The First Time I Saw Two Versions of Paris

After spending four hours on a cramped flight from southern California and then another eight hours on a connecting flight to Paris, I finally arrived, my eyes burning from only getting two hours of sleep the night before. Despite the stiffness in my joints and the grogginess I felt, I was thrilled to be in the City of Lights, a place described as “magical” by two friends of mine who have not yet visited the country.

When the driver from the study abroad program picked us up from the airport, I enthusiastically looked out the window, complaining about the fog to my friend, Anita, who was seated next to me.

“We won’t be able to see any of the sights,” I said before realizing that the weather did not cloak the city before me at all; in fact, I was struck by the full force of it.
Graffiti marked the buildings, and garbage crowded the sidewalks, bags piling on top of one another. At a stoplight, a woman tapped on my window before wrapping her arms tightly around herself—a protection against the cold.

We drove onward.

Somewhere among others’ transcendent descriptions of Paris, I had forgotten that like any other major city, it has its impoverished areas. The grand illusion I had created for myself was shattered. I began to panic. What else had I been wrong about? Did I blow through my savings and travel halfway across the world for an experience that I could have had in my own country?

Although I enjoyed walking through the Marais District the next day, seeing the architecture of the buildings, and admiring the displays in patisserie windows, I still did not discover what set Paris apart from cities in the U.S. until I visited the Louvre.
When I entered the Richelieu wing of the Louvre and turned left to see Cour Marly, it was like the air had been knocked from my lungs—never before had a museum held such power over me. Natural light streamed in from the ceiling windows, and large statues arranged on steps stared down at me, making me feel as though I was in the presence of deities.

Each section of the museum evoked different emotions based on their positioning and lighting. When wandering through the Louvre, I began to realize that the museum had a specific aesthetic. The pieces displayed from Europe and Egypt along with the structure of the palace itself made me feel as though I was stepping into history. Because the United States is a relatively new country in comparison, this sense of history is still in development, making me appreciate the beauty that Paris has to offer. The essence of the museum could not be captured in photos; it was something that I needed to experience in person.

My visit to the Louvre helped me discover the “magic” of Paris and understand why it has been such a popular tourist destination throughout the years. However, seeing the poverty during my drive from the airport was also significant, making me recognize a harsh reality that simultaneously exists with the city’s grandeur. One version of the city does not exist without the other, and both accurately represent the first time I truly saw Paris.

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