Have you ever felt like the place you’re in could be very near home? Paris couldn’t be any more different than Vancouver and Winnipeg, culturally, but its climate and vegetation are remarkably similar. It’s strange: where Florida feels like it could be on a different planet, Europe’s landscape makes it feel very close to home. Paris, some days at least, could be just some amazing town I just happened to not stumble upon before.
Well, at least that’s how I feel until I travel. Travelling, either by bus or plane, gives the context– it’s no longer a dot on a map, it’s a country, a continent. I feel like I’m a blind man in a new house– it doesn’t do to hear other people talk about places, I have to go there to smell it, to feel it, to listen. Understanding a city doesn’t mean looking at National Geographic pictures of it. Travelling to different places can tell me as much about Paris as it can about itself.
Take Brussels, which in many ways is Paris’s antithesis. Having similar growth patterns (albeit on different scales), it’s surprising exactly how different the city is. Where Paris is orderly and unified, Brussels spreads out in every way; Paris is expensive Brussels must be among the cheapest cities in Western Europe; Paris has enough pride for the rest of us, Brussels is extremely down to earth. As my friend David pointed out: “look at the two country’s flags– France has the big bright colors, red white and blue, while Brussels has the other end, the black orange and red (dark). The two cities really just mirror that.” And it was great to see Brussels: its attitude was a huge break from Parisian haute couture, and really helped in defining Paris’s place with the rest of Western Europe (its size, its people, its influence). Also Brussels isn’t exactly the ‘no-fun’ city travellers make it out to be (at least not for two nights), as we went to a Medieval Fair, a cheesy but amazing and cheap Irish bar, and a pub with over two-thousand beers available (Guinness-world record baby).
What makes my two days in Brussels even better is the consideration that I spent next to no time or money to get there. Paris is one of the best situated cities in Europe to go travelling, as it gives easy access to any major city in western Europe, not to mention a number in eastern Europe. Unlike London, training or bussing around is a totally viable option– Brussels, after all, only took 4 hours on Megabus (cost me almost nothing as well, even though I booked it about eight hours before). With busses leaving from central Paris, getting places is easier than I ever could have hoped.
Flying is a different story, and it’s where the sprawling metropolis of greater Paris becomes, well, a little irritating. Edinburgh is, of course, only accessible by plane, and of course knowing me I go for a Ryanair flight. Well, you get what you pay for. For my North American friends, Ryanair likes to think of itself as an ‘air bus’. I wouldn’t mind the fact that they play their (ad-infested) radio overhead the entire flight, or that the stewarts on board are actually travelling salesmen in disguise, or that you’re in a constant state of stress wondering if they’ll let your backpack on board, if it weren’t for the fact that the airport itself takes two hours to get to. Really? You had to put your airport out there? Beauvais is about an hour outside of Paris proper, making it not even in the greater metropolitan area. Add rush hour traffic on to that and you can give yourself three hours and still cut it close. Where the flight itself is about an hour and a half, the ordeal is closer to six. The experience was a little bizarre.
At least Edinburgh was worth it. It’s got the kind of regality and class you don’t find in the modern world. Climbing up Arthur’s Hill, I see a stone city broken by the stretch of a hundred spires; it’s a tiny city but there could be one for every street corner. Walking along and they all choose to clamour at the same time. Or standing on a bridge and marvelling at the way the stone grows out of each other, less like a city more like the roots of a tree — the sun falling under the bridges.
It’s nothing like Paris, except in that both cities stand alone: they seem magical because there’s nothing else like them. Edinburgh balances between its regal and ancient past with a kind of humility you’d find in a tiny English hamlet. It should be a tourist trap, and while there are tourists it somehow manages to maintain both history and integrity (none of the Disneyland fake-snow feel that York now possesses). Perhaps it’s in part because of the fantastic student life imbibed in the city center, keeping the city down to earth and intellectual at the same time. It’s the real deal, and probably the most beautiful city in the United Kingdom.
I’m living in Paris, which really isn’t the kind of place one runs from. But places like Edinburgh (or travelling out to Fontainbleu– the king’s gardens) gives me a chance to breath (and breathing’s fun, right?). There’s far too much to see in Europe, but a weekend here and a weekend there is the place to start.