Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Why Paris?


There are reasons to believe that Parisians are not necessarily as enamoured of their city as the millions of starry-eyed tourists who go there every year. People with a longer acquaintance of the place, who are married to or have Parisian friends, talk about the dissatisfaction that the natives have with many aspects of life in the capital. Some of these complaints would be familiar to New Yorkers or Londoners: rents are getting higher all the time, you have to work too hard just to feel like you're barely keeping up, it's too depressing in winter and too hot in summer, traffic congestion is worse than ever, there are too many tourists, it's being turned into a tax-haven playpen for foreign billionaires. Some of the complaints are specifically French: ridiculously complicated and burdensome tax regime, a top heavy bureaucracy that slows down all interactions with officialdom, a general societal 'can't-do' attitude that can make a battle out of anything from ordering a pizza to getting a burst pipe.

Yet beneath all that, I bet that there is a 'love it' element in addition to the 'hate it' side. I'm sure that most Parisians would rather not live anywhere else, despite the difficulties of living there. During the 16 days I was there in January 2015, I often looked around and said to myself: They have to know, don't they? They can't ignore that the city they call home is still one of the best places to live out even the more trying aspects of life. Even if most Parisians have never gone inside the Louvre or up the Eiffel Tower, they have to notice the human scale of the city, the almost total lack of tall buildings visible from the Place de la Concorde (the exception being the horrible Montparnasse tower), the uniform facades of the buildings on the main boulevards and fronting the right and left banks of the Seine. If you've lived in a city dominated by Brutalist post-WWII buildings or a city that's overwhelmingly busy, it has to affect your state of mind to look up and feel that your eye can take it all in and size it all up without feeling that the skyscrapers are closing in on you.

I have always been sensitive to the architecture of the places I've lived, and the effect that the constructed space of a city has on your mood, even if you're not fully aware of it. And I am talking about cities over the countryside: I love nature, trees, mountains, deserts, oceans and all that stuff, but  only as a visitor. I could never live anywhere but a city, and only truly feel most comfortable when I'm surrounded by at least 2 million people. That said, not all cities are created equal, either. Mumbai's 12 million people or Tokyo's 13 million people are probably too big. London was a great place to live, once you got used to how it worked, but there are vast areas of London that are just drab, monotonous, suburban terraced houses, and talk about a crowded city centre ...


One morning when I was in Paris recently I walked the 3 miles from the apartment where my wife and I were staying, in Montparnasse, to the classroom centre hosting our study abroad program, near the Grands Boulevards and Bonne Nouvelle. My route took me along the east wall of the Cimitiere de Montparnasse, passing the building where Simone de Beauvoir lived for thirty years. At the Boulevard de Montparnasse, I rounded the corner occupied by the famous bar La Closerie de Lilas (the watering hole of generations of modernist artists and writers, from Paul Fort, Andre Salmon, and Picasso, to Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and Samuel Beckett). There's an avenue then that leads up to the Jardins de Luxembourg, between pollarded trees that create a perfectly aligned channel in the air above the sandy dirt pathways, pointing in a V straight down to the Palace in the gardens about a quarter of a mile ahead. As I entered the gardens and walked around the ornamental pond, I looked to my right and saw the sun just beginning to gleam along the rooftops of the apartment buildings on the Boulevard St Michel. The front of the buildings was still in shade, but when I looked down from the faint sun to the facades, after a few seconds my eyes could begin to make out the high shuttered windows and the identical balconies with their wrought-iron railings. Quiet, mysterious, beautiful: it was that moment that made me look at the other people in the gardens, jogging or walking to their own place of work, and caused me to think: my friends, this is your route to work every day. This is the city you get to do it in. Feel alive, feel lucky, because there are very few places on the face of the earth that are as intimate and grand as this.

A couple of our students did a presentation on Anais Nin, in front of the Montparnasse building where she lived, right next door to the cafe Le Dome. They read aloud passages from Nin's writing, one of which I think noted that human scale of Paris, the way that it doesn't overwhelm you in its size, but seems in proportion to the life enacted within it.

Why Paris? Because Paris, that's all.

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