June 5th, 2015
... you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form and when you think that in the cold, violent, meaningless universe that Paris exists (!)...
-Midnight in Paris
I wasÂ here for a conference and this being my first time in Europe, I tookÂ a bit of my time out to explore the city, to walk along some of its utterly pretty streets and boulevards. First things first. Eiffel tower would have been tolerable had it not been swamped byÂ aÂ crazed army of selfie stick wielding tourists. They descend from packed buses and they emerge from underground metros in vast droves, theirÂ phonesÂ ready to snap up their photos asÂ the tower servesÂ merely as a puny framing deviceÂ to their massive narcissism.Â Questionable merchandise is being peddled to them and theyÂ walk around with sad plastic replicas of the tower. It's all a bit much butÂ even without these pesky selfie maniacs I think I would not have been impressed with the tower. It's a useless heap of steel and I have seen bigger heaps where oneÂ can actually live.
Paris's other great attraction, the mighty Notre-Dame, is a different matter altogether.Â I was living not too far from it and had the chanceÂ of visiting it at various hours. During most of the day it suffers from the same disease that the tower suffers from - too many people who are not really interested in it but only in how they look with it in the background. However, I woke up one morning at 5:30 (jetlag) and walked over to the Notre-Dame. I was alone there for a good hour and a half and had the time to admire the intricate sculptural details on its arches - from itsÂ various stone statues to its many miniature castles no two of which appeared to be similar, from its flying angels to its ominous gargoyles.Â From the inside, its towering prayer hall is awe-inspiringÂ as the morning Sun filters down through its high and mighty stained glass windows in solid columns of light.Â The hall is vast and and immensely tall, it is dark and mysterious, every little sound echoes endlessly within it and transforms itÂ into a complexÂ organism with a life and a memory of its own. Each echo reverberates and recreates and reaches deep into its 1000 yearÂ history and brings back sensations drenched in the characters of the structure itself - their essence is one of dark and cold stone and of gruff and penetrating sermons.Â To think that those stones were laid down by people 900 years ago, that for all this time innumerable people with their own dreams and insecurities have visited this place and derived a sense of strength! I found the following lines particularly notable:
Each year, fourteen million visitors from around the world enter through the portals of Notre-Dame, this masterpiece of Gothic architecture. Yet the cathedral is more than just an historic monument: it is, above all else, "the house of God and the house of man" - alive with faith and prayer and filled with Christian and human experience alike. The cathedral is witness to the life of the People of God, of the radiance of their charity, of their fervent hope.
Readers probably know that I have no faith but it does not mean that I have no heart either.
From the very little experience I had in this city, I feel that Parisians (and French in general perhaps) have figured out some basic ideas of life better than others. They seem to enjoy the various little pleasures that life provides, none of which has much to do with wealth. When not working they lounge about in various public spaces, reading books and chatting with friends. The public spaces themselves have been designed with beauty in mind and are often created around sculptures and buildings with deep historical reach. It probably gives them an invaluable perspective on life, on how to enjoy theirÂ ephemeral moment under the Sun. In a public square I saw a bunch of kids playing footballÂ and it was the happiest part of my trip since it reminded me of my own childhood back in India and also made me aware of how rare the sight is in the US. In a space of aboutÂ 50 feet by 100 feet, around 40 kids of all ages were jostling for 6 different footballs. Some fell down, got injured, cried their hearts out, and began playing again. The youngest ones were probably 6 years old and the oldest were around 15. I could make out micro-dynamics which necessarily appear when kids of different ages get together. Some bullying by the older ones, some elderly treatment as well, hesitation and a little fearÂ inÂ the youngÂ kids, all part of life and not once did any grown up interfere in any of it. To think that I have never seen such an elemental display of childhood in my 10 years in the US is shocking and also says something about the society there. I think it is safe to say that a child growing up in the urban parts of America has, on average, been dealt a very bad hand. Thanks to their manic and overprotective parents he/she will never know what it means to be a child and will grow up with an unrealistic understanding of reality.
I hope that what I have seen in my limited time in Paris is symptomatic of the larger culture because it is mostly very good. Others stand to learn a lot from the French and it is more, much more, than merely good food.