Happy Chinese New Year, From Paris
Paris is a postcard city.
Even if you have never been to Paris, you have a vision of what the streets and people look like. From books and movies, you have garnered what the ambience in a bistro must feel like. From paintings you know that there are cobblestones. From history class you probably know a thing or two about the Bastille and maybe even the Eiffel Tower.
There are so many people that never come to Paris, and yet they have a view of it etched into their minds.
But while Paris is beautiful, romantic and all those other things you always want it to be, it’s also much more than that. In fact, it is so often completely different than the postcard view.
Certainly, people walk around carrying baguettes, but people also walk around eating fast food on their lunch break. People shop at the local butcher, but they also buy processed food at the supermarket. People have the means to buy Louis Vuitton bags and Chanel ballet slippers, but then there is a whole other group of people that can barely make ends meet, cramming large families into small apartments, pushed farther and farther away from the city center as real estate continues to escalate.
I thought about this a lot yesterday as I pedaled across town to the 13th arrondissement to watch the Parisian Chinese New Year parade. It was a celebration of color, firecrackers and dragons. Exactly what most people never expect Paris to look like.
In this part of town, the big streets Avenue de Choisy and Avenue de Ivry are lined with Asian restaurants. Vietnamese, Laotian, Chinese. A veritable hub of culinary arts that have nothing to do with the standard French kitchen vocabulary. I am sure you would be hard pressed to find a macaron, but you can be sure to find a sweet rice cake, especially this time of year as there is a special Chinese New Year rice cake.
The parade was full of costumes, lanterns, and loud drums. The streets, blocked off to cars for the day, were packed with people, many carrying balloons with the Chinese symbols for “happy new year” on one side and “bonne année” written on the other. The colors and sounds were intense, and the sun shone, a welcomed change from the gray, rainy days of the last week.
Afterwards, in need of sustenance, we followed Avenue de Ivry to Thieng Heng, a local and cult favorite for bánh mì, the Vietnamese sandwich. It’s rare that I eat a baguette sandwich, but this I would stand in line for, and in a city where “street food” has become more synonymous with complex 15€ burgers, it’s nice to get the real version once in awhile; simple food done well. Through the window you could see the women inside quickly assembling sandwiches, stuffing them with bright orange carrots and green cilantro.
We took our sandwiches and ate as we walked, trying to take in everything around us. For a moment, it felt as if I had left Paris. But then, that feeling that I so often get while exploring all the parts away from the quintessential Paris hit me, “this is Paris.”
Because if Paris is anything, it’s this: a mix of people from all backgrounds and places, coming together to make a city that’s rich with cultures. There’s the postcard view, and there’s the real view, and while both are authentic, I wish we honored the latter just a little bit more. Because experiencing a place is as much about taking in the unexpected parts as it is about taking in the iconic ones.
Here’s to celebrating all sides of a city.