The most foreign place in the world is Paris
The most foreign and intrinsically intimate place I have ever been to is Paris. I did not realise just how much British, or specifically English culture is such a strong influence globally until I went to Paris. French people are uniquely themselves. I have also never enjoyed people watching and people interacting as I did when I was in Paris, socially and culturally, it was a wholly fascinating and alien world.
Case in point, eating. Parisians eat a lot with their hands and communally. Nothing out of the ordinary if you come from Africa, like me, or if you are from the majority of the world-black and brown people that is. However, what is different about Parisians is that they eat like they want to be inside the food. Now when I talk of Parisians, please consider that I mean very culturally diverse but still Parisian. And they all eat like that. Imagine loving food, the experience of eating food so much that you do it in a way that is so intimate, almost like a coupling, but chic.
Then there is the concept of personal space; it does not exist in Paris. Forget about it. Let us go back to eating, most cafes and restaurants in Paris are small, packed, and everyone ends up eating with everyone, being brushed up against by everyone and finding themselves in random conversations with everyone. When taking your order because it is so busy and loud, the person receiving your order will lean over close, give you recommendations and make small talk as well if you seem inclined. If eating with company, expect to have someone go, "Oh my goodness this is so delicious!" and then they pop it into your mouth. Or, "You must smell this! It is so good!" and voila the glass is under your nose, I smelled so many great wines just suddenly popped under my nose and swirled for me by the company I was with while in Paris. So not only do they eat like they want to be inside the food, but when Parisians eat with you, they really eat with you. You are together with them in the experience.
The other thing to expect with Parisians is that they will always tell you no, or that it is not possible or that they do not know, but they will check and get back to you. It is their default answer to every question or request under the sun.
Me: Can I have a seat by the window and not away from the Eiffel Tower view?
Parisian: No, but I will check and get back to you.
90% of the time, they would get back to me, and the answer would usually be a yes. So the work here is to wait patiently and let them check if it is possible.
Someone explained to me that because Paris is the city of protest and individual self-choice or democracy. The word no is an inherent part of that, because if you always say yes, it is harder to come back and say no. But a no provides you with the option of a yes or a no.
Parisians love to stare, and they want to look at you and take it all in. Because as foreign as they were to me, I was foreign to them too. Now, this staring thing is where I truly connected culturally with them because if there is something that Kenyans love to do, it is staring. Aesthetically speaking, Parisian fashion is very understated. They don't do much bright colour and avant-garde or baroque architecture and flow in their style and pieces. Instead, expect tailored fits, navy blue, black and grey and some scarves and classic hats and accessories plus lots of beautiful boots and stylish sneakers: the more natural-looking the person, the more Parisian as well. The stereotype that Parisians look like they wash and go is one I found to be mostly true; there is minimal manipulation of the self cosmetically speaking. Inherent confidence I loved, especially with the Parisians of African descent. Now why those of African descent specifically? Because I have rarely seen people of African descent or who are African that are comfortable with wash and go when it comes to natural hair. Parisians are the most confident with their nappy and kinky people that I have ever seen. For valid historical reasons, many Africans and black people have covered, straightened and manipulated their hair for protective styling and protection against discrimination and bias. Hence, it was refreshing to see so many black people moving in the world with their hair growing and behaving like how it was naturally intended. So what should you wear while in Paris? I saw many articles suggesting that you should try and fit in, but my darlings, be loud, be bold. Bring in that African style, Parisians love it, give them a reason to stare. After all, isn't it the highest praise to have a stylish Parisian, stare, oh la la and declare you chic and Magnifique?
What did I do in Paris?
- I went and saw all the highlights in Paris, The Eiffel Tower, The Louvre, etc. all of them. It is relatively easy to walk to all the sights from the city centre so plan two days to walk around and see all of them. That said, someone told me that once you are done with the queues and get into the Louvre, it would take you 13 hours to see everything. I settled for a picture outside instead. For context, you can now see why most of the images you see of it are from the outside. Most people don't have the time it takes to see the Louvre, and actually, most people do not have the time, or the entrance fee money to see everything there is to see in Paris.
- Terass Hotel has a fantastic brunch and lunch menu and is one of the best rooftop views of the Eiffel Tower and Paris, definitely spend some time there.
- My favourite place was Montmarte. I loved that little place. It drew me in because of its Harlem art and history, but I fell in love with how you would be surprised continuously by quaint detail and magnificent Sacre Coeur cathedral bells and bump into the gorgeous bookstore Halle St Pierre as you explored that tiny corner of artistic Paris. It also has the best little Parisian restaurants that brew mulled wine and fry delicious crepes to keep you warm and full during the winter cold. Plus it is home to one of the most famous tiny restaurants in the world, Le Consulat.
- Took a day trip to Versailles, Versailles Palace made me gasp when I first saw it through the gates. Its scale of massive opulence to date is astounding! I cannot imagine what it must have symbolised in the 1700s for people in France. You completely understand why French people guillotined their royals after visiting Versailles Palace.
Things to know and Tips while in Paris
1. Paris is big! It is very, very big! It would help if you were in Paris for three weeks or more, but even if you were, you would still not see everything. Every Parisian district or Arrondissement is vast, and there are twenty of them, and each one has a unique, culture, personality and things to see and do. If there for a short or shorter time, take comfort in that you will only be able to have a taste of Paris which is most people's experience anyways.
2. Paris is full! Everywhere is full of people and children, the tourist sites, the suburbs, the city. All of it, expect always to be surrounded by busy people moving in energetic ways. A 24/7 city with people running, walking, dancing, selling, singing, painting, striking, protesting, people are always doing many things, Paris is full and alive.
3. People in Paris speak English, so you do not need to speak French in Paris, but it does help, and if you can, it does make French people happy that you tried.
4. Paris is very expensive, so plan to have more money than you thought you needed and look out for and eat at the cafes and restaurants with meal deals (there are a lot of these mercifully). If you can as well shop and cook or eat from bargain supermarket stores that have great food, beer and wine offers. When I travel to expensive cities, I try as much as possible to eat whole meals with complex carbs and protein instead of processed foods or little street treats as it keeps you fuller for longer. Also, carry a bottle to drink tap water over bottled water; it is free and clean. Ask for tap water at restaurants as well. But expect to spend $70-$100 per day on accommodation, entrance fees, food and transport, and this is actually a super lean budget. Many people budget $100-$200 per day.
5. Make sure you have enough coverage on travel insurance just in case of anything, as I said it is an expensive city, so you need to be covered. Some Kenyan banks give this to you for free, do check to see if yours does and get it before you leave for Paris.
6. I found navigating the public transport system super complex because of how they name stations. For example, if they call a place Saint Pierre station, it means Saint Pierre bus station, Saint Pierre train station and Saint Pierre tram. Where it gets complex is that on maps, it just directs you to go to, Saint Pierre. So you need time to figure out if it means the train, the bus or the tram. Give yourself time to move from place to place so that you can figure this out and not get lost, or you could do like me and give up on it entirely and choose to walk mostly or if you must - Uber to places.
7. Like any European city, plan to walk a lot, walk far and walk with luggage. So pack light and comfortable as a priority.
8. There is a lot of poverty and inequality in Paris because it is such an expensive city, it is highly likely that if you are a budget traveller, you will be staying and navigating neighbourhoods that have a lot of marginalised people. And it is a striking shame that such a wealthy country has the levels of poverty that I saw there. The reason I am mentioning this is that there is a misleading perception that "developed" countries do not have the levels of insecurity, poverty and marginalisation that I saw in Paris. And for travellers, especially travellers from "developing" countries there can be a false sense of security when navigating these spaces. I am not being alarmist but be careful and have a healthy sense of vigilance while exploring places. And if you travel a lot solo like me, well, vigilance is always a front and centre priority.