Death On Every Corner

In The Art of Travel, 2. Getting oriented, Paris by Andie2 Comments

Paris loves a good death. It stands in every metro station, swings from every street sign, and trips off the tongues of tourists attempting to say “gateau Saint Honoré.” When Kevin Lynch said “every rock tells a different story,” death stuck fast in the mortar. When Suzanne Langer said that architecture is a manifestation of the “total environment made visible,” death critiqued the blueprints. Here, death is the environment.

But that isn’t anything unique. In England, the Tube is rumored to swerve around the rock-solid remainders of 17th century plague pits. Washington, D.C. is another city fond of covering walls and whatnot in the names of the dead. Historical monuments are downright banal at this point (we’ve got a couple thousand years worth of things to remember, who can blame us?), but so many of them concentrated in one place feels macabre. I could go on about how death is the last great adventure and the ultimate metaphor for “getting lost,” but truthfully I can’t stomach the sentimentality. Death is a trip, but its whole M.O. rests on cutting the party short. Walking through Paris is like sitting shiva for so long you forget who died.

Lynch’s idea expands to: “a landscape whose every rock tells a different story may make difficult the creation of fresh stories​.” Every dead white man in France has claim to some rock or another, but where are the stones for La Mulâtresse Solitude or Nardal Paulette? If Governor Cuomo can rename streets in New York City originally dedicated to Confederate slavers and politicians Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee, why do countless monuments dedicated to Napoleon, who re-instituted slavery in 1902, still stand throughout Paris?

It’s not like anyone’s getting lost on their way to the boulangerie. In a city filled with so many Insta-worthy landmarks, it’s easy to reorient when the Eiffel Tower (named for Gustave Eiffel) soars to the west and the Notre Dame Cathedral (named after Our Lady of Paris, the OG homie) pokes up in the middle of town like the stick that keeps the plate of Paris spinning. Even if you intentionally tried to get lost, the périphérique highway that circles the city would block your exit from Paris proper. You’d ricochet back toward the city center like a pinball. The périphėrique demarcates the city from the suburbs with no room for dispute, and, as a consequence, no room for growth. Paris is a moveable feast and an uncompromising reality.

Which means to navigate modern Paris, you have to learn how to navigate France’s history, and the contemporary behavior it inspires. Here, a wash-rinse-repeat of revolutions and reform has turned hating the current government into something of a national sport. Smoking is the second-favorite national sport, right behind mocking President Macron, because the French won’t be discouraged from unhealthy habits, just as their Celtic ancestors wouldn’t be dissuaded from drinking wine or going into battle au natural. This is also why they smoke so much: the French live in a (supposedly) Latin country, and smoking is another way to make a scene, a Latin pastime, and handle the stress of this damn bourgeoisie government rigamarole.

Sometimes I step into a boulangerie and feel like nothing in Paris has changed, or will ever change. Other times, that endurance is comforting. Paris has stuck around for close to 2,000 years; not exactly Damascus, but an impressive feat nonetheless. France is organized around bringing an ideal vision of La République into reality, and it seems like Parisians are going to stick around until they get there. You can go get lost out in the world, trying to earn yourself a monument or street sign, but I think Paris will always be waiting, just as you left it.

(Image: Street Signs; Source: SixFeetFromTheEdge)

Comments

  1. Andie, I loved reading your perspective on this. I never thought of death as the ultimate metaphor for getting lost but – although pretty dark – it is quite accurate. It’s so true that in cities like Paris (and Florence, where I am) everywhere you go is filled with history. Every day I walk by the duomo, but only every so often do I take the time to stop, look, and really appreciate the beauty and history that’s in front of me. We so often get caught up in the pictures that we forget where we really are, and what it means, so your take was very refreshing!

  2. I’m really glad I found your post – you’re a very entertaining writer. I will step up my game and pale in comparison, then stop using tired metaphors.

    I think you are exactly as macabre as Paris requires. Though I do have two questions related to my own ignorance of the Franks: what makes Our Lady of Paris the OG? And why is France ‘(supposedly)’ latin? The latter sounds like a great way to displease French expats in Shanghai, of which there are many.

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