To my mind, Paris is the capital of the world.
Anything that you want, you can find it in here. You can come across plenty that you don’t want too, in Paris. It is a whole city, a place that is bursting at the seams with light, language, traffic, smoke and crowds. Saying that you live in Paris is one of those sentences that can inspire a daydream or a nightmare, depending on your own disposition towards the city.
A recent article in The Guardian asked if Paris was the dirtiest city in Europe and quite rightly noted that the state of the city is a rather divisive issue for it’s inhabitants. It is a topic of conversation I find that never fails to gets people talking, often as passionately as bringing up the weather in Ireland to Irish people does.
Is Paris dirty? Every day I cross the city from the outer suburbs of the north to the tourist centre of La Republique; a couple of times I’ve cycled the route. It’s odd because I can’t say I have seen repeated incidents of littering (although I have seen it) but my impression of the city, specifically as I sit inside now, away from it and writing this, is that it is not clean. I wonder though if I am conflating the idea of a clean city with the idea of a picturesque city.
Paris is, in so many ways, a city alive. There is maintenance work happening; there are protests; there are queues and shop openings; there are people in the act of living in this city. Surely only a dead city – one that no longer serves a real, thriving population – can be a clean city? Or maybe I’m just making up pathetic excuses because I like living here, for the most part.
How Paris is not more notorious for it’s traffic congestion and general transport has become a mystery to me. It seems, standing on a metro platform, that there are people who must have been hired just to fill the place up. How can so many people be travelling at the same time? Every three minutes a train leaves full of commuters and the platform fills again: a flood of people waiting. Is there anyone standing still in Paris, not on their way to somewhere else? Underground, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the footfall there powers the rotation of the whole earth.
Then there’s the périphérique. It’s a road that surrounds Paris and if you’re unfortunate enough to be on it during one of the rush-hours, you will never forget it. You lift yourself slightly off your seat to look through the wind screen, over the top of the car in front of you, and see only more cars, bumper-to-bumper, stand-still traffic as far as your vision reaches. The hopelessness of being stuck in this congestion is testament to mental torture. You know you can’t get out; you’re there, crawling along, until the moment that you aren’t. You’ll do whatever it takes to avoid being in that same situation again. You don’t understand traffic unless you’ve visited Paris.
For all it’s business and congestion, Paris does still retain a charm that somehow is not compromised by any of it. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what the charm is, or if it is simply the charm of being a new arrival to the city. It is a beautiful place, the kind of beauty that I don’t used to seeing or being around. I sometimes sit in La Republique during my lunch break and look up at the building I work in. How many times in my life have I spent a lunch break doing that?! Aesthetics alone, at least for me, don’t make up the majority of what I think of as the Parisian charm.
I think that what I like about Paris is that it is a city that gives to its population. It gives you conversation; it gives you something to write about, to moan about, to gush about or otherwise. I often think of the place as the ex-lover that we know has flaws but still remains in our minds a little more perfect and intact then they truly were. For all of its problems, what you can take from Paris makes up for some of the daily unpleasantness that you have to go through.
Yet, even as I write that, I am reminded of the homelessness, the migration camps, the poverty and inequality. As a young, employed professional of course I can forgive the city; of course I can forget things that really aren’t problems at all, especially when you consider what problems others face in their day-to-day. My vision of Paris is a product of the lifestyle that I am lucky enough to have been able to carve out for myself here.
Perhaps I don’t see the city clearly at all: all I see is actually what I don’t, what I can afford to forget about and ignore.