The Judgment of Paris vol. III – a somewhat jaded love letter to the city
As we’ve already announced in these two previous posts here and here, this was going to be a series of thoughts on the “judgment of Paris”. This time around, it is not about the mythical no-win situation where an aesthetic arbitration eventually costs you your life, family and country; nor it is a game changing wine tasting rendition of the story of David vs Goliath. This one is quite subjective and personal, and it regards the judgment people who come to Paris have of the city – as well as the judgment the city of Paris has of them. As you are aware of, the syntagme “The judgment of Paris” can be read both ways so we aim to address them both.
We are going to talk about the experience of living in Paris, as it is (you can well imagine) quite different from the experience you may have when you visit the city. Tourist’s Paris is one thing – student’s, employées (and then again, depending in which line of work), entrepreneurs, etc., those are all very different cities. In a list of posts yet to come we aim to explore all of them. An “objective” image of a city may only be had if all those different views are compiled and compared. So we’ll try our best in the months and years to come.
Are you a better person than you were before you came to Paris ? Can a city impress its beauty upon your being ? We sure hope it can.
Why would we consider doing it? Well, as we’re giving the guided tours of Paris, we’re often asked what’s it like to live here. Our clients wish to know about the city beyond the cheerful and often idealized touristic version of Paris – that is why they opt for us. They ask us about different aspects of living here – what’s it like to do this and that, what are the French people and Parisians like, how do they dress, behave, socialize etc. etc. As you can imagine, every place has its own specificities and is slightly (or very much) different in its own way. So we’ll try to address how living in Paris changes you regarding its character; also, we’ll try to establish if you can actually change the city.
after having tasted some of the choice parisian pastries, you will never be the same
First thing that needs to be said is how the judgment of Paris evolves. When you first come here, you tend to be impressed by many things. Beautiful buildings, near perfect urban planning, orderly streets and a perfect alignment of nearly everything. Parks are lovely, store windows are too ; you can see old churches of different styles and stumble upon the most amazing discoveries accidentally. Most of the prettiest things the city has to show you are quite understanded and are hanging around without much pomp and announcement. This is what can make you fall in love with the city and forever alter your judgment not only of it, but of other cities as well, as you realize that they have a hard time keeping up.
as in most places in the world you don’t get to see such detailed, refined yet outrageously kitschy store windows
Depending on your situation and sensibilities, this initial “falling in love” phase can take anywhere from two weeks to six months. Still, there is a catch (as there is always one) – you build your expectations high and you expect everything about this city, all of its aspects to be able to match its looks. Not necessarily the case.
First you start noticing how unnecessarily complicated everything is. Famously bad and inefficient, the French administration comes from another dimension (the Italians and the Greeks claim that they have it even worse but we all find that very hard to believe). Most of it is still organized basically as Napoleon the I left it. It never changed and it probably never will. You understand that many things take twice or trice the time to be done here than in most other places in the world. As the seasons change (most of us for some reason came here in the late summer/early autumn) you start noticing the little things. A below-average weather, often rain, very poorly organized subway system, and so on. You get to a point where your daily routine takes over and you don’t find the time to enjoy the beauty of the city – at that point, it is as if there are only flaws and setbacks, and the lovely appearance that they are wrapped up in does little for you anymore.
like these sites of random splendor that tent to live you somewhat aloof
Down those lines, another interesting thing happens, and this is something that rarely anyone living here can avoid. The cultural scene is immensely rich and there is a lot to do. Constant exhibitions, many of them very well made, famous names from all over the world. When we were studying art history in other countries, we’d dream of seeing these sculptures and paintings in real life. Then you come to Paris and realize that most of them are here – even if they are not, they will eventually come as there are many temporary exhibitions borrowing the pieces from the different museums. So it happens that you get exposed to so much top notch art that you become blazé. You’re walking down the museum hallway ; you’re passing by the masterpieces of both past and present, and even though you are rationally aware of their importance, somehow the emotional response is no longer the same. This is decadent in many ways, but is also almost inevitable for newly made Parisians. The ones who are born here suffer from this illness less, as they don’t ever get over-exposed to art, not is such an insatiable manner anyhow. Much like with a person living in any other city in the world, they feel that they have the entire life to go and visit those important museums – and they never do. You ought to ask yourself – when was the last time you visited a museum in the city you live in ? It’s always there, and you know that you can always go, so you don’t. Well, same here.
and you understand that your thirst for discovering these lovely Parisian off the beaten path curiosities is as strong as it ever was
Just when you get at your cynical worst and are slugging through the seemingly very banal and overly complicated quagmire that is the Parisian quotidien, something starts happening. The spring comes, and the days start getting considerably longer. The weather gets less miserable and you start noticing again how lovely the parks are. After half a year, you’ve picked up on the local customs, and if you weren’t comfortable with your French, now you’re more so. Intimately related to that, your administration ordeals seem to be lessened as you start understanding the system. You see that you need to start every conversation with a smile and a cheerful attitude, even if the desk lady looks and acts as a mixture of a witch from Macbeth and a Pythia from the Delphi Oracle. The city starts opening itself up to you as you start wandering have you developed a case of meteoropathy living here. You start hanging at the canal St Martin and generally appreciating life more than you did. And everything seems to be going back in the good direction again.
for example, you start liking Petit Palais again
That is usually the time when you understand how your judgment of this city has changed considerably. Not only of this city, but of other cities as well. First, you don’t look at the place you came from through the same eyes (wherever that place may be). You see both its positive and its negative sides better. Second, you judge Paris differently, because you have changed. You’re more blazé, but more relaxed about things. The constant anxiety and this pulsating sense of emergency that the city can produce can make you do but two things – burn out, or decide that you simply don’t care. You start appreciating very quite Sundays when the streets are completely empty (unless you’re living in the Marais, then they are packed beyond reason). You are mostly left aloof in front of the majestic and grandiose sites like the Louvre, the Versailles or the Triumphal Arc (especially when you come to understand what they stand for and what is the message they are meant to convey); instead, you are more likely to be enthusiastic about small and unassumingly cute corners of the city. You can appreciate things as you get to understand just how layered this experience has been. Paris will do that to a person. It will make you understand that a lovely building is not just that – a sight to behold. There are centuries of history in it – most of it dark, surprisingly twisted and horrid. Its symbols and decorations all mean something precise, and invite you to understand them. If you have the time, you do, and the experience is quite rewarding, albeit a rabbit hole that keeps sucking you further in. We are in that rabbit hole and we don’t see a way out – in a way, we don’t really want to, neither.
because in the end, in Paris you get to see things like this “Glory to the defeated” sculpture, an absurd notion (not in itself, but knowing the historical event that it was based upon) made into a beautiful work of art
To conclude, living in this city will make you go through some rough times, a couple of panic attacks and pétages de câble (look it up) – but it will give your perception more depth than you had before you came. It will change you, mostly for the better, and it will give you incentive that you try to change it back too – also mostly for the better. It is a challenge to leave a trace in a city that is so rich with history and (in)famous deeds of great women and men. The most valuable lesson there is might be that behind the greatest beauty lies the deepest horror, and in itself that is possibly the most inspiring, moving and enticing notion that you can conceive. This city is exactly that – and we’d all love to explain you how, and why, in person.
all photos © our dear colleague and friend Anita Ruso @cherryblossomtime