It feels strange to be young in an old city. I never noticed it in Philadelphia, even among the colonial houses by Penn’s Landing, but the thread of history is so short there (no offense Ben Franklin, Betsy Ross, and co) compared to Paris, which is mythically, fantastically old. Sometimes walking among these buildings can make you feel more alive. Other times you feel like you’re inside a memorial, a museum. Dostoevsky said that Europe was a graveyard and maybe it is. But you always feel like the city knows something that you don’t know, that there have been so many people here walking these streets that somehow all that experience must have accumulated into wisdom and maybe even one stone in an old building in Paris knows more about the human race than you do. I’m glad that you, Hemingway (can I call you Hem?), share my sentiments. You know and I know that youth sometimes leads us to believe that life is simple, but in Paris everything is complicated. We’re always just walking on the surface of something deeper. Almost everything in Paris used to be something else. Take Place de la Concorde, for instance. It was first built as Place Louis XV and there was a statue of the king riding a horse in the center. This symbol of the monarchy was then renamed Place de la Revolution and the guillotine took the place of the statue, along with a different statue, this time of Liberty, and when Madame Roland was executed there she looked up at it and said “O Liberty, how many crimes are committed in thy name.” Later, out of distaste for the memory of the Revolution, the name was changed to Place de la Concorde, the place of harmony, which everyone knows is only an image projected over the surface of its bloody history.
This is a perfect place to insert a photo of Place de la Concorde. Unfortunately, I don’t have one. But I do have pictures of this other stuff:
Anyway…back to what I was saying. Maybe the fact that Paris is so old and complicated and has changed so much contributes to the way Parisians see life. They seem to appreciate that there is more than what’s on the surface, that there can be more than one “truth.” My French grammar professor instructed us to write essays in which we do not argue a point, or even state our own opinion, but instead just “reflect upon” both sides of an issue. We are supposed to “create a debate within ourselves.” Basically, it’s good to be indecisive and to weigh both sides without declaring a winner. Now this is good news for me, as a person who takes an hour to decide what to eat for dinner. However, it’s very different from the usual American college essay-writing style, in which you argue a point to the bitter end. You’re trying to prove that what you’re saying is right, that you have found the “truth” or the solution to whatever issue is at stake. Perhaps this is because Americans like to get things done, to go from point A to point B, to solve problems. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I like just reflecting on something for its own sake, without solving anything. Perhaps their lack of a need for solutions is what makes the French so interested in politics (I kid), which is a huge part of everyday life and frequently the subject of debate. As evidence I present to you the following dinner-table conversation:
“I prefer Barack Obama to Sarkozy.”
“Sarkozy says he will lower taxes but he raises them. If Obama says he will lower taxes, he lowers taxes. Also, Obama is nicer.” -Anthony, Parisian child, age 7