Paris is known by many names – the City of Lights, the City of Love, the City of Dreams. From the cafés of the Latin Quarter on the Left Bank to the pleasure quarters of Pigalle in the north, the French capital draws everyone into its embrace. For many, the city symbolises a dream, whether it is a handbag purchase, a romantic honeymoon or a quest for the Holy Grail beneath the Louvre. With the tune of La Vie en Rose playing softly in the background, couples seek the promise of everlasting love by locking their hearts on the Pont Des Arts. Artists, writers, and poets flock to the city to follow the footsteps of Hemingway, Picasso, and Chanel; luminaries whose names lit up Paris as much as the city lights that sparkle at night.
With each visit, the city weaves itself into our own little stories. The banks of the Seine were where we had our regular walks and afternoon coffee. The ingredients for delicious home-cooked meals were found at the farmers’ markets near Tour Montparnasse or the Jewish Quarter. In the evenings, we would drop by the pharmacy at Rue Bonaparte for cheap supplies, or seek out the latest book collection at Shakespeare and Company bookstore. And we never forget our favourite Euro Fried Chicken eatery at the Boulevard de Sébastopol. During our decade long visit to the outlet, the friendly store manager, Islam, would always greet us warmly as old friends.
In a city that is famed for stories and ideas emerging from its cafés, the conversations we had were often rich and meaningful. We’d always remember our chat with the sales assistant and his epic plan of a journey to cross Southeast Asia in a tuk-tuk. We felt our friend’s pain as she recalled the tragedies of the 2015 Paris attacks. We shared the anger of the taxi driver at the hijacking of his religion, and the longing of our guide who left his country to escape the flames of war many decades ago.
Lately, a sense of pessimism has enveloped the city. While the visitors bask in the romantic sights of the city, locals have to contend with the bad service, smog, and traffic jams. Hit by economic slowdown and high unemployment rates, the City of Lights seems to have lost some of its lustre. In the day, the Galleries Lafayette with its majestic glass dome and its theater-like balconies are decked with glittery decorations to welcome shoppers. However, once the crowd leaves, the Grand Magasin becomes the set for a very different type of production. When the lights from the shops dim, the city’s homeless emerge from the shadows. Mannequins dressed in luxury coats in the window display appear to look down scornfully as the poor seek refuge from the cold along the ornate doorways. Meanwhile, the terrorist attacks of 2015 highlighted the deep divisions between the haves and have-nots in Parisian society, as well as invoking heated discussions on the issues of identity and religion.
But the lure of Paris will endure, for few cities in the world could excite and seduce as much as Paris does. In Hemingway’s A Movable Feast, he wrote: ‘There is never any ending to Paris, and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it, and you received return for whatever you brought to it.’
Or as the eponymous lead character in the movie Sabrina simply puts, ‘Paris is always a good idea.’ We couldn’t agree more.