The First Time I Saw Paris

Aug 01, 2010
*Special to asia!
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Born in Malaysia, a young country with a hodge-podge culture, I naively thought the polished, implacable French capital held all the answers.


The first time I saw Paris was when I poked my head out of a hole, emerging from the caverns of the Metro with fifty other students, all blinking in the raw sunlight. Something smelt of piss. Before us stood our French professor, explaining something about the square, or perhaps about the statue in the square. He had a lily-of-the-valley in his buttonhole because it was the first of May. We were on a month-long university immersion programme.

I felt slightly sick. This was my first real trip abroad – let me put this more clearly, my first trip to a Western country – and I had anticipated this for so long, was wanting everything to go so perfectly. My stomach was in knots after a 13-hour flight from Singapore, during which I had not slept a wink. Everything was new to me on that flight – the tight politeness of the Air France staff, the boarding passes, the way you could turn on a reading light with the flick of a button. The girl sitting next to me, a fellow student who had traveled widely, looked at me with incredulity.

I was 22. My mother, who lives in our hometown of Kuala Lumpur, had dug into her meagre savings so I could make the trip. There was not much money left over to get me nice cardigans, a windbreaker, good luggage, proper walking shoes. As we students were shuttled across France during that springtime of long ago, I remember my unease every time our baggage was piled into a heap – mine was the only backpack that had weird iron rungs at its spine, and was made of cheap vinyl. The backpack said ‘Chow Kit Road’ rather than ‘Champs Elysées.’ I was ashamed. In my self-absorption, my selfishness, I gave hardly a thought to several of my Singapore classmates who had not been able to make the trip at all, because they were even more cash-strapped than I.

Now, sixteen years later, I am in Paris again, this time for three months. The intervening years had seen me encounter one of the biggest heartbreaks of my life – having to give up a scholarship to France because of tangential financial reasons. So now, I figure, now that I have some money of my own, I will spend some time in Paris and discover the city for myself.


Looking at Paris: Sometimes our vision of others depends on how clearly we see ourselves

Looking at Paris: Sometimes our vision of others depends on how clearly we see ourselves


And this time, this time I will be prepared. I have brought different pairs of shoes, for every conceivable occasion. I have lots of scarves, because scarves are so important in Paris, aren’t they? And I have four – no, five – different overcoats, all to protect me, make sure that I don’t look different, ensure that I fit in. My outer layer, my shell, my carapace, will be intact. I will not be caught wrong-footed, found off-guard. I will be, as the French say, blindée, which means fully armoured. (It is also their word for military tanks.)

Paris can be a cruel city. Its centre, the cultural heart that contains the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Jardin des Tuileries and all the rest of it, is so impossibly elegant that it immediately shows up anything anomalous or out of place. Its denizens move about with the kind of savoir-faire that makes them at one with the Empire architecture and Hausmann boulevards. Amid such perfection, strangers can feel awkward, maladroit, gauche. The City of Light can shine a blinding torch on one’s aesthetic shortcomings.

I think my case is an extreme one, but I do believe that people in general feel more self-conscious while in Paris. I have had two female friends visit me here, and both of them bought light summer coats within 24 hours of their arrival. (The covering, always the covering.) At night, the young couples kissing along the banks of the Seine seem to do so with some anxiety, as though afraid that if they don’t embrace artistically enough, they will spoil the scenery.

Looking back, it now seems obvious why I became a Francophile. I was born in Malaysia, a country with a highly heterogeneous population that won independence from the British only a little more than 50 years ago. I was brought up in a family situation that, while never lacking in love, was also unconventional and sometimes downright bizarre. I wanted, above all, a sense of lucidity and continuity, some rock-hard rules to live by. I sought surety and security above all else, and I thought – erroneously – that France, with its long history, its flair for pageantry, its cultural confidence and strong social codes, had the answer.

Not for me the greasy mamak shops standing choc-a-block with the noisy yong tau fau and nasi lemak stands; I wanted rows of neat cafés with gleaming facades and white-aproned waiters. Not for me having always to explain to foreigners where Malaysia was, what kind of climate it had, and how come an ethnic Chinese like me could not speak fluent Mandarin; I wanted an instantly recognizable country and culture.

Not for me the sight of my father on a tropical Sunday afternoon, in a holey singlet and flip-flops, pounding spices on mortar to make sambal belachan, wearing my mother’s huge sunglasses to protect his eyes from any spurts of chili; I wanted a daddy with an impeccable sense of style, who would take us all out to a fancy restaurant where we would clink wine glasses.

We travel not only to see new places, but also to escape ourselves. We think that, by encapsulating ourselves within new surroundings, we can become new people. And we think, mistakenly, that the people who do not openly exhibit all our own idiosyncrasies, must naturally have all the answers.

I’ve walked down the Boulevard Saint Germain, which is near where I live, many times in the past few months. The boulevard is home to such famous establishments as the Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots, which once welcomed patrons such as Sartre, de Beauvoir, Gide, Picasso and Hemingway, but which now serve mainly tourists.

clarissa tanClarissa is a journalist who focuses on travel and the arts. As a desperately hopeful author, she writes short stories and is working on a novel. Clarissa won the Spectator’s final Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing.

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