Paris – a city of contradictions

Paris is a a magnificent city – romantic and grand. It’s because of all the neo-classical buildings. Napoleon commissioned Georges-Eugène Haussmann to rebuild the city – a massive public works program that included the demolition of crowded and unhealthy medieval neighborhoods, the building of wide avenues, parks and squares, the construction of new sewers, fountains and aqueducts. Haussmann was a genius. When you stand at the centre and overlook all the boulevards you have to be in awe at just how remarkable this man’s vision was, particularly when you think of what the dirty and infested city was like before. Boulevarde Huassmann with its grand stores – Galaries Lafayette and Au Printempts are shopping meccas. Still, I wish that some of the places such as the original Marais and Les Halles still exisited though I’m sure that the residents were delighted with the clean up (despite the huge resistance at the time).

As I walk around all the grand palaces and museums, the opulence is astonishing. Makes London look a bit like a poor relative. It’s opulent on a grand scale. Haussmann’s conception of Paris was a paradise for the bourgeoisie. No wonder the peasants revolted.

It was we were heading out to the airport on our way back to London that a very different side of Paris emerged: graffiti covered every surface of wall space; the backs of houses looked derelict and what I at first mistook for rubbish dumps turned out to be slum dwellings, structures built around twigs and put together with old mattresses, cardboard and other bits and pieces. The only reason I could tell they weren’t simply piles of rubbish is that most of them had some sort of pipe coming from the top – no doubt a crudely made chimney for cooking. I saw a small boy climbing on the high wire fence that was only a metre or so in front of the dwellings; and some washing hanging on the bare branches of trees. And refuse.Everywhere refuse. Signs of life. Like the slums of Bombay except there they would be picking through each and every piece of discarded rubbish to sell and trade to make a living. How do these people survive? On the streets of Paris, as in London, Edinburgh and even Sydney, there were homeless people sleeping on the streets (many with dogs who seemed to be better cared for than their owners). It seems to have become common for people to fall out of the system. The homeless are increasingly everywhere. It its always such a shock to see them in the streets where metres away are the grand magazines: Au Printemps, Galleries Lafayette, Au Bon Marche and La Samaritan. In Sydney it’s the same; you’ll find them on the corners next to David Jones and Westfield (Sydney’s answer to high end shopping). Perhaps they think that those who have spent an excess of dollars on needless indulgences will feel conpelled to throw them some coins.

The seamier side of a city is as interesting as its grand centre and somehow more honest and revealing. I read reviews of people advising against staying in Rue St Denis.  I have to disagree.  I love this place – its full of life: a vast array of types, nationalities and cultures.  I’ve never felt unsafe here (we stayed here some many years ago and felt that we were in the heart of the city).  Sure there are prostitutes and drugs and its seedy but isn’t that what a city is all about?  I’ve never been bothered or harassed – or propositioned – and I’ve enjoyed the energy day and night.  Its colourful and exotic.  As a tourist I think its as charming as its grand neoclassical counterpart.  Both form part of the texture of the experience of a city.