On a recent visit to the nearby city of Heidelberg a friend’s wife who had just visited a few European cities asked me, “It all looks the same – what is special about Heidelberg?”
For a few moments I was at a loss for words. I loved this charming city and visited it often, but articulating precise reasons why it should appeal to anyone was something I had never attempted. I ended up mumbling something about the river, the castle and the university crowd. She didn’t appear too satisfied.
It is a sentiment many travellers in Western Europe experience; after a while, “the cities all look the same”. And it reminds me of a remark an acquaintance made after listening to a few of my western-classical records: “They all sound the same – why do you listen to them?”
The essence of a city depends on how one chooses to absorb it, but even for the most casual observer Paris is a city that is difficult to mix up with others.
When I first visited Paris four years ago what struck me was the percentage of blacks in the city. In Germany, where I had spent a couple of weeks until then, I had seen few dark-skinned people and had naively assumed that to be a characteristic common to Western Europe. In Paris I learnt I could blend easily with the people around, and I instantly felt comfortable.
Paris metropolitan trains brought back memories of Bombay. Hopping from one train to another, walking along long tunnels to switch between lines, getting swept by the energy of the Parisians, watching them lost in their world, some tired, some bored, some curious but most silent, gazing at the graffiti on the walls juxtaposed with artefacts from a museum – all formed a part of an unforgettable experience.
This time, coming to Paris after visiting Amsterdam, I found a marked difference in elegance. If Amsterdam was kinky, Paris was dignified; Parisians, even in summer clothes, appeared elegant. One could pick up a lesson or two from the way they dressed and carried themselves.
Then there was the space around La Defense. Those modern buildings and artefacts of modern-art spread around the grand arch are so different from the rest of Paris that they never fail to impress. The city, while preserving the old, renews itself with the nouveau.
The list can go on. It strikes me that some of these aspects can be used to describe other cities in relation to Paris. People in Heidelberg, I could tell my friend’s wife, are predominantly German; the city has no metro and its charm lies mainly in the older sections.