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By Colleen Friesen
For Travel Writers Tales

Paris, that iconic city of movies and dreams, doesn't truly exist. Instead, we each create our own Paris; a place, both real and illusory.

"The city exists," writes John Baxter in The Most Beautiful Walk in the World, "as a blank page on which each person scribbles what the French call a griffe -- literally "a claw" but more precisely a signature; a choice of favourite cafes, shops, parks, and the routes that link them..."

Paris then, is created through a series of overlapping visions, each created by every visitor and by her residents, revealing herself to each of us through the act of walking.

Your own unique Paris, is built one step at a time.

On this past visit, it began again for me as soon as my husband and I had dropped our bags at the Hotel Cervantes in the 8th arrondisement. It was a lovely discovery, a hotel far enough away from the center to feel less touristy (helping reduce the cost of some of our coffees and dinners) but still only a short Metro ride from all the major Paris sights.

We wandered about, asking in our best Franglais for a recommendation for a coffee shop, a restaurant, any nearby museums or parks. Within hours, a demarcation started to reveal itself. We had sketched the first outline for our new neighbourhood.

That night we found a little restaurant in the nearby Place de Clichy. We picked it the same way we usually do; based on whether there were gorgeous aromas emanating from the kitchen, whether there was a suitable buzz of happy people, and by the general mood and lighting of the room.

Like all French restaurants we were seated quite close to the other diners. We were soon talking to Mary. An American, she had been coming to "her neighbourhood" for years, first with her husband, and now as a sixty-year old widow, she still made the trip to get her French fix in her little part of Paris.

"I love all my regular restaurants," she said, taking another bite of her duck and sipping from her glass of Gamay. "I come for a few weeks each year, though this is one of my shorter, one-week trips."

By using this walk-and-wander approach, it doesn't matter whether you've picked the 'right' arrondisment. Paris, like the water rings from a cast pebble, circles its centre, one district rippling in rings after the next. Using this approach, our hotel in the 8th could be seen as less desirable than those smack dab in the centre of the city. The premise being, that the numbers closest to the centre are the places to be and be seen.

But forget all those chi-chi guides that insist you must be in this inner circle or that one. You don't have to worry about being too far from the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower or any of the other must-sees on the Tourist list. No matter where you are in the city, you are always a short walk from a Metro stop.

When it comes to the metro, the colourful lines on the map need no interpretation. Simply match the name of the destination with the proper Metro line, jump on and see if you pop up where you planned. What if your French isn't quite up to snuff? Just make sure you make an effort with some of the basics; 'hello', 'please', 'thank you' and then head out with no fear.

But remember that Paris is more than that check list of postcard-featured cathedrals, museums and sights. Those iconic places make up an overwhelming list that only seems to get longer as you check them off. Recognize you won't see it all. Pick one or two of the Big Ones from the list each day and spend the rest of the time absorbing and lingering.

Because it is in the wandering and the lingering that Paris will become yours. Sit with a coffee or a glass of wine while perusing a new book, perhaps something wonderful from Shakespeare & Co... Or lounge on a park bench, watching all the other tourists line up, exhausted, marching from one site to the next.

Admire the Parisienne women (and men) with their elegant scarves. Buy your own scarf. Be your best elegant and oh-so-French self...

And in between those leisurely cafe visits, walk.

Walk around your new neighbourhood. Look and listen and most importantly, enjoy.

You are busy creating your very own Paris.


For information:

Photos by Colleen Friesen:

1. Musee D'Orsay
2. Sidewalk Snacking
3. Streetview from Hotel
4. Author @ Shakespeare & Co (photo by Kevin Redl)
5. Notre Dame
6. Salade de Chevre Chaud


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