I don’t know when I started dreaming about Paris. It must have been back in college, somewhere between watching one too many Audrey Hepburn movies and pondering the possibilities of studying abroad.
I never did get there until last fall, but the years only intensified my fascination with the city.
In my mind, my boyfriend and I would stroll the banks of the Seine with a baguette in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other. We’d ride bikes through the city, exploring the hidden alleyways that you see only in romantic movies and blog photos. There would be cobblestone streets everywhere. And maybe, just maybe, the theme song from “Midnight in Paris” would be on repeat.
But nothing ever lives up to such outsize expectations, and my experience in Paris managed to be both a bit of a disappointment and a dream come true. The weather was almost always grey and dreary, and we spent most days in the company of two other friends trekking from monument to monument.
Still in a testament to the city’s greatness, I loved it anyway.
We arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport on a late morning and took a train into the city, watching highways and quiet communities turn into a cluster of city buildings. A little more than an hour later, we met our Airbnb host and checked into the cutest apartment ever. It was so quintessentially French, with its tiny, but comfortable proportions and modern decor. It was everything I had dreamed of.
Not long after settling in, one of our friends joined us to have lunch and go explore the neighborhood. We stayed in the 15th arrondissement, not known for much other than family homes and a few small cafes, which actually made us feel more like locals.
We’d wake up to the sound of children walking single file to school or someone hammering shingles onto a roof not far off. One entire wall of the apartment was lined with windows, and I never got used to the pleasure of watching Parisian life unfold on the streets below from our little balcony.
What I remember most about Paris are the little moments: picking up sandwiches from the boulangerie down the street and eating them around our coffee table; trying to read the French instructions on the washing machine in our apartment before finally hitting a button and hoping for the best; laying those clothes out onto a drying rack in the kitchen and watching the sun stream from the full-length window; or simply coming back home to our apartment after a long day out.
We grew familiar with the slightly musty smell in the hallway and I’d listen to the sounds of dinner or the TV behind the neighbor’s doors and imagine what their Parisian lives must be like.
There were grander moments too, like our day trip to Versailles. Another ride on the RER and a short walk, and we were entering the imposing gilded gates of the palace grounds. You don’t see the true beauty though until you enter the palace and pass through each treasure-filled room, including the famous Hall of Mirrors, finally landing in the Gardens, which seemed to stretch on for days.
From the main castle, we took a long walk over to Marie Antoinette’s estates, where we taunted some crazy fish in a pond and got lost looking for a house that we must have walked past a million times without knowing.
I love New York City museums, but the ones in Paris had a different feel, although maybe that’s just the starry-eyed little girl in me. There’s a sense of grandness in the places themselves, yet everyone seems to be at home. It must be amazing to live in a city with so much culture in your backyard.
Like all good tourists, we visited the Louvre, but it was packed with people, clamoring in one massive, swaying crowd to see the Mona Lisa, which honestly did not impress me as much I’d expected. Instead, I’d advise you to turn around and feast your eyes on Paolo Veronese’s massive painting of The Wedding at Cana.
The Louvre itself is beautiful, but I think it would be more enjoyable in quieter moments – perhaps in the evening when it’s less crowded. It was closing time when we left, and it definitely felt saner by the end of the day. We had fun walking through the palatial rooms and imagining what it would be like to live in them (#bedroomgoals and such) but it was a bit overwhelming and we didn’t see even a quarter of the collections.
I personally preferred the tranquil, open atmosphere at the Musée d’Orsay, where you can sort of flit from room to room between Van Gogh and Monet, while resting for a moment at one of the many recreational areas under the gorgeous windowed ceiling.
To be honest, it took me a while to get used to Paris. I remember taking our first walk from our apartment toward the center of the city and thinking “this could be very well be Queens.” There was nothing much to see when we first started out, apart from a few small shops and some unspectacular buildings. But then, we rounded a corner and got our first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, and I knew we had arrived.
From there, it was a short walk along the Seine, until I was finally up close, standing underneath the most iconic arches in the world (not counting, McDonalds, I guess.) There’s a special feeling when you accomplish something you’ve dreamed of forever. You can almost feel that dream being taken down from the shelf where it’s been tucked away for all this time and dusted off for you.
A few nights later, we finally ascended the Tower for gorgeous views of the city. I can still remember my excitement as we climbed into the elevator. But that mid-September night was cold and extremely windy at those heights, so we only lasted a few minutes up there.
That’s fine though because we’d also been to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, where the view was equally amazing. From its position at the center of a circle, the city unfolds symmetrically, giving you a 360-degree view that includes the Eiffel Tower and Sacré-Cœur, as well as the bustling Champs-Élysées below.
(Photos by Jhaneel Lockhart and Carlos Mendoza)
We were in Paris for eight days total, which still didn’t feel like enough time. (In the middle of our trip, we took the bus to London and then flew over to Rome and back.) There’s nothing like “coming home” to Paris – seeing the streets you’ve already become accustomed to in less than a week, the impeccably-dressed people and the familiar outdoor cafes. (Stay tuned for a separate post on where we ate.)
And the trains – don’t get me started on the trains! From the cute little billets to the door knobs you have to turn to get off the train car, every trip on the subway felt like an adventure in itself. Perhaps we got lucky because we traveled mostly on weekdays (with the exception of one busy Saturday afternoon), but it was such a departure from the overcrowded, dirty New York City subway system. I’m convinced the subway says a lot about a city. In Paris, it says historic charm, with modern minimalism.
In the end, Paris came through for me like I always knew it would. It took me about two weeks to stop searching for ways to move there and spend my days writing à la Hemingway. That dream isn’t totally dead – it’s just shelved away for now. This city has my heart and I’ll be back for sure.