Ah, Paris. It’s one of the most fawned over cities in the world. Everybody likes to talk about Paris, and some travel to the extreme edges (and beyond) of their thesaurus just to find words to describe it. However, is there any other, darker side? There are a lot of cities that have great culture and become popular travel destinations, but they all have their warts and flaws, too. Paris is no exception.
10. The Glamour
So, how exactly did Paris gain its status of celebrity in the first place? The Capital City of France is a state of mind more than a city; everybody wants to go to Paris. Oscar Wilde once famously said, “when good Americans die, they go to Paris”. It is a beautiful city, but it’s like a good yet slightly monotone Hollywood actor that somehow makes more money than other, more expressive actors do. The glamour is almost entirely fabricated. Paris has had one of the most astonishing marketing makeovers in the history of the world.
Up until 19th century, it was a slum, with widespread famine and plague. Then in a few decades, it became the international capital of style and desire. It was almost completely rebuilt after WWII, and while the poverty may be gone (or at least hidden), some of the decay is still there. Paris is a founding member of the 5-star club. Whichever survey or report you’re looking at, Paris is always up there in the top five cities in the world in terms of wealth, competitiveness, global power, and economic power. This is the brochure. The truth is that it isn’t that big, it’s not very clean and, excuse the crudeness, it’s full of…
9. The Clochards
Okay, this is a sensible matter. Big cities can be cruel and it’s easy to fall and harder to get back on track. Nevertheless, clochards are literally everywhere in Paris. They never write that in brochures, but Paris is overflowing with the homeless. The French term is Clochard, but don’t let that sweeten the pill for you. If you associate the French capital city with romance and art and if your favorite foreign expression is Belle Epoque, the sight of some of these unlucky souls will be even more brutal. An innocent light glows in their eyes as they ask for a dime or, as often as not, alcohol. They’re everywhere.
On the mini roundabout as you walk to Montmartre, on the floor in front of the bank where you want to withdraw some cash to have a coffee. They’ll be there too. Sometimes, you see them lying on the concrete of a traffic island. Some have no carton boxes to lie on, so they lie down on the big sewer grates that interrupt the cobblestone here and there; the air that comes out of the grates is warm because it comes from the sewers. Clochards literally camp on them with tents. It is a very desperate, very sad, and severely underreported sight.
8. It’s No Longer Uniquely Grand
Paris is beautiful. Thing is, many other European cities are beautiful. Rome is beautiful, London is vibrant, Tallinn is interesting, Barcelona is amusing, and Amsterdam is entertaining. Hold on, there’s more. Copenhagen is clean and tidy, there’s incredible art in Florence, and glamour? Stockholm and Antwerp are catching up quickly. If you want a gorgeous city, check out Prague. That’s it in the photo above. This is the harsh and pragmatic reality of the world in the 21st century. The world is there for anyone to see. Everything is more expensive these days except, in many cases, for travel.
The European Union may be in a financial turmoil and a political mishmash, but it’s made Europe more accessible. Amazing countries like Slovenia, Croatia, and Hungary would’ve been difficult to visit just 30 or 40 years ago, yet if you go today you’ll find nice people willing to try to speak your language or at least English to you, willing to show you their cities and wanting you to visit their monuments and eat in their restaurants and shop in their malls. It becomes more and more difficult to justify a a wildly overpriced cup of coffee in Paris, when you can have an amazing espresso in Budapest for a fifth the price.
7. The Language Barrier
There are opinions and assumptions, and there are clinical, undisputable facts. Fact: most of the world speaks English, and not by chance. It’s a simple language to understand and there’s no nonsense in the English language. Even though it may be difficult to master, mostly due to complicated and countless phrasal verbs and a wide vocabulary, English is very easy to use at a basic level, since it has fewer tenses and conjugations than most other languages in the world (for example, it’s one of the few languages with out a distinct future tense).
These days you can go to Štúrovo, which is a very pretty town in Slovakia near the border with Hungary, order an espresso in a random bar, and the barman will speak some English to you. You can go to Kaunas in Lithuania, a former USSR member, buy a local soccer jersey and the shop assistant will speak some English to you. Go to Paris, and you’re probably not getting anything but French and, if you’re really lucky, condescension. Some will actually make a point and speak French if they understand you’re a foreigner and you can’t speak the language out of spite. Some say it’s because they value their national identity, some say it’s because Parisians are the sort of people who would put a tortoise on its back for fun.
6. Everybody is Rushing, but Nothing Gets Done
There are 35 working hours in the Parisian week, and workers appear to spend the remaining 133 doing nothing. Ah, they’re good. They are masters at doing nothing. They do it very well. Montmartre is an urban labyrinth of bars and hangouts. A concert of clinking teaspoons, hysterical laughter, and coffee. The streets are an adagio of sounds. This is all very good but there are drawbacks.
Paris is laid back and relaxed to the point of laziness. In most restaurants, for instance, waiters are like geological strata, in the sense that you have to wait eons for one to show up and assist you. Then the whole process of getting a table and actually ordering food begins, and you’ll feel your own hair grow. Paris can have a spectacularly slow service and yet everybody is always in a hurry. You’ll see cars parking on mini roundabouts and running red lights and on the sidewalk, and as often as not, people will simply walk into you. Everybody’s in a hurry except the people you’re supposed to meet. They’ll be late, of course.
5. The Prices
…and because they’re late, you might as well expect (or at least hope) for them to pay for lunch because it will be fantastically expensive. Living and dining in Paris is notoriously overpriced, not just by big city standards, but by any standards. According to Numbeo, the biggest online database of cost of living, a small bottle of Coke or Pepsi costs $3.91 on average in restaurants. That’s the seventh most expensive in the world out of 558 cities.
Are you planning a move? An apartment outside the city center costs around $9,047 per square meter, which makes Paris the 12th most expensive city in the world (out of 545) to buy a house. Consider some of Paris’ chief rival cities that tourists are prone to flock to. Barcelona? 134th out of 545. Florence? Even cheaper, clocking in at 191st.
4. The Food
In an interview, award winning food critic A.A. Gill said that even going to expensive restaurants is still, before anything else, a question of grabbing a bite to eat. Well, chefs are hedonistic and food is rocket science in Paris. Everything is about molecular, gourmet, and fine dining and while this may be great to write restaurant guides, it isn’t if you just want sustenance. A waiter will come to your table with a drop of a soup that’s actually solid, made by a chef who probably last tasted one of his dishes back when Napoleon was around and then charge you a million for it. If it’s actual good flavors you’re looking for, look elsewhere, and go for the cheaper restaurants. There’s a lot of hype surrounding Italian, French, and Spanish food and wine, but where Italian and Spanish food is usually uncomplicated and genuine, chefs in Paris seem to have got it into their heads that what people really want are minimal, complex dishes devoid of taste.
In the top ten list of restaurants in the world by Restaurant magazine, there are no French restaurants, and no French chefs. The best dish to have in Paris is probably a croque-monsieur. You may not have realized this, but that’s just a fancy way of saying “grilled ham and cheese sandwich.” No, really.
3. …and The Waiters
This is a cliché, but stereotypes and clichés are not casual. A clever man named William Winwood Reade stated that, “the individual is an insoluble puzzle, but in the aggregate he becomes a mathematical certainty”. So, individually speaking, your waiter in Paris may be nice but in general terms, they can be ludicrously rude. After all, there’s a reason that the stereotype for snooty waiters is a Frenchman with an upturned nose.
High-end restaurants in the center seem to employ unsympathetic and unsmiling waiters on purpose; they will enjoy keeping you hungry while they explain the “concept” of their cuisine.
2. Notre Dame
Let’s begin with a small history lesson: Europe has been carved by centuries of blood, famine, plagues, dictatorships, and wars. It’s been conquered and rebuilt repeatedly by the Romans, the Byzantines, the Barbarians, the Saracens, the Ottomans, the Russian empire, and the list continues. It’s no secret that suffering breeds character and art, and the result is that Europe has plenty.
Monuments, paintings, arches, bridges, statues, cathedrals. Therefore, despite being arguably the most famous church in the world, Notre Dame isn’t unique. There are hundreds of catholic churches, cathedrals, and abbeys of historical relevance in France and Notre Dame is neither the largest nor the oldest. It’s not even the oldest in Paris and is actually slightly smaller than it appears on any postcard and, consequently, slightly less imposing. Something tells us at least part of the reason it enjoys such a sterling, famed reputation is that it was home to a misunderstood little guy with an unsightly deformity on his back.
1. The Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower was built in 1889, which in Europe means basically yesterday. It was the entrance to the world’s fair, the international event today known as EXPO. It’s a hyperboloid structure, which in plain English means it’s made of iron tubes. Though initially criticized, today it’s one of the most recognizable structures in the world.
The Eiffel Tower probably embodies and summarizes Paris better than any other landmark. Yes, it’s striking and likeable. But does it really outshine the Statue of Liberty in NYC, or the Parliament Building in London, or the Colosseum in Rome? Exactly.
Alessandro is a motoring and travel writer from Italy.