I believe all of my posts thus far have been almost a deconstruction of the romantic view of Paris that many hold to be true. The metro often breaks down, everything moves at a slower pace, and you are easily lost if you don’t speak the language well. But my decision to focus on these aspects of my Parisian experience leave out the beauty I have encountered in Paris, as well, and for that I am regretful.
Walking down the Seine to the Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, I spy the Notre Dame. I remember standing on top of a star that marks the beginning of civilization in Paris, a place right by the river before thousands flocked to Paris every year, before Haussmann widened the boulevards, before crepes and baguettes became items we had to try upon arrival. The beginning of a culture and a country, marked on the Ile de la Cite, in front of a structure that carries its own rich history. And I am amazed.
Everywhere I go in Paris, there is some marker of the past, of an event that took place either fifty or five hundred years ago, and I am lost as to how to contextualize this event in the grander scheme of Paris. For this reason, I am happy to have found The Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris by Edmund White. My first encounter with the text was flipping through its first chapter and reading a bit on the French writer Colette.
“…I like to go to the Palais Royal, an oasis of silence and elegance in the heart of the old city. Once you get past the tacky silver balls or the striped columns by Buren, you’re back in the world of Colette…” (White 24)
From there, I am led through Colette’s Paris, from the wild nights belly dancing on stage to sitting in a corner of her room penning work under her first husband’s name. After getting to know her a bit, I sought out some of Colette’s writing and discovered in her an interesting and unique style that I had not previously encountered in French writers from the early 20th century. Much like the experience I had with Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, I now go to the Palais Royal and imagine it as she must have, waving at her writer friends from across the way.
White’s text leads me through Paris, providing context when necessary or helpful details about where to get good Chinese food (though I have to remember this was published in 2001 and may not be up to date in its recommendations). The feeling I once had about missing out on a completely Parisian experience, simply because I am not familiar with the history, is no longer as apparent. I follow the paths White lays out in his text and learn along the way.
It’s a small book, so I finished fairly quickly and am on the prowl for something similar. I want even more context on why a particular building has a cannon from the French Revolution lodged in its side (still there!) or what Napolean may have seen strolling down the Parisian streets. My thirst for history has been rejuvenated in Paris, where there is so much to learn that I am not overwhelmed but excited.