“When good Americans die, they go to Paris.”
― Oscar Wilde
Sometimes Paris doesn’t work. Aside from the fact that the French don’t like to work as is (and this is a true stereotype, I’ve found), the city itself just doesn’t hang together properly. Aside from 6 decades of failed immigration policy, 5 governments since the founding of the Republic, the incessant onslaught of developpers trying to ruin the city, problems with crime, Islam, post-colonial guilt, the echos of WW2, Muslims, the decline of the French language in popular use (it as once literally the linga franca of Europe, no more), the loss of her religion, the increasing wealth gap, the development of a new underclass, the fact that soldiers have to patrol my neighborhood, and, lastly, the fact that Anne Hidalgo thinks that skyscrapers will work within the city itself (hint: no one but real estate developers want that) – aside from this the city just feels wrong sometimes. It feels angry and ambivalent all at once.
It’s difficult to explain but think of the last time you walked into a room and something just fell out of place. Now thing of a time that you have walked into a room after a tenuous truce had just been made between enemies and their anger still hung in the air. that is a decent approximation of the Parisian atmosphere on many days. It is not just the looming and ever present threat of terror, nor the gaping wounds that last attacks opened. It’s something else; maybe the city changed to quickly, who knows? But it is palpable, not always but when it is, it is a thick viscous feeling that that slows everything down and makes the city repugnant.
But it is not always like this. And during the moments when the weakened but enduring spirit can pierce the fog that has fall – those moments are incredible.
It is during those brief moments that one can understand why the city used to capture the imagination of the greater part of the worth. In these moments the City of Light is dimmer but shining nonetheless. You can’t prepare for these times, sometimes you can’t even stop to enjoy them – they pass like one of those rare strangers with whom you make an immediate connection but never see again.
Artists drawing in museums.
The odd couple on a lonely quai.
Children yelling bonjour monsieur to you as they go to school you to work.
In and of themselves they mean little, but together with a million other tiny, indescribable details, the picture of the old spirit comes together. I can no more tell you how these moments come to be than describe why Marat’s posture in Jacques-Louis David’s painting makes such an abhorrent man so pathetic.
These moments are unpredictable but they tend to lie where the stone better bore the weathering of time. At Sunday organ concerts at Saint Eustache, where Parisians line up to listen to a half hour of music on one of the most beautiful organs in the world. When you attend mass at Saint-Nicholas-Du-Chardonnet, a mass performed in the old way and a congregation whose faith would have been more home in the 12th century than in ours. It can be found in lost corners of museums, on roofs in the 6th, on quais in the 4th, in cafés in the second. The sap of the old city varnished some of these places, so it is harder for the problems of today to penetrate and rot what soul remains.
This is perhaps the most interesting time to live here since the Germans marched down Champs-Elyéee and the future of the city as hurled into doubt. But whatever her ails may be right now, the city comes out of hiding when she feels playful or reminiscent.