Stilettos in Paris
Travel Stories: Eva Holland did the Bohemian backpacker thing in Paris. Paris Las Vegas gave her the chance to act out a different role.
07.20.11 | 10:21 AM ET
My first visit to Paris didn’t include any restaurant meals.
Instead, during a five-day getaway from my graduate studies in northern England, I huddled over a fresh baguette, brie and cheap red wine in the basement kitchen of my Latin Quarter hostel. I squatted on a curb in Montmartre and ate quiche from a cardboard box with my fingers, half embarrassed and half-enjoying the looks of puzzlement and disdain from passing locals. I practiced my French with American exchange students in a smoky Left Bank jazz club, then struggled through the Musée d’Orsay the next morning in a hangover haze.
In short, I did everything that was expected of me as a young backpacker in Paris, a sort of traveling paint-by-numbers that matched the images I’d acquired over the years.
Of course, there is more than one Paris, more than one set of images floating around in the minds of travelers, and as I played the role of Backpacker in Paris I knew that there were versions of the city I was missing out on. I wanted to try on those other roles, too: I wanted to sample fine French foods served by surly waiters, to ride the elevator all the way up the Eiffel Tower instead of paying 3 euros to climb the stairs to the first level—the cheap traveler’s special. I wanted to be one of the beautiful, haughty people dominating the streets and the cafes, instead of the jeans-clad student lurking nearby.
I haven’t been back to Paris yet, but I did get a chance to act out another version of the city when I received an invitation from Harrah’s Entertainment to visit the Paris Las Vegas hotel and casino on a sponsored trip. Here was my chance to do Paris—admittedly, a plastic, neon-lit, imitation Paris—in style. When the time came, I packed a dress and a pair of stilettos, and left my jeans at home.
Plenty of mega-hotels on the Strip adhere to a regional theme: a touch of ancient Rome at Caesar’s Palace, a miniature Manhattan skyline at New York-New York, and a chlorinated, swimming-pool-blue variation on the Grand Canal at the Venetian. But, I think, no other property takes its theme further than Paris. The nods to the City of Light are everywhere, writ large and small, from the half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower that rises from the casino floor and looms over the pool to the plastic, faux-wicker chairs that sit in the Café Belle Madeleine, a Parisian-style café near the elevators, stocked with elaborate, too-beautiful-to-eat pastries in glass cases.
Someone at Paris Las Vegas has paid a great deal of attention to the details. As I was launched into a whirlwind itinerary of fine French meals and complimentary cocktails, I noticed the plush red booths and vaguely retro furnishings at Napoleon’s Piano Bar—a nearly note-perfect homage to Harry’s New York Bar—or the careful lighting and meticulous finishing touches to the storefronts in the shopping galleries that evoked, for me, at least, the shops of Rue Mouffetard at dusk. When I needed to use the restroom, I followed the signs to Les Toilettes, and when I, improbably, got hungry between meals, I made my way to La Creperie for a banana and Nutella crepe indistinguishable from those I’d sampled in Paris years earlier.
Some details were jarring, though. The dueling pianists at Napoleon’s pounded out Lady Gaga and the Michigan State fight song in lieu of Gershwin, and in those same Toilettes a PA system shared a series of “useful French phrases” for visitors: “Good girls go to Heaven, bad girls go to Vegas” and “Can I buy you a drink, or do you just want the money?”
A couple in Café Belle Madeleine told me: “Our bathroom is the same size as our last hotel room in Paris.” The servers, far from being surly, were helpful and attentive, friendly in that folksy, unrestrained, unmistakably American way. And on the casino floor below the Eiffel Tower Restaurant, regiments of slot machines whirred and binged and flickered.
A few years ago I sat on a sunny patio in Marin County, California, swapping tales of embarrassing ex-boyfriends with a group of fellow female travelers. One of them told us about a guy she’d dated a while back; a couple of months had passed, things had started to get serious, and she’d suggested the ultimate romantic getaway: a trip to Paris.
“But I’ve been to Paris,” he’d replied, without irony. “They have one in Vegas.”
That one line ended the relationship—and the story, predictably, elicited shrieks of laughter and mortified sympathy from the crowd. It’s funny because it’s nonsensical, surreal: The punch line is the absurdity of comparing Paris—the city of Monet and Degas, of perfect pastries sampled from a café with a view, of Robespierre and Napoleon and all the bloody drama of the Revolution—in any earnestness with whatever neon imitation the gaudy architects of the Las Vegas strip could conjure up.
At the time, I laughed with the rest. But part of me—probably the part that was exposed to a fair amount of contemporary philosophy in my undergraduate years—wonders whether my backpacking command performance in Paris is really any more authentic, any more true, than the paint-by-numbers Paris one experiences in Nevada. Isn’t a trip to Paris Las Vegas also a collection of activities and experiences that are deliberately cobbled together to form the image its visitors expect? Who’s to say which one is real, which one is Truth?
Then I think back to the warm angle of the light on the Seine in the late afternoon, the smells of fresh fish and sharp cheeses and roasting coffee that drifted out of the shopfronts on the real Rue Mouffetard, the ache in the balls of my feet after a day of criss-crossing the city—and I remember why I dropped those contemporary philosophy classes in the end. There is no substitute for Paris.
I’ve heard Paris Las Vegas described as a sort of Disneyland version of the city: a plastic theme park thrill ride that hits on all the obvious points—the tower, the food, the token French phrases—while missing out on the real substance of the place. There may be something to that, but I’m not sure the theme park analogy is the best one. Instead, I’ve come to think of the hotel as a kind of karaoke Paris: It’s a loud and flamboyant rendition, with a few missed notes, to be sure, but sung with the kind of conviction and verve that can only come from a place of real admiration—or, perhaps, from one too many glasses of fine French wine.