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.
At the same time, Paris cast a beckoning call to America’s outcasts, those born both of choice (think Hemingway), and those who never had one (think Baldwin), who came looking to shake free of the entangling grimes of prejudice and bad faith that stain the edifice of America’s self-tributes. Paris was a chance to start over, to live beyond the constrained horizons that the practical realities of day-to-day life, to become someone at first anonymous and then known on one’s own terms. In this tradition, the heroes tend to be the Left Bank intellectual scalpel-wielders, the slogans those not of 1789, but of 1968, and the point is not so much to seek the intellectual blood-origin of what has made one’s world possible, but to chisel at that world’s edges, with the hope of eventually tearing it down. The degree to which this experiment is now even possible, with the Café de Flore charging ten euros for a Coca-Cola and the old flophouse rooms having been turned into condos and Hiltons, is much more questionable. There may be a square named for Sartre and Beauvoir near the places where they scribbled their letters to future generations, but, their spirit seems to have evaporated, but for a few select pockets, having gone elsewhere. The rumor of just where that “somewhere” is to be found floats across the lips Europe’s youth like a many-pronged riddle, with the general consensus being that it rests somewhere between Berlin and Prague, though that the former is teetering on the brink of a gentrification trend, its allure of genuine cool held together only by some of the toughest rent-control legislation in the EU. Having been briefly leap-frogged by post-Rolling Stones, pre-Russian oligarch money flood London, Paris now seems to settle somewhere in the middle of that ever re-ranking list of the intellectual and cultural cores of the European and European-descendent mind. The major difference, of course, being that, unlike, say, Dublin, Paris has a distinct memory of a rather long period when it was, unquestionably, at the top, and entertains a panging, wounded nostalgia as a result. The first Parisian restaurateur who had to double-side a menu copy in English surely shed a tear for the throwing in of the towel, but now untranslated words of the Queen’s dot the Metro advertisements and candy bar wrappers act as an accepted kind of runner-up prize.
Despite this new-found status, there remains an air of living up to some past ideal that defines the expat experience in Paris. This typically takes the form of wondering if one is making the most of the available time there. If, for instance, Camus would have spent a rainy Saturday watching a Netflix series, instead of wandering the cobblestones for inspiration. Perhaps the greatest lie of Paris, like it is of any other place where the mere speaking of its name conjures a very particular set of social cues, is that merely by being there, you will become someone who belongs there. Like the proverbial off-the-Greyhound New York City arrivals, there is nothing about contact between CDG tarmac and shoe leather that, all at once, makes us the swans we dream, in our settler’s phantom-limb severance from the metropole, of being. Rather, still being who we were before, a pressure begins to build to go to the effort of belonging like you should be there. This extends everywhere it can, from the choice of clothes (the near-universal male professional uniform of suit-no-tie meant to create an air of sophisticated semi-rebellion) to the chosen stance while waiting for the bus (controlled, disaffected even while excited), all designed to cleverly weave an implied backstory that aligns better with the place than the truth.
Coming from Ottawa, this is especially a different tack than that taken by the be-toqued civil servants and hoodie-wearing service sector employees there. Seeming to recognize that their capital is, at bottom, the backwater administrative bunker of a rather marginal settler-colony (though the shawarma is better than any European kebab I’ve yet had), there is a lesser era of pretense to things, despite the enjambment of political egos into most goings-on. The fact that one can count on spotting a fellow cubicle dweller in a state of intoxication, musical or otherwise, at one of the three remaining low-rent dance clubs on Friday is something to be cherished. Perhaps the contrast comes from a distinctly-Whig belief in the steady progress of things, that tomorrow will always be better than today, that could be believed by self-deceiving squinting in Canada, but that France’s long fall from worldly dominance makes distinctly impossible. Paris concert crowds, for instance, are almost uniformly unenthusiastic, as if signalling that everything that will happen for culture here already has, that what is in front of them now will never equal what came before. It is the sense of living in a civilization that prized something, or a lot of intangible somethings, whose value is now negligible, and lives daily with the reminders, written in statues, in transit station names, in tourist handbag designs, of what greatness once was.
Of course, some reminders of the glories of empire do not fade over time, but merely multiply, and this too is evident on the streets of Paris. France’s self-belief as an intellectual and cultural project has always, even more so than the British or the Dutch, rested on expunging its colonial record as an aberration from existent core Republican virtues. The seeming longing for a guilt-free reclaiming of world-power status in the United Kingdom, perhaps most exemplified by Boris Johnson’s parodic tenure as foreign minister, has an understandable schism at its core. The 21st century Tory is surrounded on all sides by the ephemeral ghost of Empire (English as global language, the now-independent settler societies, etc.), but cannot actually touch it, which drives a desire to reassert status. Given that the English tradition never had a particular underlying value system which would render its treatment of colonial subjects hypocritical (Britain’s constitution having been largely made up on the fly and still left unwritten), the relative self-denial of the impacts of imperial rule is somewhat easier. The French, by contrast, had to actively ignore the seeming core values of the Republic in order to rule their possessions as they did. This distinction probably means very little for those at the sharp end of the stick, but, it does condition how the national memory processes what it means to live after formal Empire ends. The Senegalese corn grillmen and Tunisian chestnut roasters who crowd the exits of every major metro stop, the Algerian bakers who keep the ovens on past 11 throw up, daily, very human reminders of a past that most would just as soon forget. Or, at least make it that the non-European residents of France simply showed up one day, simply as Frenchmen, with nothing more to be said on the matter. They are now joined by the all-too-modern figure of the Syrian asylum seeker family with a hastily-written black marker sign, asking for food money and a piece of their dignity back before joining a snaking line outside the OFII office, while the student visas still get processed in a much more orderly fashion.
This discussion inevitably brings one to the reasons that Paris has made headlines in recent years, that string of terrorist events which no city would wish upon itself or others. The degree to which the various fuels of online recruitment and propaganda, of social alienation and poverty, of foreign policy and Saudi funding have led to these events is something that is likely to never be anything resembling a consensus on, but their impact on the civic life of Paris is clear. The Vigipirate triangles and near-ubiquitous bag checks very quickly morph into a unified tapestry of state presence, topped by the occasional sight of an assault rifle-wielding 20-something in army fatigues. When combined with the general sense of out-of-time ennui, perhaps most clearly and controversially explicated by Michel Houellebecq’s best-seller Soumission, the effect of this unending security lock-down is one not so much of vigilance or even fear, but rather one more stone in an every-growing monument to anxious living.
Paris still can come together, shaking its cloudy-headed state off, for a protest like no other city, with tens of thousands coming together as a slow-moving river to oppose the rather silent imposition of rather radical changes to the French social compact by President Macron. The designated student restaurants still remain a genius creation of pre-WWII welfare provision, dishing out meals both hearty and of non-suspect quality for three euros a head and buzz with the kind of energy that only enters those places where people think of themselves as future leaders. The feats of architectural design marking seemingly every major street remain impressive, even if dulled by their sight in film and historical photograph. The stories Paris tells to the world about itself, and those told back to it, are not wholly untrue, even at this late hour of its being.
The major thing is that the Paris myth, in some sense, creates its own death through saturation of believers. The truly exceptional people that came to Paris pave the way for the rest of us, but, their being truly exceptional, in some way, is what made the Paris we chase in our minds what it was. Once we, mediocre us, make it there, it is no longer the same. For every Hemingway, there are a thousand young men with unresolved sexual frustration shading into lacquered misogyny. For every Gertrude Stein, there are a hundred over-rich expats with presentations of turning their tea rooms into intellectual salons. Those that follow in the coattails of their idols bring with them a distinct baggage and unstated desire for a toned-down, more accessible version of the former lives of their heroes. The problem with being cosmopolitan in this way is, of course, that it tends to create a social bubbling effect where one only ever meets other cosmopolitans. To wit, the distinct “cosmopolitan” character of any place, Paris very much included, may be on a death watch the moment it is deemed as such, the line between “cosmopolitan” and “featureless” being very much a thin one. Every city has its collection of post-everything, post-everywhere coffee shops with collegial indie rock hovering overhead, but there is supposed to be only one Parisien café. Singular in its features and conception, from the décor to the slicked hair on the wait staff, it retains a power learned from the provocative jabs read in a freshman philosophy class. How much of this is deserved is up for dispute, and perhaps the one we create in our collegiate naivety will ever-best the real thing.
Still, if Paris-as-definitive-city is a dead letter, this fact may only point to a wider truth. Every city is someone’s dream, someone else’s desperately strained-against quicksand pit, and yet another person’s humdrum resting place. To become the you who belongs in Paris is nothing less than to ascend to some higher place of self-fulfillment. The paradox is that, for the truly ready amongst us (which I very much do not include myself in), they are already there, no accordion buskers necessary. •
All illustrations by Isabella Akhtarshenas.