City of Lights, City of Contrasts: A Visit to Paris
Walk through the streets of Paris at night, and it’s easy to see why they call it The City of Lights. But its illuminated bridges and landmarks only tell part of the story. Paris first earned the name as the birthplace of the Age of Enlightenment. La Ville-Lumière, as it was known then, was the center of education and ideas throughout Europe. As someone who spends her days observing and absorbing beautiful thinking, I can’t imagine a better place to go to refill my well.
You can’t be a city of lights without having shadows. Paris has survived the bubonic plague, the Hundred Years’ war, the German occupation, revolutions and terrorist attacks. You can feel the souls that walked before on the cobblestone streets, especially at night. Paris by day is beautiful, but by night it’s magnificent.
The best time to visit Sacré-Cœur is at night. The gleaming white basilica sits atop the hill overlooking Montmartre, the colorful nightlife district where Toulouse-Lautrec painted scenes of burlesque performances from his private seat at the Moulin Rouge. Having a church sit at the highest point of Paris, surrounded by the debauchery of Montmartre at its base is another perfect example of contrasts that feel completely appropriate in Paris.
Everywhere you turn in Paris, there are large-scale posters promoting the arts: theater, film and museums. I kept seeing posters advertising the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit. So when my plans to visit the Musee D’Orsay fell through (I temporarily forgot that museums close on Mondays), deciding where to spend my morning was a no brainer. I went straight to Basquiat’s exhibit at Fondation Louis Vuitton — a soaring steel building designed by Gehry that looks as though it could float off into the sky at any moment.
Though Basquiat’s career (and life) was short, he was prolific. It was as if he was possessed, channeling his energy onto whatever surface happened to be around. Four floors and 120 pieces of works later, I felt physically taxed and overstimulated. Basquiat was a student of contrasts. His references were vast: from classic literature to comic books, Bible quotes to hip hop verses, angels to warriors. One of his biggest influences was Gray’s Anatomy (the textbook, not the show), and you can see its traces in much of his work.
I wanted to experience the culinary arts of Paris too, so I signed up for a cooking class hosted by French chef Fred Pouillot of Le Foodist in the Latin Quarter. I arrived early in the morning to meet the others in my class. Over croissants and French press coffee, Fred told us about the menu we would be preparing for lunch that day. Then we headed to the market to buy our ingredients. Along the way, Fred pointed out significant landmarks and shared their stories.
At first, everything about Paris — it pace of life, its art, its food and its people — seems to epitomize beautiful thinking. But as I reflect on my trip, I realize it’s more complicated than that. Along with all of the art and creativity is a history of turmoil, war and revolution. And perhaps you can’t have one without the other.
It seems the world is looking for simple answers now: right or wrong, black or white, in or out. But that’s not how beauty works. Being able to live with duality, even embrace it, is the essence of Parisian life — and of beautiful thinking.