I once met a French person who was visiting Boston, and he said something along the lines of, “I’m sorry that you have to go to school with a bunch of tourists. Trust me, I hate them too, I grew up in Paris.” To be fair, I don’t mind the tourists on campus – that is, when I’m not late for class and can’t cross the yard because there are people everywhere poking around with their selfie sticks. (Side note: during the summer the tourists at least quadruple. Last week, I counted ten visiting groups within a 5 or 6-meter radius in the yard.) And, from time to time, I don’t mind being one, either; I can safely say that I was not much more than a shameless tourist in Paris. Which some people might have an aversion to admitting. I thoroughly enjoyed drinking wine in front of the Eiffel Tower, walking along the Seine, macarons and éclairs and crêpes, museum marathons, and dodging aggressive beggars in front of Sacre-Coeur. (Maybe I did not enjoy the last part so much.) I wish I could have stayed longer because four days was definitely not enough. Some impressions:
1. I am often adventurous to a fault. I am also trusting to a fault. When I saw a cheap Airbnb listing for a “cozy apartment with a view of the Paris skyline”, with a grainy picture of a bed and a balcony, I did not think twice about booking. Upon arriving, I discovered that the room was on the eighth floor and could only be reached by climbing a steep, winding staircase. The room itself (a small studio, or what I have since discovered may also be called a “bedsit” – not attached to any other rooms) was barely big enough to fit me and my suitcase, the ceiling slanted to one side so that I could not sit up in bed. And to say that I am not a big person would be an understatement. The number “1911” was inscribed above the entrance to the building, which I can only assume was the year it was built. Closing the window incited an unfamiliar claustrophobia, but opening it made it impossible to sleep because of all of the noise – it seemed as if the entire city of Paris was on the street below.
I went on a walking tour and found out that I was staying in what was once a maid’s quarters. A man named Baron Haussmann undertook a renovation of the city in the 19th century, widening the roads, building a sewer system and creating parks and open spaces throughout the city. Part of his new design for the city was the uniform Haussmann-style apartments, which have since become characteristic of Parisian streets. Despite having seen these buildings in pictures, I guess I had never thought about the small windows on the top floor (until I ended up staying in one of the apartments there).
The interesting takeaway is that people were, at the time, opposed to Haussmann’s radical rebuilding of the city. At the time of construction, citizens were opposed to pretty much everything else now notable about the city: the Eiffel Tower, the Centre Pompidou, the Pyramid at the Louvre…which just shows how “modern” is often taken to mean “ugly”, and to some degree that’s true. (I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston after returning, and there was a large installation on the wall that said “all art has been contemporary”. Profound.) Even many of the newer buildings at Harvard are still seen as ugly – Mather towers, Canaday Hall, etc, and in my opinion they really are. I don’t know if that’s because they were actually poorly designed or if we just think that way because they are not three hundred years old.
And sometimes, preservation comes at the cost of accessibility, or safety, or other issues that Baron Haussmann might have been thinking of. In June, I visited a historical house in Toronto, where retired volunteers gave tours and baked buttery biscuits on a stove from Victorian-era recipes. At the end of it, our tour guide said that “a building barely two hundred years old might not feel very old, but at the rate new condos are rising, soon enough we won’t have much to call history.” I agree and disagree. Preservation is indeed important, but the condos – much as some people might not like them – do serve a social function. They make housing more accessible for people like my family, and can be more energy-efficient and resource-efficient. How do we break down and rebuild when necessary? (The Dongdaemun Design Plaza comes to mind as a good example. Gentle urban renewal in Vienna, too. )
2. The other (related) issue is that Paris is not an accessible city. Lugging around a suitcase up and down endless stairs, not just in buildings but also on the subway, was quite a workout. I ended up moving out of the first apartment because the room was uncomfortably tight and the hike upstairs draining. Moving in and out was almost even more of a hassle, but it was what I had to do. I knew beforehand that the subway doors were not automatic, but I hadn’t anticipated how hard I would have to pull the handle to open them! For all of these reasons, or perhaps because of my post-Bonn fatigue, even spending a few days in Paris felt exerting. Constantly being bombarded by things – street vendors, traffic and people, even beautiful things to see – did not help.
Travel can be tiring. This realization, perhaps, was my version of Paris Syndrome. Like many people who claim to enjoy adventures and exploration, I am automatically disinclined to seek the familiar, or to profess to seeking the familiar. Maybe it’s just a part of the millennial snobbery to which all of us have fallen prey.
3. Still, Paris is Paris for a reason. By now it should no longer be a big deal that, when travelling, I will see works of art that I associate with textbooks or movies. Yet it strikes me every time every time I visit a “big” museum – such as the MOMA in New York or the Belvedere and MuseumsQuartier in Vienna – that some works of art are so inspiring in real life, and that many of them do live up to the hype. Sometimes I think that “famous” works of art are “famous” for a reason. Van Gogh’s paintings, too familiar to the modern eye from cheap printed frames and plastic souvenirs, almost brought tears to my eyes in real life.
The Musée D’Orsay and the Centre Pompidou were the highlight of my time in Paris, even though museums can sometimes lose meaning and become something one does for the sake of pretentious conversations. Once I let go of the thought that I had to cram as many sights I could into my itinerary, the things that I chose to see meant more.
It is hard to be an honest tourist because the stakes are so high. When you have left home and invested much of your time, money and energy into seeing new things, it is difficult to admit that some things do not live up to expectations, and that checking off every box in the must do-see-eat list is a fast track to burnout. But who agreed on the list of things we deem important and historical? Who sets the trends ands standards, and is it that bad to conform?