Exchange Diaries: First Impressions of Paris

By David Kong (Comm ‘ 14)
Contributor

To quote Les Misérables, “To stray is human. To saunter is Parisian.” Such is the atmosphere in Paris; hustle and bustle does not exist, and a tourist is best served walking purposelessly. Paris is sure to delight and surprise even the most unsuspecting traveler; its beauty is mesmerizing. Each winding backstreet and isolated courtyard is an architectural triumph and a statement of history. Every city has its own Eiffel tower or Musée du Louvre but few are able to derive such wonder from the mundane.

Streets are littered with pack-a-day smokers who take frequent breaks from their 35-hour weeks. Nude women are ubiquitous on sculptures and artworks; wine is ridiculously cheap; restaurants and cafés dominate, all of which come with espresso machines and on-tap beer. In an after-work ritual, Parisians stand aimlessly yet with dignity at the bar with wine-in-hand.

There is no room for English, except at tourist traps where English-speakers are clearly outsiders. Even the beggars don’t ask such lowly creatures for money and instead glance at them with pity. There are a few enlightened Parisians; some have put up with my choppy French (though it is usually better than their English), stowed my bags and pointed out directions patiently, but these are the exceptions.

Unfortunately, the food is not good enough that random sampling of restaurants will offer any redeeming results. I ordered two crepes successively from different places; the first was inedible and thus treated as such, the second was similarly inedible but I ate it because I didn’t want to buy a third. The average food is probably better than the average elsewhere, and mediocre restaurants are thoughtful; al dente ratatouille, buttery croissants, wet lattés and the like are standard. However few restaurants live up to their privileged pedigree. I have seen too many frites that are fries: soggy, thick-cut and definitively American. With Michelin guide in hand, I hope to wage a gastronomical vendetta over the next months.

Bureaucracy and anti-business sentiment is rife. Opening a bank account requires a phone number and buying a cell phone requires a bank account. At some point, you’ll need to tell a lie. My experience with my bank, Societe Generale, is telling. I wanted to exchange money and picked an exchange beside a bank branch so that risks of theft (a real problem in Paris) would be minimized. I safely arrived at the branch with 5000 euros but was denied service. I was told to go to my home branch, 15 minutes away… that walk was terrifying. I was stupefied; a bank failed to conduct its core business of taking deposits from its own customer because of some antiquated fear of fraud despite my having all the documentation. France is socialist, without doubt.

Paris is a city that has clearly been rich but is struggling to keep its affluence. It’s losing many of its distinctions, from wine to fashion to food. It hides its imperfections in pretentiousness. Paris might try to modernize but is held back by fear of change. 2013 is prime time for witnessing all these forces in action. That is why you should go, if you dare.

David Kong will be blogging for QJBlogs as part of our exchange series. Stay tuned!

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