>Paris, a Powerful Whimsy

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“Whimsical but with power behind it”  This was a friend’s description of Paris when I pressed him for his thoughts on the city.  Traverse any street in Paris, having a look around and you will see what he means. There are a great many adjectives that can be applied to Paris; touristy, beautiful, posh (some would say snooty), elegant, and the list goes on, but I think that my friend’s description is by far the best.   For any American, the architectural junction of old and new is striking, but this is not unique to Paris.  In fact, the combination of ancient buildings and monuments that survived the wars, the things that have been reconstructed and the enterprises of modernity exist in virtually every European city.  ‘Whimsical but with power’ though, this captures perfectly the famed romance of the city, along with its might as a cultural, political and economic powerhouse.
 
Walking along the Champs Elysee, amongst dawdling tourists looking about while locals weave purposefully around them, the power of the city is obvious in the street seething with fashion and views of the commanding Arc de Triomphe.  Meanwhile, just across the river Seine, sits the paradigm symbol of Paris, an architect’s flight of fancy, the Eiffel Tower.

The Eiffel Tower is interesting, because while the rest of the world can’t think of Paris without a mental image of it popping up, many Parisiennes consider it something of an eyesore, although this sentiment is declining with younger generations who accept it as a part of the city skyline.  Did you know that the engineer, Gustave Eiffel, was also one of the architects responsible for the Statue of Liberty?  Given Lady Liberty’s status as our symbol of freedom, I find it ironic that, in the U.S. when particularly irked by French foreign policy decision, some changed the names of french fries and french toast, to ‘freedom fries’ and ‘freedom toast’ just to spite France, the Statue of Liberty’s country of origin.
So what is it that has driven these two countries to odds since the joint celebration of American independence?  I am far from a qualified history professor, but Wikipedia can sum it up!  Suffice it to say, the French think that the U.S. is too conservative and the U.S. thinks the French are too liberal.  Both are probably right.  In both countries it is important to recognize that those perceptions from across the pond are not specific to individuals.  Like ours, French ideologies exist along a spectrum, and with plenty of agreement and dissent.  I think we are more alike than either would care to admit.
In fact, at my friend’s apartment where I was staying, located in the artistically quaint area of Montmarte, I sometimes forgot I was in Paris. The apartment, belonging to four 20-somethings, seemed so much like an apartment that I would find back in the states.  The roommates filled it with board games, laptops, a plentiful supply of coffee and even a young kitten wreaking havoc. The only indoor evidence that I was even in France were the tall Parisienne windows opening out onto the street, book titles on the shelf in French and the never depleting pile of baguette bread in the middle of the table. 
Me, and my friends, Remi and Zoe
Also in contrast to rumor, my new French friends/roommates for a week, were far from hostile to me even though I am an American who speaks atrocious French.  Neither they nor any of the French people I encountered at cafes, crepe stands, museums, etc, refused to speak English to me and no one scoffed at my sorry attempts in the native tongue.  In fact, I found the French to be appreciative of my effort, as well as friendly and hospitable in general.  I think that the French have caught a bad rap, as “snooty” or rude.  Perhaps it is a misinterpretation of their extraordinary capacity for aloofness. The French, (my friends at least) just seem to have this attitude of, “Eh, it is what it is,”  It makes them difficult to surprise but I envy the low-stress approach to life.
Wandering around the streets of San Michael with the entire score of Les Mis playing consistently in my head, I pondered what has made this city such a massive tourist draw and source of local pride. Certainly it is the history, the architecture and all of that.  But moreover its that atmosphere of whimsy, possibility, something epic in the making.  As you may realize from previous posts, I am very concerned with “getting a feel for” the city.  So how do you get a feel for Paris?  Well, you eat like the locals do for starters.  But this does not mean you must spend tons of money on expensive French cuisine.  It means perhaps starting the day with a simple breakfast of yogurt, and baguette bread with butter, and perhaps later grabbing a Nutella crepe from a street vendor.  You also have sit at a street-side cafe and have an afternoon coffee. (You may also realize that I’m a  big fan of cafe patios.)  I would also highly recommend walking around Sunday markets, and keeping an eye out, anywhere in the city for break-dancers doing street performances for the tourists.
A break-dancing troupe making fun of politicians
Besides the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, the Quartier Latin, the Pantheon (and loads more) anyone visiting Paris should also venture just a bit outside of the city, for a daytrip to the Chateau de Versailles.  A bit of critical advice? Make sure you charge your camera battery.  Yes, its true, my camera battery died the moment I stepped out into the famous, elaborate gardens of Versailles.  Tragic isn’t it?  The good news is that I at least got some pictures of the castle, if not the gardens.  Here is the estate of Marie Antoinette and Louis XIV, in all its opulent glory:
(but to be honest, the castle is really too big for photographs, mine don’t do it justice)

So remember, don’t buy into stereotypes about French people, eat as many crepes as possible, and keep your camera battery charged!

~Marie DeAeth, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh Intern Abroad

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