Home > Art, Culture, History, Travel > A Sojourn in Continental Europe, Part 1: Thoughts on Paris

A Sojourn in Continental Europe, Part 1: Thoughts on Paris

Returning from my first vacation jaunt to Europe for over a decade, there are a profusion of thoughts on the arts, architecture, history and still-living culture of the rich and often-tumultuous continent that have been sparked by my travels, and seem worth sharing in one form or another. I begin with the town where so many continental travellers likewise commence: Paris.

The fascinating French capital bookended the trip itinerary, and while a couple of days was hardly enough to soak in enough of one of the world’s great cities, it was enough to get a feel for the character of the place. Seemingly equal amounts of righteous blood and inked superlatives have been spilled over Paris, amounts that feel both excessive and insufficient, given the city’s bizarre power. This shall not be an essay on the benefits of central urban planning, or a treatise on how Paris’ beguiling romanticism has survived revolutions, wars, gilded ages, and the influx of corporate culture (McDonald’s across from Jardins de Luxembourg, fashion chain stores dotting the Champs-Élysées, etc.). And certainly there are elements of the French civic culture that are less than praise-worthy, in particular the harsh ethnic, cultural and economic divisions between the dwellers and workers of central, historic Paris and the sprawling banlieues on its periphery, which occasionally erupt in violent, frustrated rebellion at the obvious network of persistent inequalities (and Torontonians like to think there’s a downtown/suburbs split in their city!).

One cannot ignore how the firm wall between the 20 arrondisements agglomerated in 1860 and the wider Île-de-France region has constructed the core of the modern Paris into a tourist powerhouse. The charming, romantic destination of legend (and largely, it must be acknowledged, reality) has always been a playground for the 1% and therefore a monument to inequality. Still, the centuries-long series of massive public works, monuments, and cheap, easily-accessible cultural institutions, from former royal palaces that are now public gardens (Tuileries, Luxembourg) or national museums (Versailles, the spectacularly comprehensive art museum the Louvre) to industrial- or corporate-age developments like the Eiffel Tower site, Pompidou Centre or the skyscraper city of La Défense has extended the glories to the people in a manner befitting a country whose modern history is still very much defined by a mass uprising against the assumptions of aristocratic privilege.

But it’s worth remembering that Paris’ history goes back further than the ancien régime, and that was what much of this visit was spent confirming. The city has done a fine job preserving hints of its deeper past in key places, in particular at the Musée National du Moyen Âge at L’Hôtel Cluny, with its treasure trove of medieval art, and at the city’s oldest standing monument, the cathedral of Notre Dame. The literal centre of France (kilometre zero for all distances in the country is the star in the paving stones on the square outside the church), the inspiring Gothic bulk of Notre Dame may well embody spiritual aspirations that the thoroughly secularized republic no longer shares, even if Victor Hugo contributed to its Romanticist re-casting with his seminal novel largely set in its environs.

But the exquisite stone sculptures adorning its towering facade, the famous twisted gargoyles (actually added in the 19th century restoration), pious knights, bishops and kings, and demonic fiends tormenting sinners at the Last Judgment, speak non-verbal multitudes about the nature of official power in the Middle Ages and today. In a vivid visual illustration for a mostly non-literate society, these depictions of the terrifying fate of sinners carried a clear message from the clerical (and, by extension, secular) authorities to their afeared parishioners: do exactly what we say, or be prepared for nasty beings to put the hurt on you for eternity. It’s a deeply medieval conception of Catholic morality, predicated on punitive assumptions, and it’s reflected strongly in the modern France’s civic order in which obedience to established power in which obedience is compelled by the threat of withering social disdain and bureaucratic sarcasm more so than by clumsy state-imposed force (although the paramilitary security forces patrolling the public squares that front on Notre Dame, the Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower suggest otherwise with an uncharacteristic lack of subtlety).

Similar ideas spring to mind, albeit in a divergent manner, in the other main location of travel on this trip, the oft-misunderstood but lovely nation of Belgium. Some related thoughts on these travels are to follow soon. Stay tuned.

Categories: Art, Culture, History, Travel
  1. jumpingpolarbear
    August 19, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    I got to get my lazy back to Paris one time :).

  1. August 21, 2012 at 8:40 pm
  2. April 24, 2013 at 8:58 am
  3. April 27, 2013 at 5:21 pm

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