My Parisversary

Paris Eiffel Tower 2I did the math. As far as I can recollect from agendas and tickets, this is my 70th visit to Paris. At least.

I might have skipped one or two visits. I can’t say for sure if I was there in Autumn 1988 or 1989…

This puts Paris at the top of my list of cities I have visited.

Not by that much, London is a close second with 64 visits.

Why Paris, why that often…?

Well, my ‘big’ sister Sabine moved there in 1985, to work as an au-pair and then continue her studies in France. She never went back.

I guess it was what set me on my own path to travel, to move and study abroad.

As a 13-year-old, my parents put me on a train to Paris for three weeks, my sister got me a carte orange for the metro, and off I went with my growing vocabulary of French. She spoke French to me, practised vocabulary, took me to see French movies or read through the latest comic strips.

These visits motivated me to learn the language, as it was the key to a whole different world – at least from the perspective of a young kid from rural Baden-Württemberg (which is exactly as exciting as it sounds).

So I went to Paris nearly ever school holiday, and stayed at my sister’s and her boyfriend’s place, in the chic 16e arrondissement, and later in a cute apartment in Boulogne.

While my sister was away at work, I roamed the city, raided the record stores for weird Japanese imports of Madonna’s latest single, went to the movies or did some sightseeing on my own. At home, I cooked for her, did the dishes, as a kind of private au-pair arrangement for the time of my visit.

Come to think of it, I think the whole solo travelling obsession might have started then and there.

I am and will always be in love with Paris.

Yes I know, it might be snobbish. The Metro is smelly, the waiters are rude, it’s ridiculously overpriced… but to me it’s magical. I can spend days and days just walking around. The scent of the Metro is home to me. I know, I’m in Paris, when I smell the mix of the rubbery tyres and oil.

Since I live in Brussels, a short 1h20 high speed train ride on the Thalys will get me there in no time. Or better: just in time to still enjoy and after-work beer in the Marais, on the side walk with all the French boys and tourists.

I have my ways around Paris. When staying with my sister, we spend a lot of time in Boulogne, a nice city just outside of Paris proper, nestled in one of the Seine’s many twists and turns. We go to the supermarket or the boulangerie, to get some buttery croissants as they can only make them in France.

Over the years, I got so acquainted to it that it came as a shock to see the departure of Madame Rosa, our nickname for the baker’s wife – obviously named after her impossible-to-overlook preference for that color. On her and everywhere in her quaint little bakery.

Sometimes though I stay in a hotel, when I have a concert to attend or want to go out on the weekend with friends, and it’s just too cumbersome to try to catch one of the rare night busses – or the ever-elusive Parisian taxis.

I have found a couple of cheap places in different areas, close to the Marais or around Barbès. Each time I’m there I’m getting more acquainted with the streets, the cafés, the restaurants, the ever-changing street art and graffiti that pops up.

Underneath all its chic and charme, unique to Paris, the city is somewhat anarchic, subversive.

You have to look beyond the obviously BCBG style, the old ladies with lilac hair and their pocket dogs, the chic Parisian bourgeois housewife, the handsome diplomat… there’s a whole anarchic scene of young artists and boutiques, of street art and new, experimental restaurants.

But on top of it, and even if France is the origin of the hyper-marché, the massive supermarkets, Paris has managed to somehow shelter its little shops and boutiques from all  being swept away and replaced with the same soul-less chains we have all over the ‘civilised’ world (which do exist, there, too).

I can walk for hours exploring, taking twists and turns, drop into weird galleries or old shops.

On my last visit, in the middle of all the shopping on rue de Rivoli, my sister and I stumbled over an occupied house, six floors full or artists’ expositions and studios, where you can literally walk through the art and watch them in their ateliers.

59 Rivoli had started as a squatting place started by artists looking for a place to work, live and show. The exhibitions change, and on the weekend you can even enjoy a free concert.

It feels more like some place Berlin would be famous for, but it’s right in the middle of one of Paris best areas.

That’s the Paris I love, that I can’t get enough of.

Which might explain the 70 visits.