Chasing the Ghosts of Days Gone: A Dispatch from Paris

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I am outside a bar in the Rue du Faubourg Montmartre in the 9tharrondissement, just around the corner from the Grand Boulevards metro station. I ate an underwhelming meal in the chaotic Le Bouillon Chartier next door, a 120+ year old grand European café that has seen better days. Upon leaving, we stumbled upon Café H which is where I’m now sitting, practically dancing in my seat.

Drinking a Gin Fizz and watching an older black gentleman wearing a trilby hat, tweed waistcoat and bow tie bebop and tap-dance as if his life depended on it, it’s easy to see why Paris was the centre of the world during the roaring Twenties. The shackles of social constraint were being loosened, Jazz and Swing music were coming to the fore, a cluster of legendary artists called the city home, and there was a sense of libertine carelessness that is irresistible nowadays.

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The King of Swing.

And I think that, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with Paris; it’s a city of myth. The fabled city of lights attracts millions-upon-millions of visitors every year, with many seeking something that now no longer exists. The Belle Époque, the Fin-de-siècle and the Roaring Twenties have all been and gone, lending the city a legend that is impossible for it to live up to.

Irrepressibly elegant and undeniably beautiful, traversing Paris now feels like a chore where you’re far more likely to encounter selfie stick waving hordes of tourists all chasing the spectre of the Paris of days gone, than you are to stumble across a literary titan or an artistic genius.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly worth trying to see the sights in the city; there are some magnificent landmarks here after all but I found the richest experience I had here was when I stopped bouncing from site-to-site and just existed and enjoyed it.

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The Louvre. A magnificent building but swamped by tourists.

Yes, they are historic and nice but Hemingway, Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dali et al. no longer frequent Café de Flore or Les Deux Magots. Instead, you’re paying €7.50 for a cappuccino to sit wedged between a hundred other tourists on a traffic strewn boulevard to have a drink where they once did. It’s insane when you think about it.

Likewise, the Montmartre is no longer a twee quarter with charming, winding lanes & alleyways but a veritable tourist hub filled with aggressive pickpockets and street hawkers. I’d advise giving it a miss altogether, especially as the surrounding neighbourhoods are sketchy to say the least.

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The Montmartre. So many people.

Instead, pick an arrondissement and explore it, as each is different and has its own distinct vibe. Visit that neighbourhood’s numerous boulangeries or patisseries. Sit down a side street at one of the innumerable cafés and watch the world go by. Most of Paris’s quartiers have a green or public space in which to sit; take a book and sit for a while with the locals.

Basically, live like a Parisian, and try avoiding the crowds; they spoil the place.

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Almost impossibly elegant, the Place des Vosges makes for a lovely, late-afternoon stroll.

I realise that I’m part of the problem and the irony is not lost on me but I haven’t really enjoyed travelling for the past few years. Between the over-arching compulsion to see every famous landmark that gets posted on Instagram and the thousands of other tourists doing the same thing, I generally leave new places feeling a bit jaded. It’s a problem at home in London too. The Tube is inhumane during peak hours and it’s incredibly frustrating trying to walk down Oxford or Regent Street now.

Outside of London, Paris is my favourite city and I can’t wait to visit again. Next time though, I look forward to skipping the sites and sitting in Le Jardin du Luxembourg with my book. Or taking a late afternoon stroll as the sun sets, looking for nothing in particular, just simply enjoying the streets. Maybe spending an evening in another café, dancing in my seat to some energetic swing music, which was the most fun I’ve had on a city break in years.

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Locals playing chess in the Jardin du Luxembourg.

Paris is a special city but instead of trying to live like the aforementioned Fitzgerald or Hemingway: that time has gone, as has that Paris and it isn’t coming back- find your own little slice of the city to enjoy and make memories in.

Simply, enjoy Paris for what it really is: an immensely chic, eminently strollable city with a wonderful café culture. That is, when you find somewhere that doesn’t charge €7.50 for a coffee.

Thanks for reading,

Terry.

 

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