Carolyn over at Goddess in a Teapot wrote a post recently about finding the wild where you live and described her time of living in NYC. I commented on her post that one of my best friends lives in NYC and that I’d visited her several times but detest the city. I don’t like having to crane my neck to see the sky, being surrounded by concrete and what I feel is such an energy of conquering of nature instead of living with and among nature. Her post made me think of a city I do love, though. A city I had the opportunity to live in for about 10 months: Paris.
Living in Paris was amazing. I had majored in French language and culture and International Studies when I was an undergrad, and I moved to Paris for my first job after getting my undergraduate degree. That time in my life was a very tumultuous one. I had set spirituality off to the side and gone through a sort of “anything goes” period for about a good portion of my time in college but was spiralling out of control. The job I landed was, ironically, working at a church. I felt like I couldn’t handle things on my own without any spirituality, so I had sort of given up and intended to attempt to return to my conservative Christian roots. Even more ironically, perhaps, was that it was during this time of working in a church in this amazing city when I was finally able to muster up my courage and begin studying a spirituality that had always intrigued me and to which I felt a pull to: Paganism. It was very much a time of rebirth for me, and there is no city that could have been a more perfect setting in which to experience that for me than Paris.
I had lived in France for a long period before Paris, having spent my junior year abroad living in Strasbourg, France (another amazing city), so I was relatively familiar with Paris. When I was a student, me, two of my classmates, and our Parisian program contact had taken a four day trip to Paris before our school year had started. Getting around the city is amazingly easy. Paris doesn’t require you to have a car unless you want to travel outside of the city. The Parisian metro (subway) is all color-coded – you don’t really even need to speak the language to be able to use it. By the second day of our short trip into the city when I was a student, me and my two classmates knew the metro system better than our French guide.
Paris is centralized, so it’s a big circle, and the districts within it (called arondissements) are actually in the shape of a spiral. Fitting given where I was in my life when I was living there. Like many people who attempt to go back in time to a place they knew once, I found that I had changed too much. I couldn’t go back. I had grown, and the spiritual system in which I was raised no longer made sense to me. I struggled trying to figure out where to go, what to do now, and the streets of Paris made for an excellent environment in which I was able to do some serious reflecting and soul searching.
Unlike many American cities, Paris (and many cities in France) are built within nature instead of trying to take it over. There are a vast number of parks throughout Paris, trees are everywhere, fountains are everywhere. There is a respect for nature within the architecture; aside from the Tour de Montparnasse and a single section toward the outskirts of the city (La Defense) where all the skyscrapers are exiled to, all buildings in the main part of Paris operate under an ordinance which mandates them to be 8 stories or fewer. It isn’t necessary to crane one’s neck to see the sky in Paris. The Seine flows through the city, and the quais (platforms that are like very wide sidewalks) that bank the Seine fill with people in the warmer months especially, simply hanging out by the water, enjoying the view, celebrating life and their friendships, or simply taking walks. The French have a great reverence for nature, and that reverence is very evident in Paris.
One of the things I remember most, other than the smell which I don’t think I could describe, is the light. The light in Paris is different, clearer. At sunset, the light plays against the buildings and off of the river, and there’s something so pure about it. It glows differently than light anywhere I’ve encountered here in the States. And the history of the city – oh! To walk where people walked a thousand years ago – it’s just incredible. To see buildings that were constructed in the 12th and 13th centuries and to be able to go inside; buildings that are still cared for and preserved. Relics and artifacts from hundreds and hundreds of years to millennia ago on display, not just in museums but in the city itself. There is a depth to Paris that sparked something within me. There’s something about being in a place so old that helped me to realize how big the world is, how much more there is to it than what I could currently see.
One of my favorite things was to take walks at night. I lived just up the street from the Eiffel Tower. To be walking at night and see the Eiffel Tower – it lights up every hour on the hour in the dark with twinkling white lights that blink and glitter. I don’t know who decided to make it do that, but I am so glad they did. I have a picture that a friend of mine took when we were gazing at the Tower on one of my last nights in Paris. It’s of the Eiffel Tower lit up and a full moon is visible within it – it’s rising and is just at that triangle type area of free space before the skinnier part of the tower begins. There’s a park at the base of the Tower called the Champs de Mars. I used to go and picnic there when the weather was warm. Tons of people would be hanging out on the grass, talking, having picnics, drinking wine, playing music, playing games, sunbathing, reading. Picnicking there is one of the things I always recommend to people when they contact me, tell me they’re visiting the city, and ask what they should see and do. I recommend having a picnic dinner at dusk (complete with bottle of wine), that way they’ll have a great view when the Tower lights up as it gets dark.
My favorite part of the city, though, is the Quartier Latin, the Latin Quarter. It’s the oldest area of the city and streets there are very narrow – barely wide enough for even the tiny European cars to drive down – cobblestone everywhere. There is a depth to that section in particular that is different from other sections of the city. Probably because it’s the oldest; it’s where the city was originally built. Notre Dame isn’t far off from there. But that section – close to Notre Dame but not in the same area – the feeling there is ancient; there is energy there that is pre-Christian. That part existed long before Notre Dame was constructed. Not necessarily in the same way it looks now, but the energy of that time is still there. I used to go there all the time, sit in some random cafe, drink my espresso and smoke cigarettes and people watch. I fit in just fine because the French are all about people watching. I think it’s one of their favorite pasttimes. All of the chairs that surround the tables on the sidewalks outside cafes and restaurants are pointed in the direction of the street, not in the direction of the person sitting across from you.
One of the other things that I love about France in general is that things move slower there. Life is not survived the way it feels to me here in the States, it is lived. Work weeks, on average, are no more than 40 hrs. Lunch takes two hours. The average dinner usually takes at least 3-4 hrs. Food is celebrated and savored (as is wine, of course). Beginning vacation time at the average job is 5 wks a year. The French definitely have a hedonistic side that resonates with me.
One of the other things I love about France is that everyone has a dog. I can’t vouch for their affinity to cats, but most people have a dog. And dogs go everywhere people do. In stores, on the metro, in restaurants, etc. I don’t think I ever saw a dog tied up to a post or something outside a store when I lived in Paris.
In comparing Paris to NYC, NYC feels to me a very masculine city – I agree with Carolyn’s assessment in seeing it as fire. Paris, on the other hand, is water. It is very feminine. NYC is angular, sharp, and harsh whereas Paris is secretive, mysterious, enchanting, and soft.