I’m probably the only person who has been in France for 3 weeks without having seen Paris, but I’m so glad it happened that way. It gave me a comparative perspective on France that people who stay in Paris first, or who only go to Paris, don’t get. Although Toulouse is technically the 4th largest city in France, it’s still small, and besides Toulouse, the only other places in France I had seen were the countryside and small towns.
And then there’s Paris.
In the US we can’t really comprehend the scale of the importance of capital cities in countries like France, where Paris is the center of everything. If you want to “make it” in America, you can go to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or DC, depending on your field. In France, if you want to make it, you leave your home in the provinces and go to Paris. The one thing I immediately noticed, even on my short walk from the Metro station to the apartment the first night, is that Paris is filled with a noticeable and almost tangible energy. And it’s exactly because people go to Paris to “make it”, to be successful, to work hard for their dream. Paris is filled with ambitious people. The energy I could feel all around me is quite clearly the energy of ambition.
I am not meaning to imply that people outside of Paris are not ambitious, not at all. Toulouse is the home of many large and very important companies and organizations, and other than Paris, has the largest student population in France. Toulouse attracts many intelligent, hard working people. Yet there is a difference. Paris is the home of the grandes ecoles, where the best of the best go to study. Toulouse is more famous among students for the overwhelming number of bars and pubs. It’s hard to describe, but simply put, the energy isn’t there. A friend from Toulouse who lived in Paris explained it this way: “In Toulouse, Bordeaux, in the South of France, you can talk your way through; you can make people think you’re something special by talking big. But in Paris, you have to prove yourself before you can open your mouth.” To put it in American terms, in the South you can talk the talk, but in Paris you have to walk the walk.
If you’ve ever been to New York you probably noticed the energy I’m talking about. You arrive for the first time, look around, and think “This is it”. But whereas the energy in New York has hectic, almost frenzied, overtones, the energy in Paris is slower, yet powerful. People work hard, but also understand the importance of relaxing. Paris is very similar to Buenos Aires in that way; there are sidewalk cafes and restaurants everywhere where people will sit for hours. In New York, if you tried to put a table and chairs out on the sidewalk, your patrons would be run completely over by the mad dash of harried people rushing down the sidewalk, believing that walking as quickly and as rudely as they can will get them wherever they’re going 2 minutes faster and somehow make a big difference in their lives. You might not even have patrons, because who really has time to sit at a café and drink a coffee, it’s much faster to go through the line at Starbucks.
Basically, every city is different and has its own personality, and thank goodness for that. For me, Buenos Aires is that friend you have fun with. There are many things about them that you like, and you know when you go out with them you will have a great time, but there’s just something about them that will prevent you from ever being best friends, sometimes they get on your nerves. Atlanta is like family, you know their best and worst sides and you love them all the same because they’re family. You can say whatever bad things you want, but if anyone else dares to criticize, you immediately jump to defend, although deep down you know there’s some truth to what’s been said. New York is that person everyone talks about, almost like a celebrity. You know all about them before meeting them, but then when you do meet you think “I don’t get it, what’s the big deal?” They’re not as perfect in real life as in the movies, or as everyone has said.
But Paris, I guess for me Paris is like Vlad, that person you always hoped to find, but deep down never dared to hope that you would. Perfect in every way, no flaw too big to not overlook with a smile or roll of the eyes. Paris is the most romantic city in the world for a reason – Paris is like a lover. I must have proved myself worthy of her that first rainy day, because the second day Paris showed herself in all her beauty and splendor.
At one point I told Vlad “It’s like the whole city was constructed according to my aesthetic ideals.” It’s not too often you find a city like that!