Paris Disappointed Me—and I Am Glad For It

The Atlantic in Paris: Dispatch #11

I think it's worth introducing another perspective from an American in Paris. What you get from me will necessarily be limited by my own eyes. Here are a different set of eyes.

Dear TNC,

I visited France and Paris during the first few weeks of July and deeply appreciated doing Paris alongside your dispatches (and have been following your reflections since). While I grew up in many ways very far from you in Baltimore, your wonderings on how power and privilege work, how it perpetuates itself, and on education have kept me thinking. In a ninth grade French class in small town Indiana, I too found myself repeating "il fait chaud" and "il fait froid" without any real connection to what this faraway place and people may be like. But now I realize, at age 30, having been in Paris and having read your reflections on language and travel, that what I'm acting out now was begun many years ago in that high school French class when my world was little more than farm, cows, and high school basketball games. I learned the world was bigger, and I wanted to see some of it. Luckily, and with a bit of my own work, I'm able to start living into that curiosity that education first fostered.

I'm realizing Paris has always sort of been an impressionist painting for me - a big, colorful, beautiful blur without much detail. All water lilies and wine and torrid love affairs and Midnight in Paris. And while I absolutely loved the city, I also - like your food poisoning, and I suppose like every time my knowledge is confined to what I get from movies and textbooks and media - found that the dirty detail of the city isn't as pretty as my faraway impressions. In daylight the Eiffel Tower looks sort of rusty-tin-can, the café smoke smells wonderful until it chokes me, the feted Metro is hot and crammed at every hour, and Monet's gardens were swarming with bugs. And further out from the postcard-ready city center, packed and poorly maintained apartment complexes house Parisians who somehow didn't get access to the gold-plated legacy of Versailles.

But, staying out in the 19th, I gained a much greater love for the city seeing its many parts rather than just the postcard scenes. Like Dorchester where I live in Boston, the 19th gets talked down to visitors and even a walk-through by a novice like me brings out some of the cracks of injustice and segregation and poverty in Paris' rich and romantic façade. The 19th reminds me that Paris and being Parisian is a much wider and more colorful picture than any American rendering had given me, that Parisians are people of Europe and Africa and Asia and with various native born and immigrant stories. Also in a city where Richard Wright and James Baldwin and others came to in some sense distance themselves from American racism, the 19th reminds me that this is also an old capital of empire, a place that with all its stunning lights and cultural achievements would like to push its colonial history to the margins, out of view. It seems just as stunning a burden of history to bear as any, smoldering in its extravagant abandoned palaces and oppressed and depressed banlieues.

Sitting in the Luxembourg Gardens on my last day I saw a beautiful palace, but it was no doubt built while peasants starved. I walked down the Champs Elysees and saw the stunning Arc de Triomphe, glorifying an emperor's conquest. I picniced in the Buttes Chaumont park with the lovers kissing and friends toasting and families filling the Indian and Tibetan and Senegalese restaurants nearby, but also walked home through hot, packed, and dilapidated apartment complexes reflecting inequality and oppression that the city's monuments and postcards would like me to believe are of a different era. I'm struck by how many sought an escape from American racism here yet ugly and other forms of racism were stewing here, too. How the problems of conquest and empire and inequality and racism of the past are also our problems now. How, like Baldwin said, history isn't just past but present, too.

In short, Paris disappointed me, and I guess I'm glad for that in some perverse way because I was afraid it was perfect. Maybe now I can start to really love it. And thanks for your dispatches. Keep them coming.