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I write three days into a ten-day stay in Paris — my first visit to this city, and only my second time outside the Anglosphere. I accompany my partner, also a first-timer, and one quite focused on her mission to taste all her favorite gustatory delights at the source. I have already joined her for some of these adventures, but today I explore on my own — and take some time to describe a few first impressions as well.
Paris loves motorcycles, and every kind of motorist drives with a boundless joie de vivre. Paris rumbles at all hours from the roars and growls of motorcycles of every description, driven by people themselves of every size and shape. It brought to mind the wonderful short film Croissant de Triomphe, and make me realize how its pairing of Mickey Mouse with a talking motor scooter was not random; two-wheelers are clearly as iconic to the city as any landmark depicted in that cartoon. I did not know this before visiting!
Before getting my feet on the Parisian pavement, my first impression of the city came from within the cab that carried us from the distant airport to our hotel in the 1st arrondissement. I would not say that I feared for my life, per se; in fact, I probably napped a bit, during the highway portion of this journey. But I couldn’t help but notice that as the cab tumbled and clawed its way up ramps and across lanes, no other driver expressed the outraged astonishment at getting “cut off” that I would have expected in the States. Once we arrived in the city, the cab bore down on every pedestrian and cyclist, rolling with enthusiastic impatience right up to every crosswalk, and I could tell the local piétons as those who did not bat an eye at this behavior. I have in the days since done my best to emulate their calmness, and so far have been struck dead by zero joyful motorists.
If a city hides its skyline, does it truly have one? For a while I thought that the city had no skyline in the modern sense, the whole of Paris a round and flat crepe whose Eiffel Tower gains all the more grandeur for its being the only actual tall thing in the land. Certainly I saw nothing taller around it as the plane descended, and my touring so far by foot and my Metro has encountered only block after long of long, ancient buildings lining every street with a uniform five-story profile. But then last night, wandering the Tuileries by dusk, I happened to gaze west-north-west towards the Egyptian obelisk at the Place de la Concorde, and I saw the Arc de Triomphe in the distance and beyond that — a skyline! Real, modern skyscrapers, in many shapes, but none familiar; they did not announce their city in the way of the ancient monuments they stood behind.
And when I walked towards them, strange things happened. Through some magic of the local geography that I cannot possibly comprehend, the Arc and everything beyond vanished. I did not watch them become obscured by other features, or gradually but visibly drop under a sudden elevation change; they simply exited my awareness, and by the time I stood close enough to see the obelisk’s enigmatic hieroglyphs, no trace of the skyline remained. And at that very moment the Eiffel Tower, once again the dominating the horizon, started to sparkle through its 9 PM light show, as if laughing with gentle delight at my gawping confusion.
This explained why I hadn’t seen any of those distant buildings when I’d visited the same square during the heat of the day before, walking in from another direction. But it didn’t explain the mechanics behind this amazing and unnerving city-scale optical illusion. I cannot say how much intention lies behind Paris’s camouflaging of its vertical aspect, but it strikes me as in-character for this place, somehow. Of course it admits skyscrapers as a modern necessity, but it chooses not to center them, or to have re-centered itself around them in the modern era. Paris wants you, the visitor, to think of it as ancient, and expansive, and to leave the impression of glittering glass-and-steel towers for other cities.
Immersion makes French surprisingly readable, to an Anglophone. When I visited Denmark a few years ago, being surrounded by a the text of a foreign language made from a familiar alphabet started to weigh heavily on my psyche after a couple of weeks. I expected this to happen again in Paris, and maybe I still will hit that breaking point before my return in one more week. But for now, I find my bath in written French surprisingly comfortable. Danish felt like a language made of Teflon, seldom if ever offering any way to for my poor monoglot mind to break into the meaning of any sign or plaque or other public-textual expression. French feels wonderfully porous by comparison. A memorial wants to tell me en Français that an event involving the Revolution or the Vichy government happened here, or that a certain gate is closed at night, or that pedestrians are advised that the traffic here can get especially joyful, and in most every case I get the gist.
In the process, and through no conscious effort on my part, I have found myself picking up words both written and spoken for the first time in my life. Unlike my time in Denmark, where I was too shy to even try saying “hello” in the local language, I have been speaking a little more confidently here, even if just playing with a handful of basic politisse — opening every transaction with “Bonjour!” and closing with “Merci!”. I’ve added bonsoir! and excusez-moi! to my repertoire, after hearing some locals say these things to each other. It feels really great, even if limited to just interjections. (And, inevitably, it reminds me more than a little of the best parts of Heaven’s Vault.)
I know that coming back to the United States and not having to think about language like this will come as a great relief; I am not a naturally adventurous person, and have no wish to stay outside my comfort zone too long. But while my partner busies herself cataloguing cheeses, I feel glad that I — along for the ride — can better myself a little bit rather than just count the hours until the flight home.
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