelets, but we couldn’t stop them from grabbing at us as we walked up the hill to Sacre Coeur nonetheless. The crowds are hard enough, but some of the people of Paris took it to a whole different level for me.
2. General Grubbiness
I’d been warned about the dirtiness of Paris, but I was still surprised at how fast we noticed it–the station we got off of the Chunnel in was covered in graffiti and then someone threw up on the first metro we boarded. Everyone had to get off and it took three more train cars before we could all fit on one again. Okay, I know, that sort of thing happens on subways, but we’d just spent a whole week riding London’s Tube with no mishaps and our first ride in Paris, boom. It seems that everyone smokes in Paris, and not politely distant from doorways or other people, but everywhere, and a haze of cigarette smoke hangs over the city. When I got back to the hotel room every night I actually smelled like smoke, and that sort of thing triggers headaches and even migraines for me. Beyond that, though, we experienced a metro station where we had to invoke the touch-nothing-but-yourself rule, a street near Montmartre that was so full of litter I nicknamed it “Garbage Street”, and what looked suspiciously like human feces in the flowerbeds near Moulin Rouge in the Pigalle red light district. Not exactly what I expected from the “City of Love”.
3. The Majority of Parisians
As mentioned above, no one pays any regard to your personal space. Most of the Parisians we met fell into one of two categories: they were either extremely rude to us or aggressively trying to sell us something. We had people cut in line in front of us, a terrible grocery store clerk who was definitely the most unhelpful I’d ever met, and basically people seemed to hate us for being tourists and take advantage of the fact that we didn’t know the language. I found this especially ironic because from what I’ve been told they’re none too kind to those who attempt to speak French either. The other type of people–aggressive hawkers or scammers–were also prevalent in Paris. You couldn’t go anywhere without people trying to sell you mini Eiffel Towers, keychains, and other trinkets, or offering to draw your portrait, or trying to scam you with the clipboards. After just three days in the city, I was exhausted by the people constantly trying to squeeze out a few more Euros from tourists.
Was I naïve to expect, after two and a half days experiencing Paris, that this neighborhood might still be lovely? I don’t blame myself, but instead the media: movies like Moulin Rouge, An American in Paris, and Amélie portray it as a beautiful, artsy place, and how could I not be excited to visit the beautiful church of Sacre Coeur and the artists’ market behind it? However, Montmartre and the Pigalle District were the worst area of Paris by far. The sketchiest metro station was the one we got off near the big hill up to Sacre Coeur, and the street we took up to it was “Garbage Street”. There were a few cool things at the artist’s market, but it was mostly paintings of Eiffel Towers or other Parisian scenes or people having their portraits drawn. The hawkers were definitely most aggressive there, and as I mentioned before, suspected feces in the flowerbeds. I saw plenty of people relaxing on the lawn in front of Sacre Coeur, apparently immune to the things we were experiencing, but for me, Montmartre was one of the biggest disappointments in Paris.
5. Feeling Rather Unsafe
I like to think I’m a rather adventurous traveler, and I’ve felt pretty safe in plenty of bigger cities–London, Washington, D.C., La Paz, even Juarez, but I just didn’t ever feel quite at ease with my surroundings in Paris. The constant hawkers, the groping and personal space issues, and the pickpocketing signs in the Eiffel Tower didn’t help. But then, on our way out of Paris, we saw two men in a very violent fight outside the subway station. One was beating the other with a board and they both ended up on the ground–we had to just keep going, as it could have been a distraction to steal our luggage. And it actually could have been, because in the subway station I was at the back of our group and two men offered to “help me” with my luggage. I had to refuse and try to pull it along a little faster to join up with the rest of group. The area outside the subway station was a public, open place–there’d been street vendors selling purses and jewelry there every afternoon–so it was especially shocking to see something like that happen there.
Now, I’m not going to say that Paris is a city completely without merit, or say that no one should visit. I just wouldn’t put it at the top of your To Travel list either, or plan a romantic Parisian getaway just yet. There were three really great places that I was happy to visit, including the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and Notre Dame. The Louvre had amazing paintings, sculptures and (believe it or not) ceilings! I really enjoyed seeing the Eiffel Tower from the Trocadero, both during the day time (when we also went to the top) and at night, when it glitters on the hour. Notre Dame and the area around it–with the Pont des Arts love lock bridge, Seine, and street vendors selling books was really beautiful, and if I ever muster up the courage to venture to Paris again and give it another shot, I will try to stay as close to that neighborhood as I can. I did enjoy twilight in Paris too–with the lit up Eiffel Tower, neon signs, and people lounging about outside cafes (not to mention the inability to see the garbage mounded on some of the streets in the dimmed lighting) it was almost nice.
What about you? Have you been to Paris? Was your experience similar to mine, or did I somehow completely miss the magic of the City of Light? Comment below.