“it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”
This opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ “Tale of two cities”, amazingly sums up all my impressions of France, French history and even the modern world as I’ve come to know it. But despite the unhappy thoughts about France I had from reading Charles Dickens account of the French revolution, as well as the rather unappealing account of mischievous lives of Victor Hugo’s characters in “Les Miserables”, somehow I grew up fond of the French history and culture. After all, both Egypt and France have an intertwining history.
As an Arab, let alone a veiled one, traveling for the first time outside the Arab region and into a post 9/11 Arabophobic world, a trip to Paris was a much wondered upon one. Will I face problems in the airport? Will security personnel mistake me for a terrorist? Will I be harassed in the streets? A lot of similar questions kept pumping onto my head for the whole four hours of flight between Cairo and Paris. However, and to my greatest shock, the moment I set foot on the Parisian lands all my concerns and fears vanished into thin air, same air that I now have to struggle to breathe-in with the thousands of ARABS flooding the Champs-Elysees that summer back in July 2005! Fact hit me that Paris is so full of Arabs, dwellers and tourists alike, that I think Napoleon himself would’ve felt like an alien here!
The Champs-Elysees is the prestigious long boulevard that runs down for two kilometers between the Concord square where our very own Egyptian obelisk stands, and the Arc de triumph, the symbolic 49.5m tall structure that marks the huge square named after “Charles De Gaulle”.
I felt like I’m walking in city stars, only with its
floors laid down side by side on the ground. On the sides,
all the famous brand shop windows dazzle the passerby’s eyes with fashionable clothes, extravagant watches, top of
the notch glasses and fancy perfumes. It’s easy to see why this street in
particular has become so famous in the Arab world that its name is almost synonyms with France itself!
I walk down to the arc, get a ticket and struggle my way up the spiral stairs and make it to the top of the arc – after collapsing twice on the stone steps out of bad fitness – and there it was; Paris, the city of light, lies beneath.
. As a Cairian raised among a jungle of buildings that sprout from every corner like mushrooms, it seemed to me that some neat French architect, for whom everything must be “formidaaaable!”, has took it upon himself to arrange the city buildings in such a way that it looks like a single-leveled Lego city. In fact, the heights of buildings all over the city is so equalized, that there are only a handful of buildings that stick out into the free sky like candles in a cake. From the top of each of these “slightly higher” structures you can have a panoramic view of the whole city. The first is of course the arc where I’m standing now. The rest include the “Montparnasse” building, the “Eiffel tower”, the “Sacre Coeur” cathedral and finally the Ferris Wheel known as “La Grande Roue” standing at a height of 60 meters and a huge diameter of 100 meters in the “Jardin des Tuileries” in front of the Louvre. I remember taking a photo of the rooftops of the buildings and showing it to a friend. The only problem she could find with the landscape was “Don’t these people have satellite dishes?”
Stepping down the arc and heading to nearby metro station, I’m up to one of the most thrills of Paris: wading through the enormous network of the underground! The network has the complexity of a total of 18 lines, intertwining and intersecting in so many stations to the extent that the map, which I got from the hotel – and also available in newsstands, and even printed on souvenir shirts and mugs! – looks like a spaghetti plate! I go down the station in “Charles de Gaulle” to be faced by ticket vending-machines! I experience an uneasy nostalgic feeling towards the ever-annoyed guy in the ticket office at any Egyptian metro station, who throws the yellow ticket recklessly in your face while looking away in disgust, which I still consider a worthy human interaction that I’d rather have than the cold French machine instructions!
Arriving in “Bir Hakeim” station, I walk up to the near-by Eiffel tower only to find a 2 kilometers long queue zigzagging beneath it in front of the ticket office. I hesitate whether to queue along or visit another time when it’s less jammed – and it hardly ever is in such a high season! Speaking of queues, I actually fell in love with this human behavior that’s almost a national sport here! Everywhere in Paris you have to stand in a queue, in front of ticket machines, in supermarkets, in the bakery shop, and sometimes even in over-packed restaurants! However, the concept of queuing here is very different than what we have back in Egypt. That is, a queue here follows the actual definition of Webster dictionary which defines it as: “A line of people or vehicles waiting for something.” This of course is in contrast with the Egyptian understanding of thegeometrical difference between “line” and “mass”, for in Egypt, a queue is a “mass” of people gathered in front of a cashier or ticket office, and the service is based on “first hand stuck in the face of the employee, first serve”!
I fight the temptation of enjoying the glorious feeling of personal-zone respect in the “Tour Eiffel” queue line and decide to head to the “bateaux mouches” dock station right across the street instead. The later is a river bus that runs down the Seine and drops you off in front of various tourist landmarks in the heart of the city. Hopping off at “St. Michel” station, I’m stunned by this architectural beauty standing alone on the beautiful “Île de la Cité” island in front of the east bank; the Notre dame. Ever immortalized by Paris’s own celebrated author Victor Hugo in his novel “The hunchback of Notre dame”, the 760+ years old cathedral became a symbol for gothic architecture worldwide. Although a breath-taking structure to ponder upon during the day, it’s even much more bedazzling at night, when it’s all lit up by spotlights and its surroundings are vibrant with sketchers, painters and musicians performing their art all over the entrance garden. As for “St. Michel” itself, the main square of the Latin quarter on the east bank facing the cathedral, it’s famous for its fountain, where u can stand and feed pigeons during the day, the aging cafes that were once gathering points for the liberal, hippie and bohemian poets, philosophers and winos. The antiquity shops and “Gibert Jeune” bookstores intrigue the visitors with a taste of a brushed off culture. I for one, had a different taste in mind though; that of a delicious chocolate crepe from one of the many Parisian creperies/bakeries spread all over the city, pretty much in the same fashion we have a foul and falafel shop around every Cairian corner.
From “St. Michel” metro station, again I wade through the tunnels jungle to “Montmartre” station and out into the heart of night life in Paris. With the Piccadilly Street, the red-light district of Paris, forming the main artery of the neighborhood, and the infamous “Moulin Rouge” nightclub on the corner. It seemed weird to me, and dare I to say rathe r un-holy, that you’d see one of the biggest cathedrals in the whole country, the “Sacré-Cœur”, paired with the “sin district” all in one place! It’s like merging Haram Street into Al Azhar neighborhood for God’s sake! But ah
well, there it was anyways, on top of Montmartre hill, the highest naturally occurring point in Paris! You can do the ascent on the steep stairs up the hill, or, if you have a heart condition, special needs or simply an Egyptian that moves everywhere by car like myself you can ride the funicular, a special car that’d take you up in just 90 seconds! Then there it is: The magnificent basilica looks like a well polished white pearl sitting on a green velvet cushion of grass, thanks to the travertine stone used in its construction which exudes calcite ensuring that the basilica remains white despite the weather and the pollution.
Art lover or not, it was almost inevitable for me to leave Paris without getting at least a glimpse of the famous orignal Mona Lisa as she sits calmly in the italian painters section of the Louvre. The museum’s building is so vast with its U-shaped structure that runs over an area of 60,600 square metres that it’d probably take you at least 3 full days to be able to consume all the antiquities displayed there. But it’s definitely worth it!
By: Shereen Adel