Last weekend, on the way home from a work trip, I stopped to meet a friend in New York. Like Paris, New York has the ability to get under your skin and each visit leaves me wanting more. Having spent so much time in Paris recently, I felt like I was constantly comparing the two cities. People who adore New York say they love the energy, the creativity, the vibe. People love Paris for its timelessness, its beauty and elegance. Both cities are diverse and ever-changing, making it difficult to sum up either without resorting to clichés. My list does not go to the core of Paris or New York – it is a list of first impressions alone.
In Paris, you always know that you are in France. There’s a boulangerie on every corner, invariably next to the glowing green cross of the pharmacie. It’s multicultural, yes, in that everyone comes to Paris at some point. Students, tourists and dreamers of a different life arrive in droves and many stay, but it is New York that is the true melting pot. On the Friday night, shortly after we arrived, we stumbled upon a street lined entirely by Japanese izakayas. I remember on a previous visit finding myself surrounded by the dragons, neon lights and pungent smells of China Town. I turned a corner only to be greeted by the cheery green, red and white flags and checkered tablecloths of Little Italy (the hordes of tourists make it truly authentic). After spending so much time in Paris, which quickly becomes so familiar, New York felt very different—exciting and just the right amount of intimidating.
It might seem like an unlikely thing to say about Europe’s second largest city, but Paris is peaceful. There are few places in which it feels like the metropolis that it is. Each arrondissement has its own character and the result is a patchwork of little neighbourhoods that piece together to make a city. There are areas of New York that are like that too (they’re named accordingly – Greenwich Village, East Village…) but to me it feels very much like ‘the big city’. When you drive in from the airport (I arrived at Newark) the skyline looms towards you, growing vaster and taller with every kilometer. When you drive into Paris from Orly or Charles de Gaulle, the city just sort of expands around you. When you get to the centre, you have the feeling that you could be in a much smaller city. Of course, there are traffic jams, sirens and crowded pavements, and on a hot day it can feel stifling, but you’re never far from a quiet corner on a cobbled street.
New York is refreshingly unpretentious. Contrary to reputation, most places in Paris are too, but you don’t have to look too hard to find that snooty door man or smug shop assistant at the root of the cliché. In New York, Beauty and Essex is a place to see and be seen: a glamorous speakeasy entered via a pawn shop (try explaining that to someone in an English accent like my friend had to do). We couldn’t be bothered to really dress up. My feet were sore after a day of pounding the pavements and the thought of putting on the heels I had brought for the occasion was not appealing. I needn’t have worried. The bar was full of all sorts of people, from dolled-up fashionistas to jean-and-cap-wearing tourists and a couple with a baby they had perched on a barstool. Everyone was given the same friendly welcome.
I remember one time in my twenties, turning up to a club in Nice in the South of France and joining the queue to get in. If they made the cut, groups were let in one by one. My group finally got in only to find a dance floor that was practically empty. Maybe that would happen in New York but I haven’t experienced anything like it. In France all I could think was, how typical.
New York is famously high-paced, a place where people go to climb the corporate ladder and scarcely stop for breath. People, fashions and businesses come and go, moving on to make way for the next latest and greatest whatever-it-is. A lady working in one of the shops told me she doesn’t like living there for the very reason that things are always changing. Because of that, she never feels settled.
Paris seems to be changing constantly but somehow manages to stay the same. There’s a little art gallery that I stop by whenever I’m there. No matter what they’re showing, I typically love it. One day, when I’ve made a bigger dent in my mortgage, I’ll get something from there. Then on one visit I passed by and the gallery was gone! It had been replaced by a minimalist (everything was in either black or white) men’s clothing store. I told myself that it was the nature of the beast, that in Paris things come and go and that I would discover another gallery like it. Then about two months later, it mysteriously appeared again. It was like the men’s fashion shop had never been there. Shops, restaurants and galleries pop-up and vanish again, but the streets stay the same; the buildings stay the same (at least in the old part of the city) and that’s how Paris remains modern, yet timeless.
You could wrap yourself in a bin liner and wear a plant pot on your head and no one in New York would bat an eyelid. This makes for fantastic people watching. The fashions are colourful and creative, used for self-expression in a city where everyone is trying to stand out from the crowd. I’d say Paris is more conservative. Of course there are exceptions: in the Gay Marais, you’ll spot ensembles that would hold their own against all but the most outrageous New York outfits. Generally though, the shops display chic, classic pieces and that style is echoed on the street.
Paris’ dining is iconic. The city holds 134 Michelin stars and the quality across the board is exceptional. However, New York snags it for sheer variety. While you can dine on almost any cuisine in Paris and eat in a different restaurant every day of your life, the majority of places are French or French-run. When choosing somewhere for lunch, I hardly even bother to look at the menu before going in because the typical Paris bistros are by and large the same. In New York, when researching where to eat, we were blown away by the options available. We were in the mood for East Asian food in a hip, bustling atmosphere. If I were to look for this in Paris, I would find a couple of places that fit the bill. In New York, we could take our pick.
Paris inches ahead again when it comes to artisan food shopping. While the avenues of New York are ruled by high-street chains (is there really space for another Banana Republic? Apparently so!) in the rues of Paris, the butcher and the baker reign supreme. Window displays groan with hand-made cheeses, cured meats, chocolates, pastries and patés. It really is a foodie’s dream come true.
This is where it gets difficult not to resort to clichés. I could say that the New Yorkers are loud and the Parisians more reserved. There was a guy on a bike in New York who shouted, “ladies, get a move on, the crossing’s for crossing!” when we stopped at a green light to check where we were going. I can’t really imagine that happening in Paris. However, it takes all sorts to make a city as vibrant as Paris or New York. In these places, people from all walks of life come together to make their homes, to work, have families, live their lives and follow their dreams. It is, without a doubt, the people that make Paris and New York the great cities that they are.