Bed bugs or zest for life? I visited Paris to see if it still lives up to expectations

French authorities ordered the temporary removal of open-air booksellers for the Paris Olympics – Getty

It is a sunny morning on the banks of the Seine. Sparrows tweet in the trees and the bouquinistes are also upbeat after their recent victory over the French authorities.

“They wanted to take away our boxes for the Olympics,” shouts Ludo Communier, one of about 300 booksellers who work from the small green kiosks that have lined the walls of the Seine for centuries. “We said ‘not’ – we have been here since before Napoleon Bonaparte.”

Authorities have ordered the temporary removal of all kiosks for “security reasons” and to improve views of the Seine during the Games. The ensuing furor added to what was a turbulent 2023 for Paris.

Ludo Communier is one of the booksellers who refused to keep their mouths shutLudo Communier is one of the booksellers who refused to keep their mouths shut

Ludo Communier is one of the booksellers who refused to shut up: Gavin Haines

Riots over police brutality, protests over pension reforms and the bedbug outbreak put the Olympic host in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Usually gentle bouquinistes were, Communier says, prepared for a fight, but withdrew last month when plans to remove them were scrapped following an intervention by President Macron.

For resigned Britons, there is something encouraging about such stubborn French resistance. How can you not love a city that is willing to riot over books? It means Communier can now look forward to the Olympics, although he doubts whether the Seine will be clean enough for athletes (and then, after the Games, for the public) to swim in.

“I don’t want to jump in, do you?” he asks, as we look at the flowing river, all tea-colored after the recent storms. It is a not mine.

Swimming has been banned in the Seine since 1923 due to the dangers of pollution. The £1.2 billion effort to clean up the waterway for the Olympic Games (a deadline organizers fear will not be met) is part of Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s ambitious ecological plans for the capital, which also include cycle paths were built through the capital. The city that loves a revolution is in the grip of a two-wheeled city. Paris has become Dutch.

Authorities are spending £1.2 billion on cleaning the Seine for the OlympicsAuthorities are spending £1.2 billion on cleaning the Seine for the Olympics

Authorities spend £1.2 billion trying to clean up the Seine for the Olympics – Getty

“You can drive anywhere,” says Communier, who is happy to see the backs of the dirty vehicles that once circled his kiosk. “It used to be all buses and taxis,” he adds, pointing to the nearby cycle path that quiets down after rush hour. “It’s better now.”

The Parisian approach to driving – which is to say: cavalier – has migrated to the city’s bike lanes. They are chaotic places. A bit lawless. But Parisians have responded en masse, much to the anger of some columnists. Despite what critics say, the bike lanes have opened Paris to tourists willing to pedal.

While Brits once had to duck into the depths of the city at Gare du Nord to board the grimy metro – or face extortion from taxi drivers – they can now hop on a Lime bike and sip a kir royale in Montmartre before the Eurostar engines have cooled down.

Paris Syndrome?

Communier sends me into maturation day with a free Eiffel Tower keychain to give to my son. Riding on the new cycle paths along the river, past the Notre Dame Cathedral – a reconstruction work in progress – I feel completely nauseous. Could it be a bout of Paris syndrome?

Writer Gavin Haines in ParisWriter Gavin Haines in Paris

Writer Gavin Haines in Paris – Gavin Haines

I refer to the condition – which is known to afflict some tourists, especially Asians – that Paris is failing to live up to its lofty expectations. Some people have reported feeling physically unwell as a result. Apparently the Japanese embassy has a 24-hour hotline for nationals showing symptoms. This isn’t something I’ve been able to confirm, but in a way, maybe it’s better that it remains a mystery.

Paris syndrome is in the news again after an American influencer described such symptoms in a tearful video about France that has gone viral. A more likely scenario for me, I realize, is that I haven’t eaten any vegetables in two days. Unfortunately, vegetables are still not served as standard on many plates in the city.

Interesting concept though, the Paris Syndrome. I discuss it with two American students over a cup of coffee outside the Shakespeare and Company bookstore on the leafy Left Bank of the Seine. Abbey Hurt and Gabrielle Fjellman flew in from North Carolina for spring break, while most of their friends were “partying in Miami.”

American tourists Abbey Hurt and Gabrielle Fjellman describe Paris as a romantic cityAmerican tourists Abbey Hurt and Gabrielle Fjellman describe Paris as a romantic city

American tourists Abbey Hurt and Gabrielle Fjellman describe Paris as a romantic city – Gavin Haines

“I’ve always seen Paris as a romantic city,” says Hurt, who is here for the first time. Does it meet her expectations? “I think so,” she says, looking around the leafy square at people reading books and drinking coffee in the spring sunshine. “Especially this space.”

“The culture feeds the thinking,” Fjellman adds. She quotes a sentence from one of her favorite books: The ruthless eradication of haste by Johannes Marcus Comer. “He writes about ‘letting our soul overtake our body.’ I think Paris cherishes this idea.”

Maybe, but it’s not all lazy coffees in leafy squares that attract the attention of bookworms in berets on the cobblestones. Paris has many of the well-known disadvantages of the big city, plus a few of its own, not least sketchy neighborhoods, notoriously indifferent waiters and putrid smells that come out of nowhere and invade your nostrils.

And of course there are plenty of people who try to give their soul a chance. The previous night in Pigalle, along the seedy Boulevard de Clichy, I unwittingly stumbled into a drug deal near the Moulin Rouge.

Moulin Rouge is a Parisian institutionMoulin Rouge is a Parisian institution

Moulin Rouge is a Parisian institution – Alamy Stock Photo

Around me, men exchanged €50 notes for bags of powder, while muscular, bald guys tried to convince me to watch a sex show. However, in a sign of Pigalle’s changing tastes and gentrification, the most popular show of the evening seemed to be Bouillon Pigalle, a modern bistro serving French classics at non-Parisian prices. The line for a table stretched down the street.

Creativity unabated

Despite all its shortcomings, and despite the gap between expectations and reality, Paris still buzzes with an enviable creative energy. In a bar in the ninth arrondissement I meet my Parisian friend Esther, who works part-time at a nearby theater between writing a play and making music.

The French government, she explains, while a waiter brings beer, supplements her salary through the periodic employment scheme for artists, which supports creatives to do their thing. My thoughts drift somberly to Birmingham, England’s second city, which has just cut its arts budget to zero.

A rainy Pigalle districtA rainy Pigalle district

A rainy neighborhood Pigalle – Getty

This creative freedom makes Paris Paris. That’s why Oscar Wilde is buried here. And that is still tangible today. You see it not only in the great cultural institutions, such as the Louvre or the new floating art center Quai de la Photo, but also in the guitars hanging over the shoulders of the metro, paintings painted in parks, dog-eared notebooks in cafes .

Paris still cherishes creativity, in a way that most other Western cities might not. And it will take more than bedbugs or biking lane arguments to diminish its appeal.


Gavin Haines traveled from London to Paris on the Eurostar and was a guest at the Grand Hôtel du Palais Royal (doubles from £375 per night), a short walk from the Jardin du Palais Royale, where the magnolia trees are in bloom.

See our expert guide to spending the perfect weekend in Paris.

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