I have been to Paris twice. The first time, I went with my best friends just before Christmas and it was incredible, I fell head-over-heels in love with the city. The second time was awful. I had arrived in Paris with nothing but adoration for the city, and I left feeling angry, bitter and disappointed. Many people have written love letters to Paris; here’s my break up letter.
I wasn’t even supposed to meet you. I was in the airport with my best friends one year before Christmas, stood at the back of a very long queue for security checks with less than 6 minutes to go until the gate closed, wondering how we could commit the worst crime against our fellow British jetsetters by jumping the queue. We decided to rebel against the queuing system altogether and head straight for the row of security scanners, frantically muttering “we’re going to miss our plane!” by way of apology to the rattled people behind us. In the midst of desperately removing our shoes and flinging our metal objects into a tray, and our friend Rosie having her suitcase detained because she forgot about the oversized bottle of water she’d left in there, the scheduled time for the plane to take off passed. It didn’t take us long to realise that our friend Chris – the one without a phone, debit card or any idea which hotel we’d booked – had already sailed through security and boarded the plane. A Christmas miracle occurred somewhere up in the air traffic control tower and the plane was still waiting when we arrived at the gate, and so 2 hours later I found myself ascending the escalator connecting the underground metro to the pavement right in front of Notre Dame, and that is where our love affair began.
You looked spectacular the first time I laid eyes on you; with your grand boulevards, striking cathedrals, beautiful bridges and antique bookstalls dotted along the river Seine, it was like time had stopped many centuries ago. On the Left Bank by the Notre Dame, I lost myself in the Shakespeare & Company bookshop – a 1950s bookstore with floor-to-ceiling shelves of books, all written in English with stylish American covers. If somebody told me that the shop was built out of books I wouldn’t have any trouble believing them. In one room, the crooked wooden bookshelves surround a wishing well. In a tiny upstairs reading room, the ghost of William Burroughs sits reading medical textbooks to research The Naked Lunch. Hemingway, Kerouac and Ginsberg once wandered the maze of the bohemian refuge. Today, hipsterish American wannabe-writers sleep in the library upstairs in return for a few hours of work and the simple task of reading a book every day. Along one of the rustic beams below the ceiling were the words “Be not inhospitable to strangers; lest they be angels in disguise”. As a literature lover I have never felt as at home as I did there with you.
Our first date that evening was golden. You captured my heart with the spirit of Christmas as I found the Champs-Élysées lined with Christmas market stalls selling traditional French onion soup, hand painted baubles and the type of hot chocolate where you melt a cube of chocolate into a cup of hot milk. I found the best view of Paris by night at the top of the Arc de Triomphe, and I felt my heart flutter as I saw the Eiffel tower sparkling white for the first time. The next day I learnt that nobody makes a Croque-monsieur like you do, and nobody else could put a collection of impressionist art in an old train station and make it as charming as you did with the Musée d’Orsay. No other city could make me love you like I did, and I felt torn when we had to part ways.
When I returned to you two months later, it didn’t feel the same. Your skies were grey, your cobblestones were wet and cold, andI soon realised that you hadn’t just moved through the seasons, you’d moved away from me too.
Our second date was a flop. I wanted to live like a Parisian by drinking cheap wine and eating cheese with my friends on the banks of the river Seine, but it was freezing cold and pouring with rain so we had to relocate our beautifully French picnic to the bog-standard hotel Ibis. To make matters worse, the “authentically French“ Camembert cheese smelt so unbearably foul that we had to banish it to the windowsill outside.
The next day, we went to the Père Lachaise Cemetery to see the grave of Oscar Wilde. It’s one of the most visited graves in the world and it’s traditional to leave a lipstick kiss on the stone. But when we found the grave, all the kisses of literary fans from all over the world had been chemically removed and a glass barrier now shielded the grave. You left me no choice but to kiss Oscar Wilde’s glass, resulting in possibly the weirdest look I shall ever receive from a Frenchman.
After that, we got terribly lost amongst the array of graves, statues and mausoleums. It grew dark very quickly and out of nowhere came these ominous figures in black cloaks ringing bells. Was I hallucinating? Had the ghosts of Jim Morrison and Gertrude Stein risen from their graves? No. This is how you tell your tourists that it’s closing time, simultaneously terrifying them beyond all belief.
And the people who say you’re the city of love, the capital of romance, the queen of fashion and culture… They don’t see the beggars wasting away on every other street corner. They didn’t get their Amélie-inspired visions of Montmartre shattered when they visited and found that it’s a bit of a s**thole. They weren’t hounded by street sellers shouting “Lady Gaga! You want a key ring!” as they walked up the steps of the Sacré-Cœur. They didn’t feel like they were the only one not having a romantic moment along the Seine, made worse by the hundreds of padlocks scattered along the Lovelocks bridge with names and love hearts scribbled on them by couples who believe in the preposterous idea that a padlock could ever represent love. They didn’t get pickpocketed on the metro, forcing me to spend my last hours with you in the police station, struggling to describe exactly how my purse got stolen with only distant memories of GCSE French to help me. They don’t know that the Mona Lisa is tiny and underwhelming. They don’t know you like I do.
And for that, Paris, whenever somebody asks I fancy returning to you for a weekend, I get the same feeling one would feel if they got a text from an ex-boyfriend asking to meet for coffee. The flutter of temptation followed by a dull ache as all the bad memories come rushing back. So no, I won’t be returning to you again. But as they say, we’ll always have Paris.