Ah, Paris. What can I add to a conversation about a city that has given birth to more world-renowned writers than nearly any place on earth? What can I say that hasn’t already been said by those who are much, much better than me? When countless writers, poets, musicians, have all found inspiration there, what more can I possibly say?
For me, Paris is not just a city with attractions, but at the same time it is a city with attractions. Everyone who goes needs to visit the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe, Montmartre and Sacré Cœur. Everyone needs to witness the beauty on display at the Louvre (and yes, see the Mona Lisa, although hopefully more than that, too), Musée D’Orsay, Centre Georges Pompidou.
These are not just places to visit, but temples. Some are actual temples, designed to pay homage to God in the only way that people knew how: by building the largest, grandest, most majestic churches possible. Notre Dame and Sacre Cœur are both examples of how humans from all classes chose (or, sometimes, were forced) to put their time, talents, and treasure to use in the hopes of honoring God. When you consider the rudimentary tools and sciences available to them, standing there is to truly witness humankind’s admirable attempt to reach the heavens.
Visiting the Louvre, Musée D’Orsay, and Centre Georges Pompidou, it is impossible to not wonder at the depth and breadth of human achievement, celebrated in these world-class museums. Starting with the Louvre, it’s possible to a walk through human history, starting at around 10,000 years ago (if not earlier) and going right on through the modern and contemporary periods. These museums are temples to human achievement in the arts, to the beauty that takes place when human minds try to emulate the beauty of the world around them, or set their minds to seeing a new reality.
A temple to human achievement in industry? The Eiffel Tower. Every time you catch sight of it’s sleek lines and cross-hatched steel girder makes every sighting of the 1,000 foot-tall monument unforgettable. One of my favorite pastimes is to grab a couple of beers and sit on the lawn to watch the Eiffel Tower at night. When it lights up and and starts to sparkle, it is impossible to not see the beauty the majesty and beauty capable on even the most ordinary of Paris nights.
A new one for me this time was a visit to the temple dedicated to one specific human. I had never visited the Versailles palace complex, built by Louis XIV (Quatorze, also known as the “Sun King”) before this trip, and it did not fail to disappoint. Hundreds of acres of beautiful gardens and fountains, dozens of smaller buildings, and, of course, Louis’s gilded palace (known as Le Chateau in French). The entire complex is a testament to the man and how he used the grounds to manipulate his followers into truly believing that he was, in fact, a god, given the divine right to rule over not just his subjects but seemingly over the earth itself.
But Paris is more than just the attractions that bring tourists into the city. Paris is also the capital of France, and a temple to French culture. In a conversation we had with a newly-wed Canadian couple, the husband pointed out that the French have mastered the art of sipping. Being able to sit at a cafe and nurse a beer or glass of wine for hours at a time is truly one of the hallmarks of French culture. I would expand this to also include lounging. Whether by a fountain, on a public bench, or simply any reasonably nice place in the shade, you can almost always count on the French (especially couples) to have found a decent spot to stretch out (and, often, snuggle, even in the blistering summer heat).
Life is slower here. Every time I land in Paris, one of my first acts is always to find a local café, order a café, take a deep breath, and just sit. For me, this is always the first step in getting in the mindset to having a genuinly French experience. Dinner takes longer, often up to 2 or 3 hours, because, apart from an appetizer, entree, and dessert, with a couple of drinks, people actually talk and engage with one another in-between small bites and small sips.
However, even though Paris is the temple through which many worship French culture, Paris, as the capital of France, means it also bears the sins of the French government more heavily than some of the outlying cities. One cannot fail to witness the young men who congregate at the Eiffel Tower hawking cheap replicas, lighters, and now, fidget spinners, or the groups of young men who appear to never leave the metro and train stations, or the small families sitting on corners or near major monuments with small signs in English and French. Especially in recent years, Paris has seen themselves stung by the brutal combination of the failure of multiculturalism, lack of gainful employment, and an abundance of violent messaging pledging belonging on the internet. From the Bataclan to Normandy, Toulouse to Nice, there are just too many people in France who feel left out of being French and have no way of becoming French enough to exist in the country. Even while we were there, someone rammed a car into a police van, shutting down a significant part of the Champs Elysées. We had been on that spot multiple times in the previous two days, which served as a reminder for us to keep our heads up and stay aware.
In a conversation I had with an American living and working with Paris, I lamented some of the recent security I saw in the city (specifically not being able to wander around under the Eiffel Tower). He told me to not worry. “Paris will always be Paris,” he told me. Indeed, even after five years, Paris still was the Paris I knew and loved. For me, simply to come and pay homage at the temples, sit in a café and sip my café, and slip back into the lifestyle that I’ve always known and loved was enough. Vive la France, et vive Paris!