Paris is for lovers.
Who came up with that? Possibly the unidentified Swiss collector who paid over $200,000 a few years ago for The Kiss at City Hall, a black-and-white photo shot in Paris by Robert Doisneau that has come to symbolize all things romantic. Or an Edith Piaf fan. Or some marketing whiz at the French Tourist Bureau. But whoever coined the phrase got it just right because people in love are truly drawn to the City of Light. Paris. I went there for the first time on my honeymoon some years ago, a visit soured by a crumby hotel, malicious waiters and romantic expectations no place on earth could fulfill.
The French capital’s reputation for romance persists, of course, fueled by travel magazines, books and films like Woody Allen's recent Midnight in Paris. Benches in the Tuileries are still occupied by people cemented together at the lips and couples have attached so many padlocks— cadenas d’amour—to railings on the Pont des Arts that the city recently announced its intention to remove the little love tokens in the interest of historic preservation.
I, too, love Paris, my honeymoon notwithstanding. But on later visits I learned to draw a distinction between romantic as in human relationships and the uppercase-r artistic style. Some people are immune to love-potion Paris, but no one can deny the city’s Belle Époque glories that speak of a time when emotion gushed after the cerebral Age of Enlightenment—the Paris of George Sand, Frédéric Chopin and the Impressionists.
If that sounds like putting too fine a point on it, consider a few singly unromantic facts gleaned from a three-year residence there.
- What, I ask, is so romantic about stepping in dog-doo, a common peril for flaneurs in a city where people flout pooper-scooper laws as strenuously as they uphold the Rights of Man?
- FWIW, not all buildings in Paris are beautiful. I once drove around town with a French friend of mine seeking out eyesores like the Jussieu Campus of Curie University, Quinze Vingts Eye Hospital in the 12th and infamous Tour Montparnasse.
- French distaste for the capital is seldom-discussed, though actress Julie Delpy let fly in 2 Days in Paris, her 2007 film about the city‘s nut-ball taxi drivers, predilection for animal entrails, bad plumbing and gnarly smells.
- The oldest profession was raised to a virtual art form by beautiful courtesans in 19th century Paris. Today, prostitution remains legal, though ancillary activities like soliciting, procuring and paying for sex with a partner under the age of 18 are against the law. It's no Bangkok, to be sure, but the reality of the sex trade is just as disturbing there as it is anywhere and shockingly out-in-the-open along the Right Bank’s rue Blondel.
- By the way, shortly before his death in 1994, Doisneau admitted that The Kiss at City Hall was a set-up, featuring professional models, posed to look like a pair of the lovers whom Paris may or may not be for, depending on your point of view.