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The City of Love, the City of Light: On Visiting the City of Paris

Ouh là là, we went to Paris. But is it possible to really go to a city that's over two thousand years old?

Ah, Paris! What to visit when you’re there? That’s the question I was faced with when my boyfriend and I went there last week. I don’t think there’s just one Paris: there’s the Paris that tourists see, there’s the Paris the Parisians inhabit, there’s the Paris of the past. Being a bookworm, I was especially interested in the Paris I read about in books. Want to know which Paris we visited? Read on!

In preparation for our trip, I made sure to read a few books set in Paris. The first one was Immortality by Milan Kundera (to be honest, I just wanted to read this book, and it just happened to be set in Paris), the second one was Nick by Michael Farris Smith (to be honest, I wish I never set eyes on this drivel), and, finally, I read Paris France by Gertrude Stein. The last one is especially interesting, since it’s not a novel, but rather a memoir about being an American expatriate in early-twentieth-century France. It made me think about the impossibility of describing a city, since one is always influenced by their own country, their heritage, their culture, or even their eyes. My own perception of Paris, therefore, is unique, and even my boyfriend, who went on the exact same trip, must have a different experience with the French capital. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.

When we cycled (we’re still Dutch, of course – yet another aspect that makes my experience different from most other tourists’) past the Notre Dame, I was reminded of Victor Hugo’s novel Notre-Dame de Paris. He wrote his book in 1832, but it takes place in the fifteenth century. In it, he describes how a city’s buildings tell its story, and how all these buildings are a representation of a country and its political state. While the book is more commonly known as The Hunchback of the Notre Dame, the novel’s true protagonist is the city itself, rather than Quasimodo. It shows how attached Victor Hugo was to his city, and how Paris is described as something alive and bustling.

Let’s return to Gertrude Stein and her friends, commonly referred to as the Lost Generation. Right after the First World War, many American artists decided to spend their time in Paris, rather than returning to their birth country. Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein, among many others, convened in Parisian cafes, pubs, and restaurants, and talked about how the American government had betrayed them – and of course wrote many books about it. I love how the magic of Paris that Hugo wrote about in the nineteenth century was just as alive a hundred years later; and I decided to keep it alive.

One of Stein’s friends, Sylvia Beach, founded an English-language bookstore in Paris, called Shakespeare and Company, which was frequented by many of these Lost Generation artists. In fact, one of the most famous books of the twentieth century, Ulysses by James Joyce (which, I must admit, I haven’t read yet – but I don’t think many have) was published by Beach, when every single other publisher rejected it. Even though the original bookstore was closed in 1941, another English bookstore was opened later, and it took the same name in honour of Ms Beach. I made sure to buy her memoirs.

After our trip to the bookstore, we decided it was time to take a break. I really wanted to try pastis, which is an anis-flavoured spirit, and typically French. Armed with my new book, I decided to act like I was in 1920s Paris, and started reading it while sipping my drink, and wondering about the state of affairs, just like the Lost Generation did over a hundred years ago. Of course I took a picture of it, too, and posted it to my Instagram page. Later that night, we went to a cocktail bar serving absinthe, which was so popular and addictive that it was banned for most of the twentieth century. I felt like I really was part of that group of writers.

Visiting Paris is like entering a time machine. Every century, every king, even an emperor, have left their mark on the city – and many authors have written about it. There are many different Parises, and also many different ideas of Paris. I loved Hugo’s version, and standing in front of the Notre Dame reminded me of how Paris has always been alive, wealthy, and influential. The Louvre showed how Paris has always wanted to show off its rich culture. The Eiffel Tower made me realise that modern tourists have a very picturesque idea of Paris, and finally, Shakespeare and Company, as well as the books I’ve read, showed me that Paris had changed a lot since Hugo, and they made it their own.

It’s impossible to really visit a city. You see things, you do things, you eat things, and you drink things, but you are never truly part of it. Paris has been changing ever since the first person settled there. We visited the Paris it currently is, but of course the only thing we did was simply passing through.

What do you think of Paris? What’s your favourite thing to do in Paris? Which historical Paris is your favourite? Please let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book-related posts!

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