I See Paris…I See France

Claudia Cheffs | Staff Photographer

Everyone always says that a trip to Paris is a must. Those that are fortunate enough to have already gone come back with extravagant and unbelievable stories.

The moment my plane landed, I got a sense that maybe Paris isn’t all that it’s hyped up to be. Posters and signs were vandalized, covered with the word “Retraite!,” the French word used to initiate the strikes, in bright red. It’s true what they say, though, that Paris is unique. But the city isn’t always full of the glitz and glamour it is famous for. Paris, like all of France, has its issues, and that much was apparent during the duration of my stay.

I happened to be in Paris during a national strike, where citizens, oil refineries, and trash collectors were furious with the pension reforms that President Nicolas Sarkozy was proposing. The reform called for raising the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, which increases the age for a full pension from 65 to 67.

“Sarkozy just isn’t open to any kind of compromise and that’s why we are so angry,” one French woman told me on the train, as another man nearby nodded his head in agreement.

The day I left Paris was the very day that the Senate was to vote on the matter. Organizers had already planned a massive strike and, upon entering Gare du Nord, one of the city’s biggest train stations, a huge group of people with fireworks and blow horns surrounded me. Smoke literally followed them as they tore up the station, fists pumping, shouting and chanting “Retraite! Retraite!”

Trains were delayed or cancelled by the riots that ensued. I was advised to head to the airport nearly five hours early, meaning the loss of precious hours of Parisian culture to sitting in an airport lobby. Once I heard what one man had to say, I knew that Parisian life may not be so ideal.

“Strikes happen all the time here in France,” he said, with a chuckle, probably at both my ignorance and horror. “They are happening a bit more often right now, but, before, they still happened at least twice a year.”

After just passing the Senate and the lower House of Parliament, the bill heads to the constitutional court before it can be promulgated by President Sarkozy. The government estimates that, with every passing day, the ongoing strike costs anywhere from 200 to 400 million euros, which equates to about $277 to $554 million, depending on the exchange rate.

All that being said, however, the overall exquisiteness of Paris remains intact. France may be ridden with strikes, but Paris is truly one of a kind.

Never have I been exposed to two totally different sides of one city. The 40-minute train ride from the airport to the city treated me to the outskirts of Paris and the heart of the city. The former could put downtown Los Angeles to shame, with all the gang writings that littered its streets. Juxtaposed with that scene is a completely different one, and that is the Paris we all want to know and love.

Of course, there is the Eiffel Tower, the views from its summit priceless and incomparable. The Arc de Triomphe is even more incredible in person than in pictures and the organization of Parisian streets is remarkable as cars circle around various monuments.

Then there are the many exquisite museums that riddle the city. The Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay are brilliant and so immense that I could not have fully appreciated either one of them even if I had a year to explore.

I may understand nothing about architecture, but I know enough to recognize the beautiful craftsmanship of the Place de la Bastille and the adjoining L’Opéra Bastille, as well as the Sacre Cœur, which stands gloriously atop a hill near the lively Moulin Rouge.

The Crypte Archeologique and Les Invalides may be haunting, but they are also mesmerizing. They hold the bodies of our past, which, in a way, is both cryptic and morbid, yet it is also incredible to think that I walked right above it all.

Never have I been introduced to a city so historical, yet so modern. The Notre Dame Cathedral, which began construction in 1163 and was completed in 1345, is truly breathtaking when it is all lit up in the night. The Père-Lachaise Cemetery, where the likes of Frédéric Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison and thousands more are buried, is dark and respectful, yet truly beautiful at the same time.

Minutes away from these historical sites is La Défense, home to La Grande Arche. Developed in the late 1900s, it is a recent addition to the already distinctive Paris. With a huge shopping mall, modern business structures, hotels and sculptures, La Défense has a direct view of the Arc de Triomphe and will undoubtedly hold a place in the hearts of Parisians, much like the Eiffel Tower already has.

Never have I witnessed a city both incredibly calm and so very alive. The Seine River cuts directly through the city and is the epitome of serenity and peacefulness. A boat ride down it is thrilling and offers magnificent views of various historical buildings. The Left Bank, which is steps away from the river, houses the energetic Latin Quarter, a place supposedly full of artists and previously home to Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Ernest Hemingway. Stores and restaurants are open into the wee hours of the morning and nothing can disrupt the vivaciousness of the Latin Quarter.

And finally, there is the food. Paris may be the heart of France, but the true heart of Paris lies in its quaint cafes and boulangeries, or bakeries, that pop up everywhere. The Champs-Élysées boasts marvelous shopping and is one of the greatest boulevards in the world, but the best pastries can be found on the small streets that branch off from it. This is where the locals go and the locals really do know their food.

There is nothing in the States that can even compare to the “pain du chocolat,” or chocolate bread, which is a flaky roll smothered in a chocolate spread and topped with even more chocolate chips. The plain croissants are buttery bites of heaven, but the ones with chocolate and coconut are even better. Nutella, a chocolate and hazelnut spread, is hugely popular in Europe and the French heartily layer it onto warm crêpes and waffles.

Their definition of coffee may be just shots of espresso, which means grande cappuccinos are still heartbreakingly small, but they pack a punch and I find myself craving true European cafes back here at home.

As Americans, we can most definitely learn from the French, who really don’t hate us, contrary to popular belief. Other than their leisurely views towards eating and enjoying life, many of the French know a second language and are certainly far from rude, which is extremely handy as an American. It is practically impossible to get lost on the streets there since I didn’t have to try hard to find a willing person who speaks English to help me out.

Despite the strikes and the current European terrorist threats, France is a country with much to offer and I would do anything for the chance to travel there again.