What It Means to Fall in Love with Paris
Nose twitching, limbs pattering, the occasional screechy squeak. It’s always unsettling to see a rat on the Paris metro, or scuttling down some street somewhere on the cobblestones. Rats constantly get caught in the corner of your eye in this city; you see something, turn your head sharply and feel your heart freeze a little when you realise what it is. Then you marvel at how this little creature could be walking around so brazenly, as if it has no idea that it’s not allowed. A night in Paris would be incomplete without that grimy layer, a questionable smelly film that covers the bottom of an otherwise pristine window.That murky music that whispers from one of the city’s many rabbit holes; there are some that you may not want to fall down into, and some that you definitely do.
Despite the grime, Paris is still the most romanticised city in the world. Some of the people who come here carefully dodge every rabbit hole and experience only the pristine surface. These types come for the museums and galleries. They stand with their backs straight, staring at each piece of work with a carefully composed pensive look. Some come for the fashion, or to finally wear those outfits they’re not brave enough to wear at home, toting the French silk scarf and posing for an increasingly reluctant boyfriend. They cultivate the perfect Instagram feed. Some come for the food, the wine, the cheese. Some come for love. These are the romantics. They stare slack-jawed at the ceiling in Galleries Lafayette. They definitely don’t turn their head to notice the metro rat. On the other end of the spectrum, there are the people who come to Paris specifically to seek out those rabbit holes. In Paris they have a name for these types, the bobos, short for bourgeois-bohemians. Middle class hipsters with edgy tastes. These are the artsy types, the boho-chic, the people who dig into the grime to find a hippie wonderland. The people who make mud cakes out of the filth. They breathe in deeply the smells that would shock the romantics, and they are fascinated by the long fall between standing atop the Eiffel Tower and the crawling common metro rat. The rat, meanwhile, goes about his business.
It was a Sunday afternoon when I first met a Parisian rat. I was at the flea market to search through vintage racks and mull over all the things I couldn’t afford. I was somewhere between the visitor who thinks Paris is perfect, and the hipster who can’t get enough of the grime, but both versions of this illusion of Paris were about to begin to crack . The rat was on his way to his nest. He crawled out from a marsupial network by the metro tracks, shuffled along the wall, passed the homeless person in a sleeping bag, and disappeared into another hole that would take him up to the street. I saw him for the first time after a man who was selling perfumes asked where my friend and I were from, and we explained that we live in Abu Dhabi. He told us that he wanted to move to Dubai. “Paris is racist”. I saw the rat while the perfume-seller explained that because of his beard, his skin, his country, he could never belong to this city, it would never accept him. A few moments later, another rat followed my friend and I through the stalls, cat-calling and jeering at the women who dared to walk around such an area alone. One man got right behind us and growled, cackling when we jumped away. One stopped straight in front of me, sugar drooling grotesquely from his lips when he said “oh mignonne!” (oh cute!) and I had to duck around him.
When you first fall in love with Paris, you will experience puppy love. A false and doting, hopeful love. You wonder how you got so lucky to bask in the glory of such a city. Whether you are the pristine type or the bobo, the narrative you’ve constructed about this city is wrong, I promise. Viewing the city through its prettiest facades requires a willful blindness, and pretending that the gross, dark, disturbing parts of the city are different here than they would be anywhere else is simply false. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll try to do both. Then you’ll meet our rat. He can appear for the first time in a variety of settings. You might see him when you walk past the woman in Chatelet metro station, with her forehead pressed to the floor, her arms outstretched, a coffee cup balanced on her fingertips and no coins inside. After you watch three men pee less than ten meters away from a place where asylum-seekers are sleeping in the cold, you’ll notice him washing his whiskers. You’ll see him behind the homeless person who is being dragged away without his possessions by the metro police. You’ll feel him like a hangnail that rips too far up your finger when your friends tell you that they feel like outsiders in this city because of their race. You’ll hear him in the voice of the Frenchman who tries to grind on you in a club and yells back at you when you angrily tell him off.
You’ll start to see the grime everywhere, and Paris will stop being romantic. You’ll feel like you’re falling backwards and the city will transform. So will you. This transformation is painful, but necessary. The second stage of being a visitor in Paris, if you stay long enough to meet the rat and become well acquainted with him, is hatred. This happened for me in the thick of winter, when the snow came unexpectedly, when French felt like that gummy crap the orthodontist shoves in your mouth to make molds of your teeth, and I got fined twice in one night on the metro. It’s difficult to remember feeling like that now, in retrospect, but I fell out of puppy love. I didn’t know yet that recognising the flaws of the place, just like recognising your partner’s flaws in a relationship, is a necessary first step to understanding. You can’t really love someone until you know them, and the same is true for Paris.
In the flea market, the first day I met the rat, I also discovered the rabbit hole. My friend and I escaped the jeering of the rats as we wound through alleys created by stalls and stores. Then we stumbled onto a door. It was metal and ajar.
“I think we should go through.”
We glanced at each other, and then pushed it open. Inside opened into a high ceiling and galleries decorated with graffiti. The noise from outside melted away as we wandered further into this warehouse-like building. Vintage stores, nostalgia shops and artists’ nooks came out of the woodwork. Stairs led us up to a vintage store selling designer handbags. We found a 20’s costume shop, empty except for the mannequins staring in their glitzy flapper dresses. The rabbit hole took us all the way to Nadine Mbaka, an artist who was celebrating the opening of her stand with a group of friends. Her work is a mesmerising fountain of black and white lines, which jump off various surfaces the longer you look at them, to wrap themselves around your fingers and drag you into a created world. She is a self-described “artist and feminist, moon girl”. Her work explores the female body, sexuality and space. Her lines create a language, a signature that can cover any surface. Aside from how much I loved her work, Nadine was incredibly welcoming and humble. She thanked us for looking at her work, gave us her contact information, and told us to come back any time. Despite the discomfort I experienced in the flea market, I left the rabbit hole promising I would find it again. Of course, I never went back, but I do follow Nadine on Instagram [@greunadine] and I lust after all of her new work. On that day, I experienced some of the issues I would struggle with understanding about Paris; the treatment of immigrants, what it means to be a woman and to be alone in this city, and feeling overwhelmed by how many layers can coexist in one space. I also met a young artist whose grace made me feel at ease and who was sunny to me despite my lack of French language, and lack of belonging.
The truth is that this city is complex, and after hatred, if you don’t give up on it, Paris will yield you her best rabbit holes. The layers will cease to cancel each other out. The Eiffel Tower is still magnificent even when you finally admit to yourself that you find it kind of ugly. It is magnificent even when, on your last night in Paris, a man selling wine underneath offers you “cocaine, weed, hash?”. He and the cheap tourist toys that light up in the dark, as well as the immigrant men who sell them, belong just us much as the baguette and cheese and the tower itself. The parts that don’t fit into the pristine Paris create a much more interesting, complex story than the one that the city tries to sell you at first. Underneath the Sacre Coeur, the men who try to sell string bracelets by putting them on your wrist and tying them before you can say no are just as much a part of the tapestry as the monument is. Along the Bassin Louis Blanc, the suffering of the asylum-seekers from Afghanistan are just as much a part of the city’s story as Point Ephemere – a hippie wonderland right next door. When you understand and accept that Paris is both beautiful and ugly and when you’ve collected enough stories from different Parisians, when you can accept the complexity of this city, that’s when you will truly love it.
This piece is part of our Invisible Cities series.
Artwork by Nadine Mbaka