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Prose in Paris: City of Cities Part Deux

Updated: Sep 23, 2023

Bonjour mes amis!

When I left Paris in November of last year, I felt a bit melancholic because I was certain I would not return anytime soon. Happily, an unexpected opportunity for a return trip opened up in July so I booked a flight and landed a couple days after Bastille Day. Before landing, my excitement was muted. If you recall, prior to my first experience I was rather cynical about Paris given the hype so expectations were low. This time, however, I wondered, what if the sugar high and surrealism of my first impression implied a letdown for my second? Spoiler alert, that was not the case.

Parisian summers are a sight to behold. The weather is temperate, not too hot during the day, not too chilly in the evening. The ivory-colored buildings accented with wrought iron railing and balconies sprinkled with greenery glimmer in the sun beams of summer solstice. The Eiffel Tower glitters like a strobe light as the evenings darken ever so slowly, Sacré-Coeur stretches to the clouds above Montmartre, and the Tuileries Garden splashes aquamarine skies, blades of jade colored grass, and saffron rays of sunshine into a perfectly balanced watercolor. Just a short walk away are the Gardens of Palais-Royale, an oasis of serenity and calm, a much-needed respite from the bread and circus of Parisian tourism outside the perimeter. No – Paris twice seen did not disappoint as you can see below.

Remember, repetition is revelation. The more experience with someone or someplace the more is revealed about them. The second go round revealed more to me about Paris, Parisians, and France: its elegance and edginess, the banal and the poignant, the quotidien and the poetic, its rigmarole and brevity. For many travelers, the trick is to keep travel weightless, surface level, staying aloof so as to preserve the mystery of the unfamiliar. For these folks, travel tends to be a dopamine hit, an Instagram selfie, or a candle lit dinner choreographed against an island sunset, a curated experience to take back home. Travel, accordingly, is a mental keep’s sake, a show-and-tell for the neighbors, for your annoying sister-in-law, or possibly to inspire jealousy from your BFF who models her family portraits on Hallmark Channel Christmas Specials.

For the French, past, present, and future seem to be non-distinct.

For me however, travel is about embracing a new way of life and finding a new philosophy rooted in a new perspective. The goal is immersion leaning towards assimilation. Such a mentality crosses a dangerous line, the line between fantasy and reality. Afterall, you may discover that the true story contradicts the fictional one, or worse, that reality puts a lie to the story book ending altogether. Perhaps it is hard wired into my Capricornian nature to strip away the imaginary (if possible), to peek behind the curtain and dissect rather than distract when I travel. Interestingly, the line between Parisian fable and fact is sharp but not incongruent.

Paris à la mode: Thinking contra Doing

Paris is a cerebral city. Obviously, there are well manicured memorials to Franco achievements in art, chemistry, literature, philosophy, physics, engineering etc. venerated throughout the city. The pantheon of French luminaries can be found in the names etched into the base of the Eiffel Tower, or the statues of Frenchmen peering down at you from the side of the Louvre, what was once a castle built to defend the city from would-be invaders. They can be seen in the colossal statue of Charlemagne sitting atop his horse at the base of Notre Dame Cathedral. Indeed, wherever one turns, the voices of the past reverberate around you, perhaps to guide, likely to judge you by their impossible standard.

Of course, this is likely just an American-centric view; what does the average Parisian or Frenchmen think? For the French, past, present, and future seem to be non-distinct. Again, the advancement of time on a linear scale is far more of an American (or Anglo) modality than Americans appreciate. For us, time is money, so we are all on the clock, and we measure our self-worth accordingly. Successful Americans assess their worthiness by how busy they are. The French live in a more nuanced, more liberating time warp. Paris is a place to waste time, a place for aesthetics, a place for weirdos, creatives, and Peripatetics, a place for thinking and living abstractly.

Once you exit the tourist membrane the pace slows to a crawl. It may not seem that way at first but the more carefully you evaluate your surroundings you come to understand that the French believe rushing anything is a waste of time, and they are probably right. Why be in such a hurry when the best cafés, the most decadent Baguettes, the most inspirational architecture, the poshest couture, and the most sophisticated culture is ready on queue at your doorstep? As a Frenchman, your heart and soul are embedded, they are accounted for, they exist as part of the collective, and so ambitious angling on individual glory is of less importance. Far more eventful to carouse in the cafés with good friends, slowly digest a succulent meal, walk the canals, or sit along the Seine, or offer ironical quips and whimsical insight hatched in the evening hours over glasses and glasses of wine.

What Moves Paris?

All the same, best not to conflate the appearance of inactivity with mental lethargy as many visitors do upon visiting France. The French are thinkers, they are constantly evaluating and reflecting, but not to the point of entropy, or paralysis by analysis. Rather, when it is time to move, the French storm and quickly. What pushes them to do so is equally inscrutable to foreigners. As one Frenchmen assured me, on the triad of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, the French have a penchant for rabid egalitarianism above the rest. The slightest measure of unequal treatment might be an unforgiveable sleight and furor might follow.

What appears to fuel such explosiveness is a meticulous sensitivity to jealousy. The French believe they have earned their keep – past and present – so small perks or corporate goodies are expected so long as they are evenly distributed. And yet the creeping aroma of decline is rank in Paris, as it is across France and Western Europe. Now we have arrived at the Franco conundrum; if the quality of life is dropping but everyone is more-or-less feeling it equally, so be it. Well, not really.

Plus Est En Vous

France faces tough times ahead. Too much of a good thing tip toes into dangerous complacency. Dysfunction, poverty, crime, and general decay are acute in Paris, especially but not exclusively in the banlieues. Such despair has been treated with a collective nonchalance, a naïve assumption that the good times courtesy of a gigantic and unaffordable welfare state will continue uninterrupted. Further, deep in the French psyche is a respect for historical precedent, the idea that their long-established revolutionary impulse – from storming the Bastille to the Paris Commune – is enough to hold present-day corruption or oppression at bay.

Such a sentiment is likely brooding in the Yellow Vest protests (see above) and possibly behind recent eruptions against President Macron (they burned down his favorite restaurant). Is the specter of revolution’s past enough to intimidate President Macron, derail pension reform, or arrest broader decay in France? I believe the answer is no. The French, as they have in the past, will be forced to storm once again to fix the mess festering around them. This will require a reengagement, a reactivation of past élan. As the Lords of Bruges taught us, Plus Est En Vous (“there is more in you”) and I believe there is more in the people of France as constituted.

There is a smoldering discontent in Paris. If France quakes, Europe will too.

Are they up to it? I believe the answer is yes. As many stressed to me, when the French move they sprint, and I sense the starting gun has already been fired. There is a smoldering discontent in Paris, irritation with Macron, frustration with the European Union, estrangement from Washington DC, and perhaps an isolation from the rest of Europe itself. France is such a grand nation that even now one can incubate inside its universe and conclude the world orbits around it. However, for France to emerge from its slumber, to revitalize from its malaise requires it to lead once again. If France quakes, Europe will too.

Fact and Fiction

Such directness is sobering and yet adds to the drama of Paris – city of cities. The drawbacks are several: Paris is too touristy, too damn expensive, and for many of us too indigestible to assimilate, never mind understand. Speaking French is a pre-requisite in Paris as it should be, but speaking the language proficiently requires discipline, practice, and a commitment most will not give. Plus, slowing down to the Parisian tempo (adagio) is not for everyone. However, these adjustments strengthen its appeal in my view.

The French know well what they have built and will not cheapen it for anyone, least of all for the “modern” Anglo-world. Theirs is a higher standard and they owe it to their ancestors to maintain it. This leaves us, the non-French, the outsiders and metics with a choice. We can visit Paris like any one of the millions who flock to Musée Rodin or Versailles every year to taste a tipple of Chateau Cheval Blanc without downing the full glass. There is little wrong in doing so, it is the safer path, possibly the more scenic route. Or you can attempt to cross the impermeable membrane, to understand the inscrutable or soften the sardonic exterior of the elusive Frenchman.

If you opt for the latter all the more rewarding in my view. Immersion in Paris, or France for that matter, is to live and breathe a Martian atmosphere for many of us, especially Americans. Ours is a culture on a continent that is vastly different and perhaps diametrically opposite. However, if you can adjust your speed and your pitch, you will see the world differently, through the lens of a Great Power whose next contribution on the world stage might be just as thunderous as it was under Napoleon. Vives La France!

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