Just Back From

Paris Revisited

Like every beautiful cliché, Paris has always run the risk of becoming a caricature of itself—and, let’s be honest, there were years when the city seemed to shrug off any necessity for reinvention or change, watching with a classic French pout as other cities (Lisbon, Vienna, Barcelona, Antwerp) moved ahead, pushing fast-forward on innovation, garnering momentum, buzz and visitors. Paris has changed, people said, sometimes with a bit of Schadenfreude, like seeing the high school queen bee at a reunion years later, a little softer and not as haughty.

And it’s true: Paris has changed. The world has changed. Like many of its European neighbors, France is facing a host of challenges, including the rise of far-wing populism; a sluggish-verging-on-inhumane response to an ongoing influx of migrants and refugees; an ever-greater division between wealth and want (though the latter, at least in socialist France, not nearly as extreme as in the U.S.). Walk through the streets of Paris, and you’ll see the displeasure with the current government expressed in graffiti of varying shades of creativity (Macron, it turns out, is a great word for rhyming).

For us who visit and revisit, Paris will always be both novelty and homecoming. Like characters in a novel or movie, we fall through time, returning to ‘our’ places.”

But these days, walk through Paris, and you also witness a city once again in motion, with a fresh urgency that feels decidedly different even from pre-pandemic times. Most obvious are the massive investments in urban renewal policy, as undertaken by socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo, whose commitment to la transition verte is driven by a vision to turn Paris in Europe’s greenest city by 2030. Given the strong opposition (taking away the Parisian’s right to drive seems to be as controversial as smoking bans that never totally took hold), this goal may end up being too ambitious, but it’s remarkable how fast the metropolis has super-imposed a vast network of protected bike lanes, and how swaths of locals (and visitors) are taking up biking, which proves that, indeed, sometimes you have to build it so that they can come.

More of an aggrievance has been the pre-Olympic roadwork, as well as the expansion of train tracks (on my recent visit, one Métro ride turned into a comical group discussion across the cart whether the station of Concorde could possibly be entirely closed or just partial). Roads are torn up seemingly everywhere, especially in such old neighborhoods as the Marais where the Olympics have kicked a frenzy of gas-line replacements into gear. For locals, “les jeux” are met with a mix of anticipation, dread and excitement, and many questions and even more rumors circulate around the opening ceremony, currently still scheduled to take place on barges down the Seine but increasingly shaky due to security concerns (“There is most definitely a plan B,” one local told me).

“We are ready,” joked the charming front-desk manager at Monsieur George, a jewel of a boutique hotel in the 8th arrondissement. “We’re not so sure about Paris itself.” But, he added, they were excited to see. It was, after all, a once-in-a lifetime event, a novelty for this city.

Read Simone's favorite finds from her recent trip: The Shortlist-Paris Spring 2024

Of course, for us who visit and revisit, Paris will always be both novelty and homecoming. Like characters in a novel or movie, we fall through time, returning to “our” places—cafés, gardens, museums—keenly aware of how versions of our younger selves are preserved in those cobblestone streets, at those tiny café tables, at that particular bend in the river. In Paris, I can sit next to my twenty-one-year-old self at La Palette nursing a Kir Royal. I can get lost in the 18th with my twenty-seven-year-old self, trying to find Le Baratin so I can interview the chef-owner for Departures magazine (for the record: the bistro is still there and still excellent). I can sit very still in ice-cold weather at the Medici Fountain with my grieving forty-one-year-old self, the year after my father died.

And now, to have experienced the city at the cusp of the Olympics, with all of its big plans and new finds (read The Shortlist: Paris Spring 2024, I can leave and be assured that once more, another piece of me stays behind in a city that has been the love of many people’s lives, as it is mine. A beautiful cliché, for sure, but one I wouldn’t give up for the world.

Published onMay 15, 2024

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