Je ne parle pas français
Paris smells like cigarette smoke and sounds like coughing and polite conversation and impolite drivers and hurried footsteps. It is larger, denser, and grander than London, full of overblown monuments to French achievements like the Pantheon and the Arc de Triumph, but it's more like a hundred small towns than one big city.
Each arrondissement has its own orientation, its own landmarks, and its proudly patroned open markets, pricy cafes, and cheap street food. The Champs Elysées, the Latin Quarter, and the old Hemingway haunts are overrun with high fashion chains and American fast food, but most of Paris has retained its independent boutiques and markets.
I can't afford any of it. Everything in Paris costs what it would in a US sports stadium. I saw a slice of pizza for $9, and most sandwiches cost $7. I think this is why Parisians work so hard, are so bitter, and eat so much bread and cheese – a healthy if unsatisfying diet. One Frenchman in my hostel warned me that my American stomach would not be able to handle the cheese I bought, but I thought it was very good.
Parisians have a reputation for stuck-up rudeness, but I think they're just in a hurry. It's an expensive city to live in, and between making money they have to navigate the labyrinthine metro. Everyone in Paris has been very nice and helpful, as long as I punctuate my combination of mispronounced French and overstated English with a "Bonjour" and a "Merci, au revoir" – everyone except a man at the post office.
"Eh? You don't speak English well. Here, write it down. Jon Moordonaargh... I can't read this. Oh Mac-Donald. Here, this is how you write it, see? Do you speak French? No? You can't talk, you can't write, you don't know French – you must be Australian, or from Texas. Oh, Oregon. Yes Oregon makes good wine. The white wine is best. You can buy it a few blocks from here. It costs 20 to 30 Euros."
It was raining the first day I got into Paris so I went to the packed corridors of the Louvre. The Mona Lisa is the most over-hyped work of art, and I had to guess what all the antiquities were since the signs were in French. When the rain stopped I came outside and looked at the statues in the Jardin des Tuilerios. I had just taken a picture and put my camera away, and out of the corner of my eye I saw some guy in a dirty green jacket pick something up out of the dirt and bring it over to me.
"Look what someone drop," he said. "It's a ring, solid gold ring. Here, I want you have it. It your lucky day."
"I don't want it. You keep it."
"No, no, you have it. I am muscle man, you understand? I can't keep it."
He put the ring in my hand and closed my fingers on it. It was big and light and looked like something you'd get out of a Chuck E. Cheese vending machine. I offered it back to him, and he grabbed it out of my outstretched hand and put it in one of the pockets of my bag.
"Look dude I don't want the ring," I said, retrieving it from my bag. "Just keep it."
"No, no, you must take it." He grabbed my hand and physically put the ring on my pinky finger, then walked away saying, "Lucky day."
In my mind I ran through all the potential scams. Would he report my theft of his ring to the police and threaten to press charges, or would his fake cop buddies come and fake arrest me? I decided to take the ring to one of the assault-rifle carrying Louvre security guards. Then the guy came back.
"Give me change for Coca Cola."
"Sorry, I don't have change."
"Come on, it's just two Euros. Give me it for Coca Cola."
"I'm not giving you two Euros. Why don't you just take this gold ring? You can probably trade it for a Coke."
He grabbed the ring and I swear yelled, "Stupid gringo," as he stormed off.
On Tuesday I saw the Pantheon, the Latin Quarter, and Paris' Chinatown, which had good Pho thanks to France's Vietnamese imperialism. I visited Montparnasse on Wednesday and saw the Catacombs, an old stone quarry 20 meters underground where Paris stacked the bones of 6 million people like firewood behind walls of artistically layered skulls and fibula. The entrance says, "Halt, for this is the empire of the dead." It looks like an Indiana Jones set piece.
I also visited the awesome Rodin garden, the Charles de Gaulle shrines at the Musée de l'Armée (de Gaulle apparently won the Second World War and liberated Paris himself), Napoleon's ostentatious tomb and seven-layered coffin, and the view from the top of the Eiffel tower.