France, Paris

Paris – Not Quite a Eulogy

“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.

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Paris

Heritage and Height Limits: A Parisian Problem

A city of tradition, revolution, and reaction, Paris has managed to be both charmingly old world while simultaneously extremely progressive and forward thinking. Paris proper, the twenty arrondissements encircled by the périphérique hasn’t undergone a major change since Hausmann and Napolean III set to work making the city what it is today. They widened boulevards and streets and redid architecture down to minute details like the newstands. Since then the city has been loathe to change.

When the era of skyscrapers can and massively changed cities like New York City and London, Paris relegated them to a suburb, La Défense. The business district of Paris actually exists outside the city itself. The center retained extremely strict height limits and historically important buildings were more or mess untouchable. The Eiffel Tower being a very rare exception that was built to celebrate 200 years of revolution. However, several buildings and structures have gotten through these limits. And they are almost amways greeted with hatred.

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Tour Montparnasse

The most notable is the uniformly detested Tour Montparnasse. Easily the second most prominent building in the skyline of Paris (after the Eiffel Tower). This uninspired black mark on the city inspired even stricter restrictions after it’s construction. Other monstrosities have made it through, with slightly less opprobrium than Tour Montparnasse: Centre Pompidou and the Louvre Pyramid.

After Tour Montparnasse the city had a kind of ‘never again’ moment and imposed even stricter height limits on the city. However, this is changing again under mayor Anne Hidalgo. Since views of the city are so expensive and sought after (the city alone contains 30% of the real estate value in France), developers really want to build things that are over the old height restrictions so that owners can have beautiful views of the city (before it fills with other buildings full of people seeking similar views… then suddenly the city is as ugly as London). Mayor Hidalgo recently got the City Council to lift height limits to over 500 feet and to approve a building called Tour Triangle. Described as ‘having a dialog with the city,’ a polite way of saying ‘it is glaring different and will not fit in at all.’

Paris is not the most visited city in the world because people want to see garish modern architecture. They could see that in any major city. People come to Paris to see what major cities of Europe used to be like before the World Wars destroyed most of them (Paris was spared by being declared an open city).

There has been quite an outcry against this move and the building has yet to be built. But does the city really need another Tour Montparnasse to know that it should be more careful and selective?

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Literature, Writing

Marginalia: Reading as a Conversation

For the first time in a long time I sat down to read without writing in the book. I had walked all the way to a small park in the center of Paris (Jardin Nelson Mandela, just west of Les Halles), sat down on a concrete bench and took out my poorly taken care of copy of Paradise Lost. Usually there are large groups of Algerians listening to indecipherable French rap music through their phones, but no music today! It should have been so nice…

I had forgotten my pen.

With nothing to write with, I had no choice but to carry on, I had walked all the way there after all. It was terrible, and it totally reassured me of the value of marginalia. Especially with a long, complicated book like Paradise Lost, writing in the margins as you read really helps you keep track of what’s going on, who is talking, etc. I also like to make notes of obvious references to other literature that Milton put in his poem (usually Latin and Greek works). Further, it helps with pacing, it is very hard to skim if you are busy underlining, circling words, and writing short reactions.

Reading ought to be a conversation. Writing in the margins keeps you more engaged, and now that you can’t unconsciously skim, you retain much more. Beyond retention, this process also adds a very personal touch to your book. It makes it much more entertaining to return to five or ten years later. An should you want to find a quote that you really liked 400 pages ago, you probably marked it the first time you saw it and can quickly find it by flipping through the pages.

Lastly, when you read a really long novel with an enormous cast (Russians…) it can make it way easier to follow. When a long conversation started between major characters, I’d write right up front which Nikolay this is; how he is related to Sofia, which house they are at, etc. After doing this for a few hundred pages you develop an extremely intimate understanding of the family trees and begin to glimpse complicated family politics. You might be surprised how many things were slipping beneath your notice.

Give it a try, it might seem tedious at first, but it is a habit worth developing.

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France, Paris

An Adventure in Paris – FNAC

I thought that I was doing pretty well – despite what I expected, I managed to move from the US to France with relatively few problems. Until one nice gray day (the kind one learns to call ‘nice’ in Paris during the Fall) my laptop decided that it couldn’t be bothered. And, demonstrating that it had integrated into French culture far better than me, it quit working. I had an interview the next day and desperately tried to rouse my laptop from his strike but the grève endured. And I, like many Americans before me, dealt with the insolence of the working class by demonstrating the ease at which they could be replaced.

So I strolled over to the nearest FNAC as the day brightened (slightly less gray, one would call this kind of weather ‘pretty nice’). Sure of myself and my French capability, I found my new laptop in a corner of the second floor of the huge store. Sad and alone, a mid range Asus in a sea of Macbooks, ultrabooks, and multi-thousand Euro gaming rigs on one end and cheaper-a-night-out ultrabooks, he was prepared to scab on my old HP. Negotiations were long, I stood analyzing specifications for quite a while… ‘my old laptop has a terabyte of storage, you have only 256’ ‘yes, well I am an SSD, have you seen the kind of bandwidth I provide?’ ‘that may be so but my old laptop had a high resolution screen’ ‘well that may be so but it was also inches bigger, my pixel density is greater’ ‘Well how do you justify the fact that you have merely 8GB of RAM, a mere two more than my 6 year old laptop’ ‘2 more AND a whole new generation of chip technology, DDR4 has several advantages…’ and so forth. The negotiations lasted so long that another customer believed I was an employee. And, apparently to her own great embarrassment, asked for help with a purchase… madame, je suis pas un employé ici, les employés portent des vestes orange qui disent ‘FNAC’ sur le dos…

The process of purchase was quite simple: I went to the help desk, showed the employee the one I wanted, he scanned it, took me back to his desk, filled out the order form, printed out the invoice and handed it to me, I then took it to the first floor and payed for it, the cashier gave me a new piece of paper and three receipts, then I had to go up a floor to the retrait where a man gave me a stack of papers, another receipt and finally my new laptop. Then after presenting all these receipts to security at the door, I finally had my laptop. Who said the French were inefficient?

I walk home as the day had darkened into the territory of ‘okay’ and I started to wonder if I had closed my windows…

Finally home, and just in time as it had started to rain, the standard excitement of  opening an expensive new toy began to overtake me. My old HP looked unhappily from the end of my tacky IKEA nightstand. I sliced open the box, took out the cardboard inserts protecting the laptop, wondered for a moment if I had to charge it before using, and finally plugged it in and launched into that lovely first-use setup experience. Where you begin the long process of getting familiar with something you are going to be using for a long time.

I entered my name for the first time: the first name was alright but wait, what is wrong with my last name?

It’s an AZERTY keyboard! I had totally forgotten! After a moment of panic I decided “this can’t be so bad, the Q is in the wrong place and there are some extra letters but it could be worse. The A is in the wrong place as well… And the M, the Q… Wait I have to hold shift to make a period? Where is the question mark? Why don’t I have to hold shift for the exclamation mark? Do the French use it that often? The Enter key is tiny and – Oh my God, there is a whole extra key to use the numbers on the top row… ”

My old laptop silently looked down on me with derision.

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World Events

On Integration and Responsibility

After the horrific attack of 13/11/15, western Europe has come to a point where it simply must face the mess it has allowed to fester for the last five decades. The problem being immigrant ghettos. Almost all of the perpetrators of the recent violence in Paris was done by citizens of the EU. All of them were tied back to a location in Belgium known as Molenbeek. A location that has grown to be so violent that the Belgian police have admitted that they are loathe to even enter it. Perhaps most importantly, it is also home to one of the highest concentrations of Muslims in western Europe.

It is this environment that allowed the plan to be laid. But even worse, this is a location that allows for the gestation of a violent ideology in the heart of the West. A violent foreign ideology. And it is the foreign part that makes the issue so sticky. Many have begun to blame the problems on the lack of initiative that the west shows in integrating them. These same people blame poverty, indoctrination, anything they can, except for one thing. Islam. For to blame the ideology that results in these attacks is xenophobic. Such pretensions to political correctness must end.

How can one blame poverty? The government provides housing, food, education, and health care. There is access to cellular phones, the internet, and obviously places of worship. In comparison to the supposed horrors that their home countries contain, it’s the Ritz Carlton. And to break up the ghettos would, and ought to be, illegal. They have to right to self congregate, as does anyone. Forcing people to live apart is a vile thing to do. What is of concern is the ideology that springs up in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generation immigrants within these communities. But poverty is not the issue. There are far poorer neighborhoods elsewhere in the world that manage to avoid such religious violence.

What needs to be looked at is the ideology itself: Is Islam compatible with European values? The holy book of the religion is filled with intolerant musings against infidels, gays, etc. So is the Bible, you might say. But all the horrid parts of the Bible (mostly Leviticus) are exempted for Christians by the coming of Jesus. The law was fulfilled and superseded by Christ, according to their ideology. Jesus taught to love your neighbor, that the meek, the widows, and the orphans ought to be protected. Jesus even accosts the one man that tries to save him from the cross.

Most importantly, the Bible was not written by God. The words of Christ were written down by men, one can’t get around this as the gospels are named after their authors and contain many obvious discrepancies. Ergo, there is ample room for interpretation and the message itself is quite pacifist. The same cannot be said of the Koran. The Koran was given by Gabriel to Muhammad directly from God. Interpreting or ignoring a part of the Koran is to directly twist or ignore the word of God.

This, in addition to the influx of refugees, as well as money from the gulf states, should lead the European governments to strongly reexamine their position. Most of these refugees are young men, young religious men who will quickly be dissatisfied with the Europe which they have built up for themselves. Suppose the vast majority of these men want to integrate peacefully, think of the example we have seen in France, the UK, and the West in general over the last 4 generations. It is not good. And many of these men will likely be unable to find partners in Europe that will fit their predisposed idea of how women should act, which can cause a whole separate problem.

So what can be done? Europe has done everything it can whilst sticking to the present political vogue of unquestioning acceptance. Benefits, housing, health care. The ball is in their court and has been for the last 50 years. But if one thing is clear the fault does not lie with the efforts of the European governments to integrate them. The burden of integration lies with the immigrants themselves and no one else.

Over the next fifty years one can expect to see either the most successful integration of an antagonistic group ever or a massive swing to the right. The V4 nations have already looked at Molenbeek and the banlieus and they have decided they want none of it.

As an aside, how does the United States do such a good job of integrating? That is a topic for another time, but the bulk of the reason is that the USA, due to the Atlantic, can be far more discerning in who it accepts. And those it does accept as usually highly educated. This either tempers severely or eliminates entirely the faith which has caused so many problems in Europe.

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