I went to Paris for a week when I was 17. I loved it.
When I was 18, I went to London for a week, and when someone there asked me: “Which city do you prefer?” I looked at them not even believing it was a serious question. If this was a competition, the only part in which I saw London ever winning was the proper use of grass in the parks: you were allowed to sit on it, lie on it, and do cartwheels on it. Paris was full of beautiful parks with beautiful lawns, but, you could only look at those lawns. The competition ended here: to me Paris was a true beauty no other city could ever compete with.
When I was 19, I went to London for the whole summer. By August I could – again – not understand how it was even a competition between London and Paris. London was a world in itself, and Paris was just a pretty city in Europe, where you couldn’t even sit on a lawn.
I am 37 now, and I have spent way more time in London than in Paris (although I lived a little longer in France than in the UK to balance this). And my opinion remained more or less unchanged since I was 19. London is still the world – the good, the bad and everything in between. I realise though that Paris might be a world too, but this world is hidden from me. In my eyes, it is a pretty city in Europe.
So you can see now how I could never write a proper guide to Paris, or even compile a list of “10 best of anything to do in Paris”. Since my first week there a long time ago I visited it very rarely for a weekend or a quick work trip, just enough to sniff that there is more than I can see, but not enough to actually see behind the centre and the main sights.
Remember how at the beginning of Facebook we would just put random thoughts and describe our feelings and then polish it all off with some 20 (often unrelated) images? So a fair warning: this is this kind of blog post from the past, and will not give you any practical information.
Table of Contents
Shopping in Paris
The forecast said it would be around +2 C in Paris that weekend. I was torn between two options: my pretty bright red coat or a long black winter jacket, more reminding of a duvet than a piece of clothing. In the end, comfort and warmth won over beauty.
My Parisian friend eyed my coat: “It is very warm, Ana. You will definitely be warm on our walk tomorrow. It is actually not easy to buy a jacket like this here. People in Paris would not wear that.”
I thought she was being a snob. After spending two days walking around, I realised she was being realistic.
People do dress well there, and during that cold weekend, I could see they still prioritised style over comfort. You can argue, of course, what comfort is and what style is. My personal level of comfort is walking around wrapped up in a big black blanket, and yes, that level of comfort I haven’t seen much.
It did not convince me to exchange my duvet for a stylish coat, but watching all these people putting more effort into their appearance made me think about style, beauty and fast fashion. How I actually like the idea of a curated wardrobe – not necessarily minimalist, but one consisting only of things that I love (Was there someone smart who once called this “sparks joy”?). After all, you only have two legs and two arms, and even fewer backs and chests, so why compromise?
Sightseeing in Paris
The other things which spark joy are the buildings. Not all of them, but still I recommend seeing the main ones in each city. It is not an accident they are chosen to be the main sights, and I think skipping them and doing the “off the beaten path” tour straight away would be a mistake. First, beat the path and then wander off.
Some of the sights will leave you disappointed. Some will leave you indifferent. But some will take your breath away.
To me this was the case with the Eiffel Tower – I see it and I am in love. I want to walk around, and see it from different angles. No matter how long I watch it, it is not enough.
I remember seeing the Colosseum in Rome. My friend took me from the airport and gave me a driving tour. While we were getting closer to the centre, he suddenly started glancing at me surreptitiously.
“What’s the matter? Can you keep your eyes on the road?”
“I just want to see the look on your face when you see the Colosseum for the first time.”
Faking my amazement at the Colosseum felt like faking an orgasm, but it was also a safety measure – I was afraid he would crash the car if not seeing what was expected. I don’t know architecture enough to understand what features of the buildings make me fall in love and which don’t, but Colosseum is in the second category. No feelings. At all.
And then there was the Oslo Opera House. We had a couple of hours to wander around the centre of Oslo with my boss. We saw it, and I was stuck. While she was sitting on the bench, I ran around, climbed up, walked in, and took probably a hundred pictures from all possible angles. I have never seen a building more beautiful.
But the Eiffel Tower is a close second.
(in case you are curious about my top list, the third is the Chords Bridge in Jerusalem).
Books in Paris
What is this crazy deal with everyone visiting Shakespeare and Co bookshop? A long queue outside to enter a crowded bookshop, walk through it and walk out. For the fear of missing out, I’ve done it too. I queued outside, made my way through the shop, saw the books I loved, the books I’ve hated (recently “A Little Life”, in case you asked) and books I haven’t read. If you stop for a bit to look a little longer, people breathe in the back of your neck – in a bookshop, a fortress of solitude, a paradise of introverts!
If someone can explain to me the charm of it, I will be happy to add your quote to this post to have a balanced perspective.
Notre Dame Cathedral
First I saw the container building. “What a weird idea to put this kind of construction right on Île de la Cité.” – even I, a fan of modern architecture didn’t find this entirely well placed.
And then I saw the rest. The container building turned out to be the temporary (but probably rather long-lasting) office building for the renovation of Notre Dame Cathedral. Behind it was the cathedral itself, like a patient in a hospital bed, attached to all kinds of machines and perfusions.
After the fire in Notre Dame in 2019, there was a long debate on reconstruction. Should the church be repaired to keep the same exact look as before the fire? Or shall it be reconstructed in a way that would make it look different?
You know what phrase I really dislike? “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I had a couple of experiences in my life which would – I guess – qualify as the ones “which didn’t kill me”. They didn’t make me stronger. They half broke me, and then the bones grew together in a metaphorical sense. But in the place of breakage, they are not stronger, they are weaker. If you poke me right in that broken spot, it will take very little to break it again.
Ok, maybe some parts can heal better. But in any case that what doesn’t kill you, makes you – stronger or weaker – different. You can not come out from the fire the same as before. You would have to accept that the new you would not be the old you, no matter how much you wish to go back to normal. And that you yourself, and likely many others would miss the old you terribly. But there is no way of going back.
When rebuilding Notre Dame after the fire, would the correct way be to make it the same way it used to be? To fake the normality? Or to rebuild it in a way that would acknowledge that the fire happened, it was destructive, and the old church, its exact look, is forever lost. And face the crowds accusing it of not being what it used to be – as if you – or the Cathedral – actually had some choice in the matter?
Perfume in Paris
We top this cupcake of a post with a little cherry of a cliche. It is a story not from the most recent weekend there, but from one some 10 years ago and I love it so much, that I need to tell it on all the text media I have.
I had a couple of hours to spend in Paris before my train to Strasbourg, so I was walking alone in Marais. It was drizzling a little, but then the drizzle turned to proper rain, and I decided to check some shops to stay dry. We just spent a weekend with my friend doing all the touristic stuff and enjoying it, so I thought some more cliches wouldn’t hurt and dove into a perfume boutique called L’Artisan Parfumeur.
I didn’t know this one before, and in general, I was not a perfume connoisseur (and still not – this is why I will also use the language of simple mortals and not perfumers to describe the experience). I usually have just one scent for many years, and at that time many years ago it was Issey Miyake (and before that, when I was a teenager it was Promesse by Cacharel). I liked it, but couldn’t get rid of the idea that there is some other scent, which would be mine, something which would match me perfectly, like love at first sight.
So I open the door to this little shop, full of light and warmth in the grey March drizzle outside. The most Parisian man I could imagine (white turtleneck, grey hair) greets me.
“I’m looking for a new perfume for me,” I tell him.
“And what do you like?”
He nods, chooses a bottle, sprays a little on a piece of paper and hands it to me.
“This one is very nice.” I smile politely.
“Ok, let’s try another one then.”
We try another one. And another one. And one more, with just a hint of jasmine. They were all very nice, I thought I could definitely find something for me here. Just not any of those.
“Right. – he now gave me a little smile, the one you have when a boring job becomes a little more interesting. – You can sit down and we will start from the beginning. I think you like the idea of jasmine. But not jasmine itself.”
(I often remembered this phrase later on. I guess I like many ideas more than the matter behind them: the idea of running, the idea of camping, the idea of a family trip where we just wake up and make a spontaneous decision of what to do, see and eat during the day.)
And so he started handing me pairs of scents so that I could tell him the one I prefer – based on that the next pair would come and so on and so on until I was left with 3 I liked best. I later found out that this is how they make perfume fitting in those fancier shops. I have since been to several of them, but I have never met anyone like this man.
He sprayed each of them on my arms: two at the wrists and one at the elbow pit.
“On your body, they would be different than in the bottle, so wait for a little. And here is one more scent – it doesn’t have the notes you seem to favour, but maybe try it also along with those other three?”
I extended my arm – one more elbow pit was still scentless. Then I brought both arms to my nose.
“How do I choose now? I like them all.”
“You will feel when the perfume is right for you. Go for a little walk and check them once in a while. When you feel one of them is right, come back for it.”
It was still drizzling, and I was not sure I will find my way back to the shop if I wander off, that I won’t have time to come back before the train. But the perfumer was stubborn and told me he would not sell me any of them now until I tell him that I felt that one is more right than the rest.
And I went out to explore Paris. I walked around, and every ten minutes or so I would smell my arms. All the scents I loved and any of them could be my perfect match. After an hour I realised that soon I needed to go towards the train station, and I decided: I will go back to the shop and just point randomly into one of the points on my arms. So I turned around.
On the last traffic light before the shop, I stopped at the red light and out of habit smelled my wrist. And suddenly – as if everything for a second came into a perfect balance. As if a thousand lego bricks of all colours in one second got grouped into a perfect rainbow.
One of the scents suddenly stood out from the rest and became completely special. I put my finger on my wrist and held it there while I walked, but I already realised that this wasn’t necessary, I would not confuse it with the others anymore.
I walked into the shop slightly out of breath and wide-eyed.
“This one, definitely. The one here. What is it called?” I’ve extended my arm to him, showing my wrist as if he could read the scent on it. He didn’t even check it.
“This is called Caligna, it comes from Grass – as does its name, meaning “to court”. It is a combination of sage, pine and jasmine – a little unusual scent for us.”
I later read one review describing Caligna this way: “You’ve left the sunlit flower fields and stepped into the forest, but it’s still not a dark place.” I think it sums it up.
I started explaining to him how I first couldn’t tell and then felt it suddenly felt like a perfect match.
“Yes, I thought it would be the right one for you early on, and yet you didn’t pick the notes leading to it. But I’ve decided to give it to you anyway.”
I wore this perfume ever since, it became a part of me. I also had this habit – whenever I would find myself in a more specialised perfume shop – to ask if they had anything similar to Caligna. Some didn’t know and would check the notes online. Those who recognised it shook their heads – “No, you know, it’s a little unusual that one. Not really similar, no.”
This last weekend we were in Marais with my friends and I decided to separate myself from them for a little bit and found that shop. There was an older woman and a younger woman there. I took some samples for my husband and looked around:
“Have you by any chance made anything in the style of Caligna? I’ve had it for a while, and I don’t plan to change it, but out of curiosity.”
The older woman shook her head in the movement I already knew well:
“No, not really, it’s a little unusual that one, even for us. But you know – it will be discontinued this year. I guess it is not for everyone, so it’s not sold that well.”
And just like that – you find your perfect match and then it’s no longer there.
Pere Lachaise Cemetery
Speaking of those no longer there – the very Parisian flat of my friend is located just next to Pere Lachaise, so it was very natural we took a stroll there on a Sunday morning. I used Google Maps to find some famous graves and was trying to lead us to Jim Morrison when I noticed some small crowd gathering further away.
“We can follow them, I think they are also going there.”
“Ana, I think the fans of Jim Morrison are not really the morning crowd.”
Oh, but they were. Jim Morrison was only 27 when he died in the 70s (and was buried in Pere Lachaise as a poet rather than as a rock star). Many things changed since the 70, including the waking up times of Morrison’s fans.