Paris. We’re supposed to say the name of the city in a whisper; reverent and pious. We who are privileged with travel are expected to send text messages back to our friends full of words like ‘magnificent’ and ‘stunning’; tweeting pictures of gargoyles into the void. Delectable – inspired – exquisite. We post lots on Facebook, demanding that replies like “Wow, you are in Paris!” fill our feed, attesting to our sophistication, and yes, our superiority. The faux philosophers of the new world order like to talk about Paris, copies of Thomas Piketty in hand, as a magical land free from the laws of economics which so obfuscate them; toward which we all must strive if we wish to secure our place in their order. Talking of Tucson, Tombstone and Gilbert? Too provincial – it is to those who pontificate about Paris that the world belongs.
We’re not supposed to complain about the metro – dirty and broken down and always late. We’re not supposed to talk about the ‘tagged’ walls marking the territory of this or that or the other minority gang. We’re supposed to ignore the racism – when a woman glares and screams something out of a half-lowered window of her slow-moving car which those of us who speak French know means ‘go home’, attached to an epithet I won’t trouble you with.
We’re supposed to see cafés full of people who we must consider to be our betters, how can they not be? They are drinking wine and smoking on the Rue Montmartre. We’re not supposed to know that there is a cordon around the city buttressing old Paris – the Paris full of fat tourists and euro-intellectuals – from the ghettos, where most working class and almost all the immigrants live. Gunfights at night, robberies, violence, discrimination. Hate. Terrorism. We’re supposed to ignore the soldiers walking swagger style in front of the beautiful old buildings.
Notwithstanding all this, and my skepticism, as I walked down ancient avenues and beside famous buildings, I suppose I finally ‘got it’. Because – using the tools of my imperfect trade – I finally saw Paris for what she had been, not what she has become. Her history, the past of struggle and violence and war – of significance. The Arc de Triomphe, blotting out the herd of Japanese with selfie-sticks to replace them with an arrogant Hitler, hands clasped behind his back admiring his newest conquest. Down the narrow streets beside the Seine ignoring the trashed electric cars plugged into vandalized posts, replacing them with barricades of angry revolutionaries. The house we had rented, haunted by ghosts of the past and memories of when it had hosted poets, writers, musicians – and probably Nazis.
We revere Paris for her role as one of the centers of western ‘liberalism’ (in the correct use of that word – meaning that which is suited to an un-coerced life). The Reign of Terror. Headless queens and dungeons full of tortured prisoners. Thomas Jefferson; and the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’. Our struggle too – those of us who have taken the torch. Incidentally Paris is again at the forefront of another epic struggle for liberty; this time against forces of totalitarian religion seeking to destroy the secular republic, of which the French are so proud and so protective.
For me, the most important facet of this story comes from her more recent history. Because I too am a novelist (although if I were forced to live from this trade, I would most certainly also eat pigeons), and as such also a romantic: I see only the saga of the grand moments of Parisian literature, divorcing them from the booth where plastic Eifel Tower statues are sold for a few euros. Visions of Hemingway running around the Jardin du Luxembourg. The Hotel d’Angleterre; and of course the great Shakespeare and Company. A remarkable era, and my imagination did run wild.
Alas, I may never return to Paris. The epicenter of our world’s fight for freedom has moved an ocean away. Hemingway is dead; the Belle Époque is over. My generation of novelists and artists and freedom fighters must build our own mise en scène, we cannot steal theirs; despite how badly we would love the Paris of the past to live on. (Who knows, maybe Gilbert Arizona will be next?) And we can always go back in our minds to see her as she was – back in the days of her vibrant past.