Some cities are simply pinnacles of… an essence, a quality - an idea; and you can typically find an adequate word or phrase to complete the thought, 'this city is...'. For London, ‘western’ history, Royalty, iconic symbols like Tower Bridge or Big Ben. Athens - the beacon of the Acropolis, and the echoes of great minds shaping ideas. One idea, the one we call we call democracy, still glistens through the ages. Rome, with the ancient presence of the Forum, presents quite a different expression of ‘civilization.’ And across the Tiber, the Vatican rises powerfully - another voice in the shaping of civilization, and the humanity that either flourishes, or suffers from its influence.
I had never considered that “place” might possess character… and that the character of a place would not only shape the perception of its occupants… but also create it. When traveling, I find places, cities, vistas... that seem to resonate with unspoken meaning.
And, not long ago, I found myself in a city... a ‘famous/infamous’ place... reputably haughty, narcissistic, rude is commonly stated... and all I managed to see was a beacon of artistic expression, a celebration of its multiple means of presentation, and, in my experience, some of the warmest, friendliest, helpful people I’ve met anywhere. And yes, this city is Paris.
Here you walk down city streets, quite normal ‘middle-class-like’ neighborhoods, and on every other corner you find a masterpiece of sculpture, or architectural design, or, just ONE MORE famous museum. Notre Dame, the Arc d'Triumph, the Eiffel Tower... Such powerful historical icons... all in the same city. The opera house, commissioned by Napoleon III in 1861 - l'Opéra de Paris, is typical of Parisian civic expression — a celebration of design, grandly scaled, palatial, with golden statuary atop - it literally dazzles.
And... the museums. Imagine a museum built into the former train station for a large European city, (it’s simply huge) and the size of the collection there is less than half of the much more famous Louvre. The former is Musée d’Orsay - and it is splendid. Visitors experienced with the Louvre insist three days (that’s 3!) are necessary to experience the entirety of its collection. We’ve visited Paris several times, but have never taken the time to ‘do it right.’ Next trip.
In May, we viewed Monet extensively... the Musée Marmottan Monet, with its wonderful collection of earlier Monet work, and Musée de l’Orangerie, which presents his fantastic murals... produced later in his life. I cannot look at his work without amazement - his ability to create so much with such delicate color, yet strokes that are not precise - but exactly enough to transmit essence - of form, of context, of inescapable beauty. The murals in Musée de l’Orangerie were astonishing — the scale, the sense of envelopment, a visual scene so powerful you visualize yourself there... on the banks of a stream or shallow pond... admiring the beauty, captured by a moment you wish were unending. Here is also a remarkable collection of other impressionists... and abstract artists. It helped me see progression of artistic thought/expression - how opening one door of presentation then invited a next, and then a next. A sweet epiphany this experience — observing ‘artistic’ evolution.
And lastly, this trip opened ‘neighborhood’ to us. We found a most delightful hotel, the Renaissance le Parc Trocedero, with a friendly, supportive -- helpful staff. Clarisse, who greeted us when we first arrived, was the epitome of both service and thoughtfulness... we were so delighted with her we still exchange e-mails with updates and best wishes. The concierge desk was most helpful, and our favorite bar-tender from the trip, made an admirable Manhattan for me. Down the street, we found an excellent street-side restaurant/bar (XVIe Ave.) with a shrimp appetizer that was fantastic. Here the staff was friendly and informative as well, and the service - outstanding. We walked this area for several days — found an excellent bakery [macaroons!], coffee shop and a wine merchant. We can’t wait to return and get to know this small part of Paris better.
We’ve learned, traveling, that ‘reputation’ is a remarkably culturally centered concept. As we discovered Paris, and its multiple treasures more deeply, I began to wonder if much of the criticism leveled “against” this wonderful city doesn’t come, unfortunately, from many who encounter a city beyond their experience, and their capacity for appreciation. Too often, other nations, cities and cultural norms measure ‘down’ — rather than ‘up’ to the lofty ideals Paris presents. It can be somewhat undermining of one’s own culture to encounter an environment that embraced a collective celebration of humanity and artistic accomplishment centuries ago.
It is perhaps the greatest city in the world for a simple fact — it accomplishes a most sublime alchemy. Here a group of humanity determined to create a model of artistic celebration… one that produces wonder, delight, even awe, from the clay... of humanity.
If for no other reason, this accomplishment of purpose indeed makes Paris, the 'city of lights.'