Parker Amstutz / Daniel H Tong
In big cities like London or New York, you expect things to change. They are giant cosmopolitan centers, full of buzzing businesses and soaring towers. Cranes hang over these metropolises as if they are keeping them from crumbling. New shops and restaurants pop up weekly. People come and go.
Paris, however, has always felt smaller and more intimate. It’s always been stable. Comfortable. Frozen in time.
When I left in 2016 for London — after living in Paris for just eight years, mind you — I didn’t look back. By the time I finished my last baguette sandwich in the Chunnel, I traded in my French life for scones, IPAs, and Scotch eggs. It was thrilling to be in a new city and living a new experience. Like all thrills, however, it came to an end. In 2018, only a short two years later, I found myself back in Paris.
Back to stability. Back to comfort. Back to timelessness.
Or so I thought.
Erik Witsoe / Arthur Yeti
My brief absence was ample time for the city to change in ways I no longer recognized. It was as if I were seeing the city — or at least much of it — for the first time.
As a tour guide in Paris, I often got jealous of my tourists who actually were seeing Paris for the first time. We all remember that rush of seeing the Eiffel Tower peek over the skyline or seeing the sunlight filter in through one of Notre Dame’s stained-glass windows. It’s mesmerizing, but only once. You can never experience those first times again. It’s just the way things go.
Coming back after a lengthy hiatus, however, so much had changed. My favorite bike shop is now a ritzy Italian-style café. The streets have physically shifted and redirected traffic. I’m living in new neighborhoods, seeing new people, tasting new foods. It’s like the Paris I lived in before was just a postcard, and now I’m seeing the real city for the first time again.
Some writers have bemoaned how Paris is a museum city. The government does go to absurd lengths to prevent too much change. Sure, maybe it’s overkill at times, but even museums change up their galleries every now and then. It’s not stagnant here, and with enough time away, the mutations and evolutions become more striking. We’re swimming in the Canal now? The Right Bank is pedestrianized? Les Halles is (nearly) complete? It’s like a brand new city!
Change is slow, and living here, it creeps up in ways that are barely perceptible. Stability, comfort and timelessness mark this city, even if they are just phantoms of reality. Paris has never stood still, and never will. Barring any significant revolutions or regime shifts, this change just creeps along with you, and both of you adapt together.
It’s been a few weeks and the thrill is wearing thin already, as expected. I am no longer excited by the bakeries and monuments I once took for granted, and will soon take for granted again. But being away gave me the chance to appreciate how fluid Paris is. It never got stale or old; it was just my perception that had crusted over. Never again.
Now, I am enamored by the city’s ability to make me fall in love with it all over again. The old wrinkles and age spots are still there, but the city is forever changing its hair, constantly getting a wardrobe update, always experimenting with a new look.
I will be able to smile when my tourists see the Eiffel Tower for the first time and relive that moment with them. Even the Iron Lady keeps changing, and I will take my thrills where I can get them.
- Read about getting Paris right the first time and the second time.
- Discover the fairytale of la rentrée.