Paris was once all it was to be modern, urbane, sophisticated: a gilded temple at once to Enlightenment rationalism and ancien régime splendor. The American in Paris, now a cliché so well-worn that it may actually be coming back around to being counter-hegemonic, became so because it was where the leaders and intellects of that ideal-based nation came to imbibe the ideas that made it possible. Whole generations of American leaders, political, academic and otherwise, regarded the stay in Paris as an essential stepping stone to a well-rounded, mature outlook on the world. This being a time when the other great imperial capital, London, was still stuffy, choked with coal exhaust and deeply provincial despite its centrality to contemporary global order. Perhaps it is that same search for cosmopolitan virtue that still drives the droves of us, the Erasmus kids hastily spending bureaucrat stipends on wine and metro tickets, the Iranian post-docs gazing at stars in newly-built astronomy labs, to here, year after year. In spite of the ever-greater ticking of rent prices and the fact that the Champs-Élysées is now roughly 75% luxury chain stores and two-story McDonald’s franchises, Paris retains a mystique that resists disillusion down to its very essence.
If, indeed, all of Western modernity can be traced to the French Revolution, perhaps it is no coincidence that we who live in its shadow seek to draw something from the paving stones that flew through windows to make it so. Perhaps simply to make sense from gazing at the Nokia-signage-abutted Bastille monument how it could have come to pass, or perhaps more grandly to take on some of that brilliant foresight for ourselves. Those Americans may have felt that their nation was, at the end of the day, the superior one, but they felt a certain tutelage in liberté (if not égalité, nor fraternité) could only be undertaken in the space where it had, in their mind, bloomed the brightest. More… “The Paris Myth”