Paris is the City of Light. Paris is the City of Love. Paris is the city that gets written about through and through. I have read countless books set beneath the Eiffel Tower and alongside fragrant patisseries. I’m familiar with its allure, but I needed and wanted to experience it for myself. In just one day, I experienced the famous city unfold in glamour and an unexpecting authenticity.
I arrived in Paris on a Friday night by way of a direct flight from Florence to the Orly Airport. Three of us flew in while a fourth friend would be joining us the next day. I managed a window seat, staring over my left shoulder as lights zoomed in and out of sight during take off and landing. After nearly an hour long taxi ride spent laughing and singing in the backseat, three friends arrived in the outskirts of Paris, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. It was dark, our Airbnb host wasn’t responding, and only one of us spoke any French. I allowed just a dash of panic to set in before we figured out we went to the wrong numbered apartment. In good company though, mishaps just turn into stories for later.
After only one wrong stop, the train took us into the city late the next morning. First stop: Notre Dame. Inside a cluster of eager tourists and busy locals, we were carried up the steps and into a French film where postcard Paris came to life. The river was up ahead, cafes were all around, and black metal balconies painted the sides of every building. We carefully crossed the street and stood under the massive church. A flock of pigeons enveloped my friend and soon after we made our tourist-ness known with a dramatic handshake and clumsy eruptions of laughter.
I believe I let out a scream when we passed Shakespeare and Company, the oldest English bookstore in Paris. I thought of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemmingway passing the tightly packed shelves, among other famous writers. The shop seeped of literary charm and smelled of fresh pages. Books lined the walls from top to bottom just begging to be cracked open and read. I eagerly waltzed up to the register, a small blue copy of “Love Letters of Great Men” in hand. The cashier stamped my book, and with literary history under my feet and in my hands, I confidently insisted the cashier stamp the inside of my journal, too.
The more street corners we turned and shops we passed, Paris grew. We all felt like little kids at Disney World while the atmosphere lured us into its Parisian dream. Alongside the Seine, we caught a heavy scent of bread and broke out into assumptions of a French bakery. It was more than hilarious when we realized that “heavenly smell” was actually coming from Subway; but that’s what happens when Paris has you charmed.
The sky was overcast but the day was still promising. We stumbled on a market with flowers and a hundred food smells filled my nose. I couldn’t help but verbally praise the beautiful red tomatoes that stood before me. My friends shook their heads smiling, but I felt they needed to be acknowledged. The market told us we were hungry so we ventured off in search of lunch. Adjacent to the Luxembourg Gardens, we found a corner bistrot with a bright red awning and wandered in. Tables were awkwardly close together and the upstairs floor to ceiling ratio was uncomfortably short. We squished ourselves into a booth in the back and ordered what ended up being one of the best meals of my life. Two of us ordered duck topped in a honey sauce that I’m still dreaming about. It came with the smoothest and gooiest mashed potatoes and cheese—pommes aligot.
Colorful and chattering, the Luxembourg Gardens were alive that day. The paths were wide and pristine with clean lines and perfect statues and fountains—it was like a glimpse into a world of court dances and ball gowns. Above us stood a palace where the French flag waved above all else. We sat below, soaking up as much sun as Paris in March would allow. Hundreds of hand-crafted toy sailboats played in the expansive fountain in front of us, each displaying a different country’s flag. People were practicing what appeared to be Tai Chi on our right; a romantic tunnel of trees and benches lay still on the left.
A train ride to Champs-Élysées was next on the itinerary. We sat in our seats as the train seemingly missed our stop, forcing us to backtrack from the next one down. Streets became eerily quiet the closer we got to our destination and as we turned a corner, we saw police tackling someone in the street. Three more blocks and Paris became silent until it couldn’t hold it in any longer. Yellow vest protests had broken out and shop windows were shattered. Graffiti writing covered the intact walls and one business had even burned. Chaos erupted from nowhere and the air got smoky while the streets got crowded.
In fight or flight scenarios, my instinct is almost always flight. The Paris I suddenly found myself in didn’t smell of macarons, but of smoke. Instead of music, there were sirens. I suddenly wanted out. The chaotic environment snapped me out of the Parisian dream I had lost myself in just moments before. It reminded me that Paris isn’t just an artificial city all lovey dovey and charming, but it's real and messy and raw. My friends’ curiosity led us through the streets while I followed behind in a state of panic. We managed to escape the chaos, and like a light switch, Paris became peaceful again.
What’s most ironic is that only five minutes after weaving through the shouting policemen and debris, we found ourselves along the Seine where the Eiffel Tower made its debut right as the sun began to set. No matter how touristy or overrated it may seem, it’s an icon of Paris and it flung me right back into the city’s glamorous spell.
Before I knew it, the tower was close enough to touch. It was so much bigger than I imagined. The three of us all stood in admiration before irresistibly giving in to the photo op. We were now in a mosh pit of gleaming tourists.
Dinner checked off one of our biggest and most stereotypical French goals: to try escargot. My high school French teacher once told my class that as long as you soak them in butter, they’re perfectly edible. But I have to say, no butter was needed. Dare I say… I liked them. My friend and I tried them at the same time (right after he embarrassingly dropped one of the shells on the floor and proceeded to eat it anyways) and it tasted more like a mushroom to me than anything else. I had noticed the antennae of course, but covered in sauce it just became a little mushroom of parsley pesto.
Day one in Paris was fuller than I expected, but nothing compared to its finale. Sitting on the lawn, the Eiffel Tower blazed to life. Bursts of light exploded sporadically and danced along the frame while we looked up in awe. We sat on the lawn for an entire hour just to see it start again, right at the top of the hour. The scene was so spectacular that I barely remember people coming up to ask if we wanted to buy figurines for just a few “eu-eu-eu-eu-euros.” The Eiffel Tower left me star-struck.
In my experience, there is no right or wrong way to do Paris. I learned on this day that the city will present itself to you the way it wants to, not the other way around. Paris showed me charm, vulnerability, and glamour, all wrapped up in a fashionable, timeless bow. The books I’ve read came to life as I clicked my black boots along its well worn streets, and suddenly I understood the draw to the city of light; it captures you and consumes you in its story. Paris is too big to be consumed in just one visit and so I hope to return someday, maybe to write something more.