My French Tale of Two Cities

Paris

Ten years ago I stood under the base of the Eiffel Tower holding a hot dog with far too much dijon mustard on it and told my mom “That’s what life looks like.” I remember explaining to her that the tower gradually narrowed from the base to the top and that as each person sets down their own path that their lives would unfold in a similar manner getting more and more narrow as we age. I can’t thank my mom enough for not telling me I was wrong about the Eiffel way of thinking.

Eiffel state-of-mind

Ten years later, Paris has more bikes than I remember, the food has only gotten better, and people are just as tan, skinny and happy as ever. (Could have something to do with the 35-hour work weeks or 5 weeks off, but what do I know). But it felt different; Paris felt like cheese naan, delicious banh mi’s and cultural crossroads.

The streets of Montmatre and Le Marais are charming, but there are no traditional Frenchmen walking around with baguettes and berets anymore. Instead I saw young Orthodox Jewish adults, second generation Cameroonians, and Algerians finishing up their August holiday before getting back to work in September. It was all of these “French men” who left an impression on me.

Station F, a huge former a train station, now startup campus looking to house thousands of entrepreneurs in the up-and-coming 13th arrondissement also left an impression on me. Half of the visible buildings around Station F are under construction and the air smells of opportunity and young people smoking outside.

Station F - Startup Campus

For all the beauty of the Opera, the Pantheon, and other historical remnants around Paris I couldn’t get my mind off of the younger, less traditional communities. How Paris comes to terms with a cultural and labor crossroads remains to be seen. But one thing is sure, the path doesn’t look like the Eiffel way of thinking. Paris will have to start thinking outside the traditional narrow scope.

Marseille

Marseille has crossroads written in its DNA. As a port city, you can the imagine the rainbow of races and ethnicities present. It made the amount of brown skin in Paris look mild. The culture was completely separate of traditional France: graffiti, murals, and clothing hung out to dry were part of the Mediterranean environment. In fact this place was such a melting pot that the most iconic dish there is bouillabaisse.

This multiculturalism even sunk into the architecture with striped churches and byzantine mosaic art pieces in every one of the churches I visited. I was encouraged by the newly renovated buildings on the outskirts of the Old Port and the physical/ideological connections they made to the nearby Fort Saint-Jean.

Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde

The other stripes that dominated the landscape were of Olympique de Marseille, this soccer team takes precedent over being French. While the team has always been an underdog compared to PSG, you can’t help but notice loyalty to the team in the community.

During my time in Marseille I heard Russian, German, Portuguese, Hindi, and Chinese. All of which is to say that the diversity of architecture, language, and culture in Marseille left me astounded. Here was a part of France that didn’t have to struggle with their identity because being Marseillian involved being open to change. Even the restaurants carried this ideal of constant change with most seating being in the middle of a tiny road with scooters whizzing by as I sipped my wine.

Row of restaurants, scooters not pictured

I can’t help but think that cities like Marseille that are open to change and cooperation will continue to be the future, but until Paris and the rest of France joins the movement progress is on a back burner simmering but not fully cooked.

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