In a city known for museums, I did not go to any. Let me explain:
Paris was my last stop on my monthlong Eurotrip. I had never been to Paris before, let alone France prior to this trip. Going to Paris feels different from going to many other places. I completely attribute this to the romance around Paris. It is known as the City of Lights. Everyone who goes there loves it. They consider it special. They consider their time in Paris a special time in their lives. Paris also has significant historical importance, particularly in European history.
Personally, I was going to be the first person in my immediate family to visit Paris. Many of my friends had been there, and European history is an important bond that I share with many of my hometown friends. Many of us were in AP European History with Mrs. Williams in high school. She’s a special teacher that left an impact on all of us. She’s also a Paris fan herself, despite being a proud German national. I was even skipping the first week of classes back at UNC to spend a week in Paris (turned out a few inches of snow nixed classes all week, but I was not able to anticipate that when I planned the trip).
Despite the romance around Paris, my visit has to be put in context of my entire trip. I had been in Europe for more than three weeks and I had already visited a ton of quality museums and landmarks in Belgium, Amsterdam, Grenoble, and Lyon. In many of these places I saw person after person doing the same thing. They would shuffle into a new room, take a camera photo, maybe a selfie with the item on display, and then they would move on. I saw very little thought or reflection. It did not seem that anyone was going to museums except to go to them. This behavior also created a herd movement throughout the museums which really frustrated me. It restricted my own ability to read, look, and think at my own pace. I also felt the need to not spend too much money in Paris, lest I run short a few months later before I was to start working full time after school. Museum visits, after all, add up and get expensive rather quickly.
The whole museum experience and co-existing with other tourists also brought up a lot of disturbing thoughts about travel, tourism, and social media. Why do people feel the need to take a picture of everything? Of themselves everywhere? Do they go back and look at everything on a regular or irregular basis? Do they post to social media the pictures of themselves? If not, why do they do it? Am I the same way? I am a “collector” after all. Is this blog any different from their behaviors?
I’m sure there are a number of scientists and cultural commentators thinking and researching more deeply about this subject. However, it had worn on me thoroughly enough by Paris to completely extinguish my desire to explore the many halls of French art and collections.
Instead of visiting the many museums around the city I mainly walked around neighborhoods. Some self-guided, some with tours. I believe my first neighborhood was Montmarte. It was pleasantly whimsical, yes. Did I find it as seductive and easy to fall in love with as others find the relatively recent addition to the Paris city proper, no. I do wish I would have gone to a cabaret show or a nice jazz lounge at some point. Next time. It did inspire me to watch Amelie. That was a nice way to enrich my perspective on Montmarte. Amelie ❤ Nino!
The Marais was certainly my favorite neighborhood. It had just the right mix of historical intrigue, Jewish history, and queer culture to thoroughly captivate me. I went back on at least one occasion after my initial tour of the neighborhood. Place des Vosges cemented itself as my favorite location in Paris. I found the nearly perfect symmetry of the enclave-like square very captivating. If I am ever fortunate enough to go back, I think I will try to stay in Marais or very close by.
My week was not solely composed of wanderings and neighborhood explorations. I spent an entire day at Versailles, which was magnificent. The scale, on all standards, of that palace is, to my knowledge, without comparison. In size, it is utterly enormous, especially when you take into account the side palaces and estates. The gardens were magnificent, even in the winter. The palace is also exquisitely opulent in every aspect, from the architecture and interior features, to the artwork, furniture, and linens. As I was walking from the train station to the palace I saw a building covered in scaffolding that I thought was a new office building under construction. Turns out it was the palace Opera House being refurbished! No expense was spared on Versailles, and this most unfortunately contributed to the downfall of the monarchy, which itself had become so closely attached to the palace.
On Friday, my final day in Paris, some classmates, also studying abroad, had descended upon the city, and I was able to spend the afternoon with my friend Pat. We took a tour of the Old City where Paris had its beginnings and also entered Notre Dame Cathedral and descended to the catacombs beneath the city. So often the catacombs are portrayed as a macabre or seedy location, but it felt nearly therapeutic for me. It seemed like a dignified internment for so many people that likely had very difficult lives. The orderliness and low lighting felt somewhat soothing, and I was very glad that I went down to see one of the most famous catacombs in the world. Pat likes to remind me that after the catacombs we shared a charcuterie, and I did partake in the porcine delicacies on the board despite being a “vegetarian.”
To say I did not go to any museums is a bit of an overstatement. Technically, the catacombs are a museum, and so is Versailles. Notre Dame is also quite museum-like, especially with all of the other tourists streaming through the church with me. I also intentionally walked past the Louvre and allowed myself to be astonished by the size of the building. I knew that it is a big, former urban palace with many wings and expansions. However, the wings of the buildings seem to extend for a kilometer away from the central entrance to the museum. I felt like I was walking for ages before I actually reached the famous I. M. Pei pyramids at the center of the complex. The Louvres actually helped me frame and put Versailles in perspective. The Louvre felt beyond enormous, and Versailles is still bigger.
Maybe I am forgetting some of the intricacies of French history, but I always felt that the French monarchy was always a small man in large robes. Perhaps in a sexist way I’m projecting stereotypes of French national femininity on to their national symbols, but the French monarchy always seemed to be causing unnecessary trouble throughout Europe, indebting itself and the country with unnecessary luxuries and wars, but yet always demanding a sort of status or rank in European affairs and the annals of history. Was the War of Spanish Succession a result of their unrealized ambitions or the cause of their oversize robes? That’s a question for a more studied scholar. However, I do admire much about their country today. In some ways, their revolutionary commitment provides an example to us here in the country that in part inspired the French Revolution. All of the French people that I met over my three weeks were exceedingly kind and nice to me, and I hope to continue to learn about French culture and history in the future.
Despite not visiting many of the traditional first-time Paris museums and sites, I truly enjoyed my time in the city. It’s a diverse city wondrously rich in culture and history. However, I do not really see myself ever living in France for an extended period of time. I found that their reputation for lengthy meals is well founded. I’m the type of person who often finds myself with more that I want to accomplish in a day than I have time for in the end. I don’t have time to spend half of my waking hours at the dining room table, much as I’d like to! France will just have to suffice for more visits from me, but I do not desire to live in the country.