Paris’ Underbelly, Or the Girl Who Didn’t Love Paris

Mirror Reflection

A young woman not much older than myself steps off the curb and swings her hand seductively. She has beautiful skin the colour of mahogany and her black fringe frames her face at just the right angle. Her jacket is unbuttoned and just as she raises her arm at a passing vehicle, I notice her black lace bra. The car doesn’t stop for her, and she appears flustered as she steps back unto the sidewalk waiting for traffic to start flowing again. She repeats her routine but no suitors are stopping so early in the day. She holds the beauty of a model in this great fashion capital, yet she finds herself working the outskirts of a disillusioned Paris.

At the entrance of the metro, a woman veiled in black sits with her hand outstretched. I can see neither her hair nor her shoes, which are covered by the long shapeless cloth. Her face, slightly bowed, stares vacantly a few feet ahead. She appears ironically unaware of the sporadic crowds ascending and descending before her. I few steps down, I encounter another woman in the same predicament, though she appears rather restless.

On board the metro, I find a seat and a middle aged man extends a kind smile to my friend. When a seat becomes available next to him, she takes it. As she goes to sit down the man stretches out his hand to grab a handful. This must be a mistake. Still in shock, she apologizes; surely she sat down too soon while le monsieur was trying to clear off some crumbs. She is naively mistaken and within seconds leaps off her seat, visibly upset by the man’s second advance.

A gypsy woman wanders the plaza in front of Notre Dame de Paris. Her steps are aimless and at times intrusive. Behind a disheveled braid she has a stained cheek and eyes the colour of coffee. She is very forward in her demand for a few euros; I offer her my baguette with brie and saucisson instead. She contemplates my offer and shrugs her shoulders as she grabs my lunch and walks away without a merci. De rien, mademoiselle. De rien.

As I make my way to my apartment that evening; a treacherous task when walking down crooked unlit streets where garbage and dog excrement dot my path, I encounter two teenage boys. Neither of them sober. “Welcome to Pah-rrris!” they holler my way, and just like that, any grand illusion I had of Paris is finally erased.

Paris isn’t always the dazzling Eiffel Tower, afternoons at the Louvre and shows at the Moulin Rouge; sometimes you are met with a city that has flaws like many others.


  • Edna says:

    I hear ya. I don’t like Paris that much either, and I live here! (and then I wrote a long post about it here:
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    • thatbackpacker says:

      I remember reading your post! You did take some beautiful shots of the city, even if it doesn’t have you charmed. 😉

  • Colleen Brynn says:

    Paris has never done anything for me either… Actually when I lived in England in 2004-2005, I avoided it like the plague…
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    • thatbackpacker says:

      I really wanted to like it! I may give it a second chance one day…

      • Colleen Brynn says:

        I went back to France last summer, to a town called Arras, where my cousin was working for the summer. She was a tour guide at Vimy Ridge. Anyway, I had to go through the airport and train station in Paris (not avoiding it like the plague) and then I ended up being enchanted with Arras. It has an amazing Saturday market and countless friendly locals.
        I should probably give Paris a second chance too…
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  • David Trujillo says:

    I read about the Paris Syndrome some time back. I took this from Wikipedia: “Paris syndrome (French: Syndrome de Paris, Japanese: パリ症候群, Pari shōkōgun) is a transient psychological disorder encountered by some individuals visiting or vacationing in Paris, France. It is characterized by a number of psychiatric symptoms such as acute delusional states, hallucinations, feelings of persecution (perceptions of being a victim of prejudice, aggression, or hostility from others), derealization, depersonalization, anxiety, and also psychosomatic manifestations such as dizziness, tachycardia, sweating, and others…” Aparently japanese are the most affected by Parisian reality since in Japan Paris is the love and fashion city. or read its kinda funny. But in my opinion the bad impression of the city is reflected on tourists high expectations. Big cities tend to be rude and dirty.
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    • thatbackpacker says:

      Haha, whoa! I had no idea the Japanese could be so affected by the City of Lights. I really enjoyed the BBC article. I can’t believe Paris syndrome is so severe that they keep a 24 hour hotline for those suffering from extreme culture shock. Daaaang!

  • Zhu says:

    I’m French and I dislike Paris. This city makes me feel uncomfortable, and I can’t pinpoint why exactly. I know, I know, it has everything, art, history, monuments, etc. Not denying that. But it’s dirty, stuffy. old… not my kind of place. Which is funny because I am a city person. And I like London for instance.

    Oh, can I be that annoying reader? I can barely see anything with the new font you are using, it makes reading articles difficult :-(.
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    • thatbackpacker says:

      If I had to choose between London and Paris, it would be London hands down! It overwhelmed me the first time (in a negative sense), but it completely redeemed itself in subsequent visits. I think I just wasn’t used to large cities at the time. And I’ll have a look through some other fonts and see if I can find something that’s a bit easier on they eyes. 😉

  • Stephanie - The Travel Chica says:

    I loved Paris, but I guess I wasn’t expecting it to be perfect in any way (except for food and wine) like in the movies. I assumed it would have the same problems of any large, touristy city… and it certainly does. It rained the whole time I was there, yet there was still something beautiful and magical for me…. can’t put my finger on it though.
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    • thatbackpacker says:

      I’m glad you were able to enjoy it in spite of the rain. That kind of reminds me of the movie Midnight in Paris, and how the main character just wanted to walk through the city in the rain. 🙂

  • Amanda says:

    I’ve not been to Paris myself, but I know plenty of people who feel the same as you about it. You certainly paint an honest picture of it, though.
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  • Jessica says:

    I had wanted to go to Paris for so long before I finally went that I think my expectations were too high for any city to live up to. That, and I found it annoying that everyone kept switching over to English when they heard that my French wasn’t perfect. In other parts of France, I found that people were more willing to have patience and let me practice.
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    • thatbackpacker says:

      I was able to practice a little bit of French; more by force than by choice. I found that not as many people were willing to speak English. When I was in Strasbourg, however, I found that whenever I tried speaking in French, the locals would switch over to German thinking I was a tourist from across the border. That really stumped me, haha 😀

  • Christina says:

    Yeah, it’s pretty dirty. We were shocked when we arrived in Paris, coming from London, which was very clean and the people helpful.
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  • Ceri says:

    Yeah, Paris is just like every other capital city. The glow and beauty of it is just for the tourists. The realities of life start hitting you when you’ve been there for a while.
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  • Charlie says:

    It’s a shame that the attitude of some Parisians ruins the beauty of the city. I love Paris and often entertain ideas of living there one day, but it still holds the number of place on my list of rudest cities in the world. Being a vegetarian who, at the time, didn’t speak any French, I wasn’t their favorite person! Still, like every big city, there is the good and the bad.

  • Suzy says:

    These are really beautiful scenarios you describe of a Paris you didn’t enjoy. I think sometimes there are places we are told we will love over the years and then all of the major city aspects that aren’t so appealing hit us in the face on one visit.
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  • Shivya says:

    I’m the other girl who didn’t like Paris. Got quite some grief for writing about my disappointment on my blog, but that’s that.
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  • Kurt says:

    One would think Paris the place where dreams, art and romance flow like French wine. Perhaps not though.
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  • Kelly says:

    Maybe the trick is not have expectations? I spent only a few days there at the beginning of September and loved it. Paris was never on my wishlist but when the chance to visit came up I went and was mesmerized.

  • Rebecca Kroegel says:

    I love Paris, I find i beautiful and relaxing, though im sure im one of the few, Your views however are very well written. much enjoyed!
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  • I love it both the first time and the 2nd time. Sorry for your Paris disillusion but if it is any consolation, it produced such beautiful prose. I love the mood of this piece. Love it!
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  • crazy sexy fun traveler says:

    Amazing photo, very creative 😀
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  • I like this post because you see Paris realistically. Paris is a huge city with lots of problems and pitfalls, just like New York, London or L.A. I hate when people go to Paris and are so swept away in the magic of the city that they don’t see what Paris is really like. Paris is an incredible city but it’s also very dynamic and modern and alive- not just an Avedon photograph.
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  • Kim says:

    I visited Paris only briefly with the expectation that I would absolutely loathe it. There was so much hype and I really doubted the magnificence of the city for some reason. However, I fell completely and utterly in love with that city and didn’t want to leave. I still dream of going back. I know there is a much darker side of Paris, and I am sure it is much different from what I experienced. Every place has that though. Lovely post <3
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  • 30traveler says:

    My trip to Paris was in December a few years ago. It was freezing and dark. Am wondering if I’d like it better if I went at a different time of year. I’m starting to feel like I want to give it another chance and rent an apartment this time.
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  • Peggy says:

    The problem with Paris is that high expectations often trump reality. I have been to Paris a few times, so have given it a chance, but I have yet to fall in love with the City of Love. Give me the imperfect chaos of London, the warm passion of Rome or the nostalgic wistfulness of Istanbul over the detached beauty of Paris anytime!

    Really enjoying your blog, keep writing and happy trails! xx
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  • Paris is very over-rated in my opinion, I spent a month there, long enough to get to know the place at its best and worst and I wouldn’t bother returning.

  • Sofie says:

    I’ve already been to Paris twice (once with school, once on a one-day trip with my dad) and although I had fun, I wasn’t amazed. I’m actually going back there this weekend, for a girls weekend and I’m hoping that it’ll be a “third time’s a charm”-experience. Of course everybody likes something else, but since so many people really love Paris, there must be something to it, no?
    I’ll be blogging on it next week. Hopefully it’ll be a positive post! 🙂
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  • Amy says:

    I really disliked Paris when I went. I found the metro map completely illogical, and I’m from London, so I’m not a novice when it comes to metros with lots of lines. Most of the metro was absolutely disgustingly dirty, and I actually saw people pissing in the carriages and on the platform. The Eiffel Tower was a disappointment coming from Berlin where you can literally see their tower everywhere in the city. All the tourist sites seemed really far out, compared to London where you can walk between them all. The street sellers were hugely aggressive, on a scale I’ve never seen anywhere else in Europe. The people were rude, even though I spoke fluent French (with an accent, obviously, but it wasn’t that they didn’t understand me). And even a dorm room way outside the city centre was crazy expensive. I went back a second time and stayed with friends, thinking it was just tourists who had a bad time and that living with locals would be better. Nope, still hated it.

    I love France as a whole, but Paris? You couldn’t pay me to go back. Everything that people rave about in Paris is available in abundance in other French cities, for far cheaper and with much friendlier locals.

  • Lionel and Annie says:

    I live in the greater Paris metropolitan area and I positively hate Paris. The problems are enormous in that gigantic mega city but of course tourists who come for a few days can hardly acknowledge them. Let me tell you that the situation in terms of social problems and grit and pollution is bad, and deteriorating. I commute every day to work to central Paris and let me tell you it is not a piece of cake. And I spend my weekends actually collecting trash in my neighborhood (a middle class neighborhood by the way, not a ghetto, which are plentiful at the periphery “extra muros”). Fortunately there are museums (my wife loves them). But culture is not all. For me it’s more urgent not to live in a shitty environment. Paris is becoming fast third world in my opinion.

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