Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Travel 101: How to Love Any City (Even Paris!)

Istanbul, Turkey: Not in love? Get a job. Make some friends.
Yesterday I was having a Facebook conversation with a friend who's visiting Paris when I interrupted his gushing over the city with a revelation of my own: I've always sort of hated the City of Lights. Though I wouldn't turn down a free, all-expenses-paid trip there (or pretty much anywhere), there are so many places I'd rather be (pretty much anywhere).

After a bit of back and forth, he said the magic words, ones I've heard before from people trying to sell me on other cities of which my reviews were less than glowing: "I think if you had a good job and a nice group of friends, it would be lovely."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but wouldn't any place be lovely then? Having lots of friends, lots of money and knowledge of where to go to spend it would make just about any major city on earth fantastic, no? Yes, some of us are country people, others (like me) dig the mountains, while others live for the ocean, but if you're into big cities, and you can't make Paris, or Athens, or Berlin, or Rio, or even Atlanta (sorry, Mom!) lovable with all of that going for you (and it), then why leave home?

However, when most people talk about cities they love, hate, love to hate and hate to love, they're generally talking about places they've visited on vacation, usually with a limited budget and without a social network in tow. So it seems a little beside the point to tell somebody who's passing through any place for just a week or two, "Well, if you have a lot of money and great friends, this is the place to be!" Sure it is, but what if you're not Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and you lack George Clooney's quick wit and ability to make instant friends?

Since we can't all travel to Paris, or any other city, with the benefit of a fat bank account, a massive welcoming committee and knowledge of all the hot spots that most tourist guides miss, it's up to cities to impress thrill seekers and lazy sunbathers with their own charm. The best ones -- some of which, for me, would be New York, Buenos Aires, Bangkok and London -- have an appeal that goes deeper than beauty (which, in cities, as in humans, is only skin deep) and lifestyle.

They are places you can enjoy even if you have no money (well, maybe not London, but when I started loving it there in the mid '90s, I wasn't exactly rolling in pounds, and like all great loves, my love for London is not based on reason), no friends and no grasp of the language. You can be poor in New York City, not know a living soul there, and not speak a word of English, and you could still have the time of your life (if loud, crowded urban jungles are your thing -- and if not, then what are you doing there?!). That's what makes NYC one of the greatest places on earth.

At least one American in Paris apparently agrees: "I was broke my entire 7 years in NYC but still managed to go out every night!" my Facebook friend recalled. "Not so Paris. I've spent 100 euro a day here, and I really have nothing to show for it! It makes Milan look cheap." (Love Milan, by the way, though Florence, which is strictly about tourist appeal, not so much.)

Here's what the British actress Kristin Scott Thomas recently told me about her adopted hometown.

"I'm really comfortable in Paris as opposed to London. The older I get, the more drawn I am to my roots, which is the country in England. But I can't really see myself living in the country -- not unless I marry a farmer or something, which I don't think is going to be likely. I'm not that crazy about London. It's too big. It's too noisy. I like Paris. Somebody described Paris to me once as like a kitchen garden. It really does feel like that. It's very small. It's got the nice wall around it. It's got this circular road that you don't really go beyond unless you've lived there." 

If I'd never been to Paris, Scott Thomas's description -- which makes it sound like the kind of place you go to retire, and eventually die, not live -- wouldn't entice me to go. My problem with Paris (and I can understand why a lot of people adore it even if I don't) has always been more with the city -- it lacks the violent jolt that I require from my major metropolises -- than with the French, who, in general, have never been less than gracious to me. For all of its visual grandeur, Paris, ultimately, bores me.

As for the food, I've never understood the draw. Last night for dinner, I ordered freshly cooked Pad Thai for 35 baht (or $1) from a night-market vendor along Narathiwat road in Bangkok, and not only was it tastier than any Pad Thai I've had outside of Chiangmai, but it was better than anything I can recall ever eating in Paris, where my mother often complained about the bread and butter being served rock hard during our 2004 trip there. Although I rolled my eyes on the inside, I totally agreed. Five-star ambiance with a view of the Eiffel Tower, for me, doesn't a great meal make -- even if Mr. Right (at that moment) is sitting across the table from me. I know because I've been there, staring into his eyes, then past them at the night colors of the Eiffel Tower, wishing I were on St. Mark's Place in New York City, eating a slice of cheese pizza.

I adore the south of France, which gets away with being sort of sleepy and dull because it's supposed to be. Unfortunately, severe allergies prevented me from going more than once. I've been to Paris several times, though -- on my own, with my mom, with my mom and my boyfriend, alone with my boyfriend (the same one, twice, 10 years apart) -- and while the beauty of it was never lost on me, I need more than that to keep me interested, just as I do with humans. I missed the rush, the excitement, the big gay hot spot that should be the payoff of being in any major city.

But if someone had thought to throw in a great job and a dozen or so friends with that all-expenses-paid trip, I probably wouldn't have wanted to leave.

10 Themes for Great Cities

"London" The Smiths


"Rome Wasn't Built in a Day" Morcheeba


"New York City" The Cult


"Los Angeles" Frank Black


"One Night in Bangkok" Murray Head


"San Fransisco Days" Chris Isaak


"Dublin Sky" Darren Hayes


"Vienna" Ultravox


"Buenos Aires" Madonna (from Evita)


"Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" The Four Lads

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