‘You can’t escape the past in Paris, and yet what’s so
wonderful about it is that the past and present intermingle
so intangibly that it doesn’t seem to burden.’
My wife and I arrived in Paris Saturday morning after a smooth but delayed over night flight. After getting checked into the hotel, we were committed to finding a bottle of wine, some cheese and unwinding from the previous week in Luxembourg Gardens. It was a great way to start the trip.
There are a million things that I could say about Paris. But there are a million things that other much more literate American ex-pat’s and European thinkers have already said about my new favorite city. So, what follows are a just a few observations and thoughts I’ve had while reflecting on an excellent trip:
I don’t believe that the beauty of Paris can be underestimated. Whether you agree with the “fashion” of how people are dressed, the way a storefront widow has been set, or the architecture, I would have to think one could see that Parisians care about “style.” The particular way things looked and the way the city smelled as you passed from store to cafe to park was a shockingly wonderful experience. There was a lack of mass produced signs and printed lettering: cafe’s had the day’s menu written in chalk on the storefront board and display windows were filled with more of the actual clothing rather than large images and sale banners. As I write this, I laugh. Because of where I work on 6th Avenue / “Ladies Mile District,” my comparisons of New York to Paris aren’t completely fair. When I don’t have the fortune of riding my bike to work, my commute involves a dirty subway, a handful of sidewalk sheds, storefronts filled with discount DVD’s and half priced bedding, and the APEX Technical School – a training facility that educates some of the most proficient sidewalk smokers the city has ever produced. From the swept sidewalks, ‘just right’ storefronts and the constant scent of either of baked goods or Chanel, Paris never had much to compete with if 6th Avenue is the metric to be measured against.
Crossiants and crepes, savory or sweet, could keep a man alive forever. And butter, real butter, is man’s greatest invention. Margarine or anything else less than the real thing is a sacriligious affront to all those that love food.
The guidebook from 0fr was invaluable. They run an amazing bookstore in Paris focused on art, design and fashion. If you live in New York, LA, etc and use the Not For Tourist series of books, this is the NFT version for Paris. I don’t think there was a single recommendation in the book that missed the mark in terms of the more local culture and atmosphere we were hoping to experience and see while in Paris.
I’m not quite sure how they kept the city so clean. But it was. Seriously, the idea of putting trash inside of the can seems like an alien concept to some here in New York. My wife and I spent alot of the trip comparing New York to Paris. Not having to wait for Taxi’s in New York, the cleanliness of the Parisian subway, bagel’s vs. baguettes. For more graphic comparisons, check out Paris vs. New York
I don’t understand why people think Parisians are rude. Maybe its from living in New York for so long, but I found it quite the opposite. Simply saying “Je suis désolé, mais parlez-vous anglais” (I’m sorry, but do you speak English) brought out a big smile, a response in perfect English and some of the most generous and helpful attitudes I have ever encountered outside of the South.
Another thing I was surprised by, the Mona Lisa is not small. Everybody comments on the crowds and the small size of the painting. Da Vinci brought the painting with him when he traveled from Italy to France in 1516 to paint for the king. How big did you think it was gonna be? It’s not a huge painting, but it’s still a pretty big size to be carting across Europe.
Embrace the Eiffel Tower. You might try to shrug it off as a tourist novelty and not the “real Paris,” but let’s face it, when it gets dark and the things starts glowing and sparkling like a Fourth of July extravaganza, you’re not going to be able to resist it. Smile, and embrace it.
Despite the major social issues that Paris has, the general civility and balance of time that exists there appears to be amazing. Granted, I’m viewing it through the lens of a traveler, and I’m only really seeing the middle and upper class as they live and work…but with that said…there is a wonderful balance to their lives. The joie de vivre is real and the ability to leave work behind and participate in the rest of what life offers is amazing. I’m a firm beliver that the work we do and the things we make make us, but I also believe what happens outside the confines of the 9-5 (6,7,8,9,) are just as, if not more important in how we as people shape our definition. It was my general impression that Parisians embraced that a bit more than American’s allow themselves to.
The juxtaposition between intimate and grand urban spaces was amazing. In a short five minute walk, you could meander through medieval paths, cross a river and find yourself in something like the Tuileries or Luxembourg Gardens. While visually, the contrast of the royal gardens to something like the Marais or St. Germain was very different, there was a very consistent human scale to everything. Even in the largest of parks, the monumental was brought down to something more intimate through the widths of the paths, the pacing of light posts and benches, even the spacing and heights of manicured trees.
The human scale was evident in the meandering layout of most of the city. The smaller, organic pathways in the city allowed for a much more varied experience as you walked from destination to destination. It was a striking change from the monotonous but efficient grid of urban development. Despite the variety of storefronts and visual display that occur on a typical New York street, the endlessness of the avenues can become overwhelmingly static after a while.
It’s easy to understand how the New York, and American street grid came into being. It’s ensures an efficient use of city resources and maximum return of value from the land. Paris was a city built to highlight its religious power, its academic power, under Louis XIV it was to mark the “greatness of the princes,” and under Napoleon to mark French military power. But now cities are built highlighting their economic power. Regarding an architectural expression, what does that really mean?
In a 1904 visit to New York, Henry James was appaled at the “huge American rattle of gold.” The skyline is a fantasy and a dream when viewed from the wings of an airplane, but one description by Lewis Lapham equates Manhattan with a stockyard, “the narrow streets littered with debris and laid out in a manner of cattle chutes…uniformly fitted to fit the framework of a factory…Like most other American cities, New York is a product of the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution, built on a standardized grid, conceived neither as a thing of beauty nor as an image of the cosmos, much less an expression of man’s humanity to man, but as a shopping mall in which to perform the heroic feats of acquisition and consumption.” When cities are built as a vehicle of commerce and capatilism, is there room for grand boulevards with vistas of trees and fountains … or the room for a less efficient, more meandering organization of lives that live and work there?
The power of time away from the normal and hectic pace of life can do amazing things. Paris was an amazing experience and it has definelty opened my eyes to how I want to live my life as I grow older. And just like any bit of traveling will do, it helps you appreciate the differences that exist between people and places. The “rose colored glasses” that one views home through can take a bit of a beating, and you’re able to see a more accurately some of the problems that occur at home. Yet, things that I took for granted here in New York are now some of the most wonderful things about this city and America.
As we were flying back, the decision was made to shake up the routine and treat New York as if we were visiting the city. Walk a little bit more slowly through the parks, find a few new ‘favorite’ restaurants and try to view the city through a different set of eyes. I’m very glad to be home. I’m also counting the days until we return to Paris.