When the art nouveau of the corner’s buildings swarm with their wrought iron balconies and scrolling balustrades, when even the lampposts scroll in waves and leaves and lilies more intricate than Canada's parliament buildings, I suppose it would be hard to grow up feeling an unquestioning sense of pride in one’s heritage. The Sun King’s rethinking of the city in the 1600s; the straightening of medieval organicism into the vista-pleasing curves and straight lines of today’s streets; the stone, moderate level apartments that still allow one to call to the top floor from the street. The creation of the first open air, accessible plazas; the first public lighting of a city and public, intra-city delivery of mail. Paris shaped the mold out of which all modern European cities emerged. It allowed for a nightlife without (usually) fear of being robbed. It mixed the bourgeois with the royalty and the commoners in its parks and public plazas. It is still as I remember it from my previous visit in 2007: one of the great manifestations of European beauty, made material in the scrolls of a door handle, the filigree of a portico, the writing on a chalkboard announcing today’s plat de jour. Livable, that is, aside from the prices. Though, in its defence, salaries are higher, so in a sense, most are better off than those in Victoria or Vancouver.
Still, there is something integral missing. The stories of Paris heard by the rest of the world are of clashes between cultures; the narrow victory of a conservative moderate over a vitriolic racist. The protests and violence in the neighbourhoods outside the arrondissements. Whole communities that exist on the edge of a city which does not reflect them, despite its continued commitment to liberté, egalité, fraternité. I’m thinking a lot about Syrians while I'm here. I’m thinking of the families I see lying on the street, even as I love the calm, easy, elegance of the French. The story of a successful, identifiable culture is always, to some extent, a story of the victors. I’m looking forward to traveling to La Defense later this week, where African and Middle East immigrants have moved into one of the most modernist developments in the city – a Haussman and Le Corbousier lineage.
I am here caring for 20 duckling university students. Together with the prof, Cam, we will lead them around northern Europe, watching prices climb and climb, and listening to many who will tell us of sustainability projects they are championing – water reclamation, roof-top gardens, architectural restructurings of neighbourhoods to incorporate green and socially pleasing design, recycling, even anarchist football teams (in Hamburg). We will visit Bruges, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Antwerp and Copenhagen. The students are lovely. They are young and hopeful and full of ideas. I mama bear them through the streets while Cam takes the lead.
We are staying in the 17th arrondissement, which has altered in recent years from a residential and plain outlier in the city to a new centre of culture. Pushed out by the tourists, the Parisians have remade this neighbourhood with a plethora of sidewalk cafes and bars, markets, and patisseries. We venture out at 11pm for dinner and find beef bourguignon and wine. It is 20 degrees and hundreds sit sipping beer and wine at outdoor tables.
I didn’t think I would be back here so quickly. And in truth, I miss Eastern Europe, despite the heartbreak of last spring’s trip. Its its sketchy small dangers, the inventiveness of a people who have long looked at the greener grass from the other side, but managed to made a rich life of sorts in the meantime, without having to charge 4 Euros for an espresso. And yet the same monochromatic homogeneity met me there, too.