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Dispatches from Paris: Terror intrudes on the romanticized city of Hemingway and Hollywood

As I’ve written before, expats tend to approach traveling differently. Every every business trip, every vacation, is a shopping expedition for the next cool place to live.

At some point, we all dream of living in Paris, but it’s usually the Paris of “A Moveable Feast” or “Midnight in Paris.” Quaint ancient streets. Hemingway and Fitzgerald writing short stories in cozy cafes, surrounded by characters out of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting wearing pince-nez and berets. In 2016, they are mere shadows of simpler eras in a Paris still recovering psychologically from the November 2015 attacks, and fighting a culture war with extremists.

With these sorts of posts, the challenge is always, “What sort of useful information can we impart to readers?” Well, we just back from Paris, and there’s a lot to tell.

Let’s just get right to what everyone is talking about … increased security isn’t as intrusive as we anticipated. That said, there are changes.

• Border security:

imagesWe drove into Paris via the northern route through Belgium via Antwerp and Lille from our home base of Eindhoven, Netherlands. The France/Belgium border is – under the French state of emergency – surveilled, meaning huge traffic backups as you arrive at checkpoints from Belgium.

Our car’s navigation system routed us off the A22 through the small town of Menen and away from the worst of the traffic. When we got to the border, there were heavily armed Belgian troops on one side of the little country road, and French security soldiers on the other.

Interesting.

• This is all I’m going to say about security:

I’ve survived at least three wars and multiple trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, and I feel like Paris is not a particularly hard target. Anywhere. The biggest weaknesses I saw at the Louvre, for example, was the lack of perimeter security.

But the real weakness is the underground Carrousel de Louvre Mall off the Rue de Rivoli that leads into the museum. Indifferent private security workers work the entry hall checking bags. Let’s hope there are invisible sensors including nitrate and TATP sniffers.

Of course, French anti-terrorism officials know all about the weak links. My assumption is, they’ve chosen to fight the covert preemptive fight against mass attacks on the borders and in the banlieues rather than Israeli-style overt efforts that would enforce the image of a city under siege.

• Paris is booming:

3d3722748Some of the largest, most ambitious projects in the city’s history are planned or under way. The extension of Metro Line 14 in the 17th Arrondissement is the first segment of the Grand Paris Express, a $25 billion expansion of the century-old Paris Métro, according to the Atlantic Magazine.

By the time the project is completed in 2030, the system will have four new lines, 68 new stations, and more than 120 miles of additional track. The question is, will there be money to keep the existing metro updated and maintained?

If we noticed one thing as we drove in, it’s the incredible number of construction cranes on the Paris horizon, from Saint-Denis  and the Stade de France on the north as you come in the city all the way to the 14th on the South. One giant building after another, many with the names of American tech companies glowing in neon on the side.

A number of signature buildings have opened since 2010 including the Fondation Louis Vuitton Building, designed by Frank Gehry.

The Tour Majunga opens in La Défense later this year, and there are several other skyscrapers under construction across the city. So the Parisienne economy under Mayor Anne Hildago seems to be booming.

Yet there are occasional reminders of how difficult it is to keep everything going. For instance, the wing of the Louvre where they display the Vermeer my wife Cheryl wanted to see was closed for construction of an emergency fire exit. And has been since 2011.

• Paris’s biggest problem is population overload:

Ten million residents put unimaginable stress on the infrastructure, especially the subways. Think about this … there are roughly the same number of people living in Paris as in Norway and Finland. Combined. Now, throw in 22.5 million visitors for 2015. So the existing subway and the expressways around Paris are starting to simply age out. That said, August is a good time to visit. The Parisians are on vacation. I was amazed at how easy it was to drive into the city even during rush hour.

Still, you’re in a mega-city, so getting anywhere can be tough. A major traffic choke point is on the A3 near the Gare du Drancy, where a new overpass is under construction. A project that looks like it will take years.

Here’s my advice: Don’t visit the Netherlands or Scandinavian cities such as Stockholm, then go to Paris. Stockholm is a gleaming penthouse … an architectural hybrid of perfectly preserved Gothic architecture and spare Scandinavian aesthetic, all overlain with ultra-modern infrastructure. Paris is the ornate but neglected mansion of an eccentric uncle … filled with amazing treasures amid crumbling walls.

• See the real Paris:

Most tourists gravitate toward staying in the 1st through the 8th Arrondissements near the major attractions. We stayed for the first time in the 14th Arrondissement, which is well south of where we’d found affordable vacation apartments in Marais and Rue Saint-Denis neighborhoods. In 2006, we’d splurged on an apartment inside the Qatari diplomatic compound off the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, about a block from the L’Arc de Triomphe in the glittery 1st.

Last week, the Citadines Didot Montparnasse was a pretty dramatic step down, luxury-wise. But we were a couple of blocks from the Plaisance Métro stop, which took us directly to Champs-Élysées -Clemenceau near the Pont de la Concorde. The great thing about the 14th is, it’s the real Paris down to the fabulous patisseries and inexpensive restaurants and cafes. And yet you’re maybe 15 minutes by subway from Tourist Paris.

• Random thoughts and observations:

45e7d91d-15c7-49e2-9b07-a0c818c52f68It had been awhile since we strolled down the Champs Elysees, so imagine my surprise when I saw that just about every block there are guys on the corner offering to rent tourists a Ferrari or Lamborghini for a 20-minute ride around Paris.

Yes, how did they know that’s just what I wanted to do? Spend 90 euros to sit in gridlock …. Yet, I saw no less than 10 million euros worth of 458 Spyders and Huracans parked, waiting for clients.

Speaking of cars, Paris may be the least bike-friendly major city in Western Europe. Especially to those of us who live in Holland. Here, the scooter and motorcycle rule.

Every time I visit Paris, I’m moved to comment on the kindness and genuineness of the Parisians. I know more than half of you will think me insane. But last week, there was not one person we met – from the helpful and chatty Marina at the front desk of our hotel to the local men at the tabac to the giggly girls in the patisserie – who wasn’t at least pleasant, and in some cases down right très sympas, as we say in Kentucky.

Paris might have a lot of flaws, but it still will make you dump those too-perfect cities such as Vienna and Stockholm that you were sure you’d fallen in love with. You realize if you look hard enough, you can leave behind all the tourists with selfie sticks and still find the city of “A Moveable Feast” in the back streets of the 14th.

At night, I would stand out on our little hotel balcony and look down the quiet blocks of perfect mansard roofs and think, “My God, I’m back in Paris!”

And I would breathe deep, trying to take it all in, wishing I could stay forever.

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