Tuesday, September 29, 2009

limnality, schlimnality.

So, while sitting on the nice long bus ride home from the Loire, I was considering what we're doing here: here in Paris, away from our 'normal' lives for a year. And I have been saying this for a while, but it doesn't really seem real yet. Not just yet. I've been thinking back to arriving at Smith freshman year, and it was the same then too. Summer camp, that's where we are. We're living at an extremely chic, expensive, overnight camp...aka Paris...where we haven't done any real work, and where are only real engagements are excursions.

And the only problem with this is, that we don't really have a home yet. Yes, I know, we have living quarters, but it's not the same. It doesn't feel like my space, my city, yet.

However, on this bus ride back, I became overcome with the great joy of coming back to Paris. Though we were just gone for a little more than 30 hours, it felt longer, and I missed Paris, our home. Where I knew places to eat, streets to walk on, and things to look for. So, slowly I'm realizing that Paris is becoming our home. And though it's slow, it's a work in progress.

Monday, September 28, 2009


On Saturday night (at a rather spiffy Best Western in Tours), my friends had gone out to a bar and I decided to stay in and listen to podcasts. I watched a 4 minute piece called "moments" from a favorite publication of mine called "radio lab." It asked the question "How do you define a moment?" Really. Exactly. What is a moment? The entire four minutes flipped through a montage of "moments," never more than two seconds, in which normal people did normal things. Baby, eating, sad, splashing in puddles, happy, working, etc. Nothing profound, but endearing and well-filmed.

The question stuck. Moments are bizarre and special and difficult to define. Interestingly, in the English language, a "moment" is usually quick - a snapshot - like in the short. In French, a "moment" is the full length of an occurrence. For example, if you talked to your friend for "a moment," that could mean you had a brief chat, or it could mean you spent the entire afternoon in deep philosophical conversation. I personally like the French usage better, because in fact, our lives are not made of quick, individual snapshots. They are series of related occurrences of varying lengths. But I digress...

The short about "moments" led me to a realization. Bear with me.

The meaning of life is a complicated issue. What interests me more than that infinite abyss is the question, "how is meaning measured within a life?" I'm sure everyone measures the meaningfulness of their lives in different ways. Some don't at all, some measure by piety, some by having children, who knows. But moments are something that we all use as a measure of meaning in our lives. The thing we remember at the end of our lives is a scrapbook of the best, worst, and most important moments. Photographs are important to us because they represent physical relics of moments long past, which can only exist through memory.

I was never quite sure why I wanted to go to France so badly, or study abroad at all. This whole thing about moments has helped me clarify. Trying on a new culture, doing new things and going new places leads to more intense, more profound moments. It creates memories which will be stronger and longer lasting (like minty fresh gum!). When I am 80, the walk from Talbot house to class on Smith campus will be less less memorable than the walk along the Seine I take every day to get the Metro. Rollerblading to work in San Mateo, California will have been completely forgotten, but rollerblading in a brigade of 15,000 in the night through the streets of Paris is something I will never forget.

I think one of the reasons I get so frustrated with tourism, or the whole Paris experience in general, is that I think, "This is supposed to be important. This is supposed to be special," when it doesn't feel profound. I think when I look back next year, and recount the moments, then they will become important. I also think I'm rambling.

Conclusion: I need to sit back and relax, stop worrying about the profundity of each moment of my life here, and let the important moments come out as they happen, naturally. Moments are to be appreciated in the future. Simply living is what I'm supposed to be doing right now.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Best Glace en Paris

One of the things this city has to offer, which I feel is constantly being forgotten among the countries love for bread, cheese, and wine, is their glace, which by no means has an equivalent in the States. Ice cream in the states is often too heavy and in some regions resembles custard more than ice cream. However, here, the glace is so light and yet full of flavor, making it quite easy to consider getting a second round. The only way I can really describe it is the perfect medium between a sorbet and gelato, it has just the right amount of weight and cream associated with gelato but also has a sorbet’s crispness.

My favorite place so far is Berthillon, which known for having the best glace in Paris and a prime location behind Notre Dame on the Îsle-Saint-Louis; its hype does not overshadow its product. For weeks, Rachel and Eve kept telling me about how incredible the glace was, and its true, it is simply the best. Plus its always fun to see which flavor will be offered the day you go, I personally am still waiting for the legendary Pistache to show up on the menu. However, I recommend the chocolat noir, nougat de miel, or frambroise.

The first thing I noticed was the pigeons. Yes, even the pigeons are better in Paris. They're fatter, cleaner and walk with a lot of attitude. They aren't really afraid of you either, unless your a kid chasing said pigeons on the playground. They've flown really close to my face and I've felt the air from their wings. They're starting to gross me out more now as I get used to them, but I'm sure when I go back to the US I will miss these pigeons.
Everything is smaller. Maybe it's just my family, but I eat yogurt with what I would call a "baby spoon". I'd feed a baby with this spoon. Milk baffles me. My family drinks a lot of it but they buy 5 cartons a milk because they're all so small! The milk comes in opaque cartons, which I find unsettling for an unknown reason. The milk we buy is labeled, "Demi crème", and this, to me means that it's half and half. It's not. I'm most confused by milk because we buy it in packs of 5 or 6, like the way you would buy gatorade, and it's not always cold. We don't refrigerate it right away. I could be misinterpreting, but that is my view on milk so far.
People don't walk as fast here, which is both comforting and frustrating. There's not a rush rush atmosphere here like the one you might find in New York. My 17 year old host sister wakes up at 7 on the days she doesn't have class until 10 just so she can ease into the morning and amble to school when she feels like it. That is completely bizarre for me. My host family laughed at me and said I was like the last American girl they had because I always sleep till the last moment and rush out during breakfast. So, it's nice to be in a place less stressed and freaked out all the time, but also frustrating when you get caught behind people walking like they have no where to go and you're late for class.
I haven't exactly figured out how to be comfortable here yet because I'm used to coffee to go (which does not exist here besides Starbucks) and the parks still kind of intimidate me because they're so beautiful, but I know there is a comfortable side of Paris and once I wiggle my way into it I'll wonder how I ever lived without it.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Today I came down with the flu passing through the Smith JYA Paris program the exact day when (tant pis) I had an audition for voice lessons. Semi-delirious and achy, I not only mistook the time of the audition, but lost the address, my way and my sense of direction. I managed to get there an hour later, but fortunately for me, the teacher was really understanding and very sweet about letting me vocalize and sing for her, even though I was late, ill and (by that point) mildly hysterical.

I have to say, as much as I love the French language, it is at its best when sung. It's hard to do the nasal vowels when your flu has knocked off the top of your range, but there's something about singing in French that feels extremely decadent. Italian to me feels very pure (all those very pure, non-diphthong vowels) and English very comfortable (it's my first language, after all!), but there's something about singing in French that makes me feel like I've wrapped my vocal chords in Lyons silk. I and another student sang Dome Epais, a beautiful duet that one may recall from the British Air commericials of the 1990s. French Romantic composers really knew their stuff. I mean, you have to go Baroque to get your diva-trills in, and to Mozart to be simple and clever all at once, but you can't top the French Romantics for sheer beauty of tone. They understood their language and crafted the notes around it so carefully it's a pleasure to sing it.

I'd like to say that getting to sing that duet cured my of my flu (music being the food of love and feeding a fever, a melange of aphorisms that really did make sense in my head this morning, when I was hopped up on French Tylenol) but, alas, it hasn't. It's made me extremely cheerful because hey, it's another aspect of the Beauty That Is France, but Rob has still banned me from going out in public, lest I spread my contagion to everyone else. Fortunately for me, I now have Dome Epais to sing until my flu takes my voice away altogether. If you can't marvel at the Gothic masterpiece that is Notre Dame, or see the arm-less beauty (Venus de Milo) at the Louvre, getting to sing Dome Epais isn't a bad alternative.

Monday, September 21, 2009

This past weekend was the weekend of "Patrimoine," which roughly translates to "heritage." A lot of museums and atéliers and private residences of public officials (like Sarkozy) are open to the public. So, Ella and I tried to participate in such cultural treasures, but instead, we found this:THE TECHNO PARADE!!!

It was probably the best surprise so far in France. Absolutely hilarious, with really fun music, thousands of people in the streets drinking G-d knows what. It was a side of Paris we had been missing out on and I am SO glad we found it.
It was just a huge parade of ten or so trucks representing various DJs/radio stations (I think) that play various types of techno, which is much bigger in Europe than in the US. Also, check out these guys dancing on top of the bus stop! Trop fort!
The night before this parade a couple of us had visited some lesbian bars in the Marais and been kinda disappointed, with the bars and also with how heteronormative Paris seemed to be (come on, we may be in France, but we're still Smithies!), but this whole environment completely changed that impression. Of course Paris isn't Smith. I wouldn't want it to be. But I was starting to worry that I was going to be disappointed in Paris' queer culture, but I realized that I was just in the wrong places.

So, if you think Paris is all old buildings and tradition and sophistication, think again. Because it can also be really crazy, really loving, REALLY inebriated, and also, yes, really gay.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Enigmatic sights

If you have walked around the Tour Monparnasse at night, especially on weekends, you have probably seen her: a woman who plays speed chess on the sidewalk, in order to raise money for a trip to Australia.
As far as I can glean, she is Australian, somewhere in her 20's, and the sign that she has made explains that her mom has lung cancer and she is trying to raise money to go back to Australia and visit her. When I first saw her playing, the sign said that she need to raise 12oo euros. So she has set up a chess board on the sidewalk, and a boom box cranks out some techno at a pretty high volume, and she challenges people to speed chess matches (the sign also explains that she was a high school chess champ). She does not exactly charge people to play her, but the implicit understanding, I think, is that if you do play, you will leave some euros in the case. There are always many people watching her play, and no shortage of people waiting to play her. Part of the draw, I suspect, is playing this tall, blonde, young woman. Most of her challengers are young men, whom I suspect think they can easily beat her, since she is young, and a woman, and blond.
I've watched her play for a few minutes on several occasions, and she has yet to lose a game, although things looked a bit grim a couple of times. Speed chess is sort of mesmerizing, even if you do not like chess-- there is a sort of aggression to the game, and a lot of instinct and snap judgments. Watching these cocky guys realize they are in deep trouble is also mesmerizing, especially since in chess, if you are any good, you know you are toast well before the end actually arrives.
The story, however, has a further wrinkle. A few blocks down on Blvd. Montparnasse, in front of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, you'll find a first-rate churro and crepe stand. Next to it sits an elderly and rather sad-looking man, asking in a whisper for spare change. A few nights ago, we were walking by, and there was our Australian chess player, squatting down, holding the old man's hands and talking to him. She got up to leave, and put some Euros in his cup, and he took her hand, and kissed it again and again, and she smiled and told him she'd see him soon. And she got into a BMW station wagon, where four passengers were waiting, and drove off.
She is back at her corner tonight, playing chess, striking a blow for feminism, and her sign says she only has 450 Euros left to raise.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Older the Better. Always.

When people think of Paris, I'm sure they must think of gorgeous facades, the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Elysees...lots of postcard-y images that Hollywood throws at us. The Paris that I think of is the one seen through the eyes of Victor Hugo. In my head, Paris is The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables, a world that does not put on a show for anyone. I so desperately wanted to find traces of that world still left in post-Haussmann Paris. Is it odd that I find Paris a litttle TOO beautiful? That's why it gives me such a thrill when I come across a little side street that looks as if no one has altered it since the Middle Ages. These streets were not designed with aesthetics in mind and I find them more beautiful because of that. I was wandering around St.Germain-des-Pres one day and I wandered into an antique book store. I always breath out a huge sigh of contentment when I enter a bookstore; I honestly can't think of anything more comforting than a well-worn book. It gives me great joy to think of all the other hands that have turned these pages before me, as if we were all joining in on some great secret. Perusing through the book stacks, I almost cried aloud when I found an old copy of Les Miserables from 1867 (5 years after its original publication.) I quickly put the book in some covert and discreet corner where (hopefully) no one will think to look. I cannot fully explain why but I feel such immense relief knowing that that book is there. Maybe it is because some old bits and pieces of Paris will always shine through when one takes the time to look.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Refuge in the City

The other day I was walking home and stumbled upon the Jardin des Plantes. It's right across the seine from where I live. It was a refuge for me. This place had trees. Many trees. I forgot I was use to having ample amounts of nature around me. I like Paris and I like large cities, but I miss greenery, foliage, and dirt roads. What can you expect? I grew up in wisconsin and my parents own a flower shop. I am used to nature.

Anyways, I am glad I found the jardin des plantes and intend on going back.


Friday, September 11, 2009

City Sounds

Every day, numerous times a day, I hear the ring of a school's bell system. Now, of course, there is nothing really interesting or strange about that, considering there are approximately 75,390 high schools in the surrounding 4 blocks of Reid Hall. But what does strike me is how much I love the noise of Paris. From my room, it is relatively silent...my room looks into the center of the building. However, the second I step onto the street, my morning walk is started off with the far off hum of traffic on the Boulevard Montparnasse, the screams of small children on the corner waiting for class, and the honking cars on the Rue Notre Dame des Champs (due to the overwhelming number of traffic jams).

While sitting in a cafe, one can hear the voices of others, listen to the different french twangs, the booming laughter of some, and the quite chuckle of others. There is the occasional passing car with overly loud electronica coming from it's speakers and then filling the street. There is the clinking of glasses and mugs from the interieur of the cafe, and the rough voices of those in it. Off in the distance you can hear the perfect example of the doplar effect with the almost continuous ringing of fire, police, and ambulance sirens. There are the noises of families, couples, and friends going about their everyday business in this country that, to us, is not yet our home.

And then you wonder, how others can walk around this unbelievable city, with their iPods and earbuds in, completely blocking out what I love so much about being here. And it is for this reason that I am trying to avoid creating my own soundtrack and instead listening to the one that is around me. Listening to the symphony of the city.

Vive la Revolution

I personally have not posted yet because we were given the instruction to write something about our first few days in Paris that made us realize that yes, we were, in fact, living in Paris. Perhaps it's a sign of a phlegmatic temperament? I hear leeches are good for it, but my knowledge of Paris is mostly limited to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, my areas of academic interest.

To me, Paris is the city of philosophes and revolutionaries, where all classes somehow mixed together to create one of the most astonishing and sweeping reforms in all history, the French Revolution. Say what you will about the Terror, the guillotine or the Jacobins, but the revolutionaries earnestly believed in what they were trying to do and believed that they could accomplish it. For perhaps the first time in history, it didn't matter where you had come from or how close you were to the local seigneur. Your potential mattered, not your family's connections. It was an odd melange of the individualism of Voltaire and the General Will of Rousseau, an astonishing display of philosophy in practice and in politics. It wasn't perfect, but I find that there is a mesmerizing sort of virtue in the fact that they tried so hard, despite the fact that all the rest of Europe wanted to slaughter them in the streets as regicides, despite the fact that there was still famine in France, despite the fact that no one could really get along and despite the fact that they had next to no chance of getting supplies for their armies. Their idealism pushed their armies, whom Napoleon, then a rising officer, called perhaps the worst equiped in Europe, to incredible victories against enemy armies of overwhelming strength and force.

Modern day Paris is remarkably berift of sans-culottes and firey young demagogues ready to leap up on tables and demand Parisians storm the Bastille, but it is possible to see that legacy everywhere. I grin each time I see, "Liberte, egalite et fraternite" written on a building and I have to laugh each time I see Danton's statue near the Metro stop in the Latin Quarter. I suppose Paris really became the Paris I studied when I saw the display on the French Revolution in the Musee Carnevalet. I saw the drums the soldiers used, I saw the flags they carried into battle, I saw the pistols that Saint-Just, the youngest and potentially most passionate Jacobin, carried with him when he crushed the Royalist uprising in the Vendee, and I saw the briefcase Robespierre used when he worked to help write Le Declaration des Droits de l'homme et du citoyen.

In Paris, there is a very real sense of not only living with one's history, but learning from it and caring about it. The French Revolution isn't, like I sometimes feel people think of it in the States, a massive, chaotic series of executions that heralded both facism and communism in its tyranny. It's a part of daily life, hidden, but present, where real people worked to try and realize their ideals.

La Vivacite dans Une Ville si Vivante

It is 11:45 am and I am sitting in la bibliotheque with a very familiar feeling filling mon corps: intense fatigue, the sensetaion of heavy eyelids, the feeling of worn-around the edges which no amount of coffee before noon can break through. Mixed into that tiredness is an intense desire, roaring on the insides to fulfill the image I have wanted to live for so long but which seems so impossible: to be that invincible person who needs barely any sleep, who bites into the ripe peach of life to drag the juices from the very core, the nightwanderer the city dweller who lives in motion with la ville.
It doesn't help that last night I did not hit the sack until 1:30 am, which is relatively late for me. It was for a good reason, nonetheless, as along with many of my peers, I enjoyed le spectacle des feux d'artifice. But I am anything but happy at my habitudes. This is supposed to be a year sans cesse! I wish I could retain that fresh energy that one might feel on a Saturday morning after arising at 13 or 14 heures apres midi, jump to the day, have that bottled sensation of ripe zest fill me and satisfy me for atleast 18 hours apres.
Before I came to Paris, I had imagined some vivid image every time I closed my eyes before sleeping in the lackluster state of CT, of myself with champagne in hand, with glittering eyelids, clad in red gown flowing over sharp black tallons. Now in retrospect, it was pur follie, a glamorous dream that I had contrived during those moments when there are no limits to the imagination, and no place one cannot reach. But where exactly was I supposed to go? And what exactly was I thinking? On the questionnaire Rob gave us for living habits and roommates, there was a question which I answered without hesitation, my answer derived from my niave desire to be that vivacious 24-7 animal I had so imagined. The question was: "How often do you imagine yourself going out duting the week?" To that came a ready "oh, three times at least-- in the beginning. Every night once I'm accustomed."
Which may be the reason why I was placed in a family with a very darling middle-aged women who lets me and ma chere Alexis come and go when we please as often as we please. But that "accustomed" point has yet to come. I'm barely just beginning to be in the beginning (that three night a week period).
So, my fellow Smithies, seemingly tireless early birds or night owls, I have a question for you. What is your sollution? Do you feel the same way as me? Dissappointed in yourself that you are not yet that Lady in Red you had imagined yourself to be?
Last night riding home on the RER at just after midnight, we passed the Eiffel Tower and saw it glittering in distance, bright against the horizon. I sighed and thought not for the first time...if only I could be there-- limitlessly bright, glittering with intention to conquer the world of stars in a seemingly endless universe of vivacite....

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Rue St. Jacques.

Pretty much everyday so far I have had an epic struggle with Rue St. Jacques on the way back from the closest metro Cluny Sorbonne. This is no complaint, I love that street. Right now its my favorite street in Paris (the architecture, the student population, the little streets that have marvelous little shops and restaurants, and of course the beautiful men). I still have a lot to see clearly, but it is the road I travel on the most. Going up and down, I pass the same kids at the lycée Louis le Grand smoking in between classes everyday, I think we are starting to recognize each other. I timed my walk to and from the metro the other day, 7 minutes down the street. 15 minutes up. Doesn't seem like much, but somewhere on the length of the Sorbonne I feel like sitting down and taking a little breather most of the time. Today was the first day that I didn't even notice, fantastic. I reached the Pantheon and I was instantly realized I hadn't thought about it. So I guess that was my AH HA moment. Growing a pair of city legs.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

To be honest, nothing has left me breathless yet. I had never been to Paris, or France, or Europe for that matter, but I had no preconceived notions. Specially of Paris and Parisians, because there are so many clichés about it, I was sure none were true. And I was right. I find Parisians kind and not rude at all. I find that not everyone is dressed impeccably all the time. I find most of the food to be delicious, but not all of it. I don't think the French University system is that complicated. I love Paris so far, don't get me wrong, but it's not the whole other planet people in America make it out to be.
For now, I am just keeping my eyes and head open, looking forward to start classes and meeting new people.
I'm uploading two pictures, of food, because that is exactly what Rob wants us to do. (I'm kidding) it was Olivia's birthday last Monday, we had dinner, which was both very American and very French (and very very delicious, at Cafe Pause, at Bastille).

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Paris by Rollerblade

It's hard to believe until you see it. 15,000 rollerbladers descending like a swarm of locusts upon Montparnasse, taking to the streets of Paris en masse. Police on rollerblades weaving through the group. They have special roller-brigade police badges on their arms. And me, flying across Paris with the wings of Hermes on my feet, amidst the Parisians, the monuments, the restaurants and shops, the cobblestones and cars, signaling to the right, move to the right, because there's a bus up ahead.

Tourists point and take pictures. I try hard to look cool, but I smile, because I can't help but think, "I'm one of you! You just don't know it." Then I congratulate myself for blending in. Sometimes people on balconies cheer for us, and the brigade cheers louder in return. We stop from time to time so the police can block off another section of road, and staff can move to the next set of checkpoints, to hold up traffic or direct the group around a corner. It's nice to have the time to rest and talk. And smoke and text. I manage a few small conversations.

I see the Palais du Luxembourg, the Pantheon, Notre Dame, L'Hotel de Ville, the Louvre, the Musee d'Orsay, the Galleries Lafayette, the Petit et Grand Palais, the National Assembly, l'Arc de Triomphe, Les Invalides, skate down the Champs Elysees and rest for 20 minutes at the Palais de Chaillot, looking straight on the Eiffel Tower.
It is beautiful. It is thrilling. It is Paris in 3 hours and 30 kilometers. It is bliss.

Friday, September 4, 2009

the most beautiful thing in paris is...

the combination of green leaves and grey stones one finds everywhere.
and the fact that every french person i have asked knows the answer to any question i have about french history.
and the tiny grotto right next to the grand palais.
and the view of the seine and the eiffel tower and a million old buildings as one stands on the pont alexandre III amidst all those gilt angels and copper-green cherubs, monuments to 19th-century sentimentalism.
and the giant pine spheres used to clean the egouts.
and the croissants, of course!
but mostly the fact that i'm here, in it, taken simple and whole by itself.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

La cuisine française

My first few days in France have been full of all sorts of new experiences, but what amazed me right from the beginning is the food. Everything I've had here has been several times better than its equivalent in the States. The French take such pride in their food, and with good reason. At the market on Place Jeanne d'Arc, I saw a vendor selling roasted ducks. As they cooked on the rotisserie, the fat dripped into a pan holding a small mountain of potatoes. The customers at the market talk with the vendors, asking "How was this prepared?" "How was this food raised?" and all sorts of questions that most Americans rarely think to or are able to ask their food suppliers. I love it.
Last night, I had grapes for the first time since my arrival. Unlike American grapes, which I find rather bland and pale, these grapes had flavor. They were deep, rich, incredibly sweet, with a thicker skin that broke satisfactorily between my teeth. I stopped what I was doing so that I could focus completely on these wonderful delicious spheres of pure grape-ness. Lovely.
A bientot!

Belleville - un autre Paris

My first few days in Paris, I kept waiting for it to hit me that I was in one of the most beautiful cities in the world with months of discovering all it's winding streets and delicious cuisine. "It" being some undescribable understanding that suddenly I was across the Atlantic and definitly not on my way back to Smith for the year. I was dissappointed when, in the first 36 hours, I didn't have the expected"aha" moment. And, in the 6 days that I've been here, the realization that j'etais bien arrivee didn't come right away or in the way I had expected. Instead, there have been little moments from looking up and seeing beautiful building facades with terraces (where air conditioners are interdit!) to going for a run up Montmartre and ending up looking out over Paris at dusk that hit me as being typically Parisian and absolutly delightful.

A few days ago I went to dinner at a friend's house. He lives in Belleville, a quartier that has historically been a quartier populaire with various waves of immigrants. Now there are little allies covered in colorful grafitti, cafes full of people wearing all types of clothing and restaurants boasting cuisine from all over the world. I arrived early because I still can't seem to get anywhere on time so somewhere between getting lost and exploring the quartier I spent about 30 minutes walking around. It was a very different Paris from that around Reid Hall, where everybody is hyper-dressed up and gardins and buildings are well manicured. This was a somewhat dirtier, significantly less touristy Paris where the streets felt full of people doing daily, life things. It felt good to walk around and not feel somewhat under-dressed in jeans (without heels) as well as to see and hear a much more racially and socio-economically diverse Paris. (Granted, at dinner I heard about how the quartier is being gentrified. And, indeed, guidebooks describe it as a "colorful neighborhood.") For me, it was one of those moments where I realized that I really was in Paris, a city that has all kinds of different neighborhoods to discover and explore!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Why the Paris sewers matter

The visit to the sewers, was, at least from my vantage point, fascinating.
To begin with, it seems important to remind ourselves that Paris is not just a state of mind, or a fantasy, but a real place with a beating heart. Nothing quite like seeing -- or smelling-- the wastes of Paris being carried off for treatment to make that point. Les egouts are real, in a way that the Rue de Rivoli can never be.
But beyond that, the sewers matter because they embody perhaps the single greatest innovation of the last 500 years. The realization that separating wastes from drinking water mattered has had a greater impact on human life than almost anything else you can come up with. A quick glance at what has happened to life expectancy, roughly (if a bit misleadingly) captured in this chart, makes this point. While it would be unnecessarily reductive to trace all increases in life expectancy to the invention of sewers, water wells and water treatment, there is a case to be made. In the developed world, the causes of death have shifted dramatically, from epidemics and infectious diseases to chronic systemic conditions (cardiovascular diseases, cancer, etc). The end of infectious diseases as a leading cause of death (and thus a limit on life expectancy) is a direct consequence of what we saw today.
There are subtle issues that the Egouts bring up, including the importance of material culture, and the role of everyday structures and objects in accounting for the rise and fall of nations and civilizations. French historians have pioneered this sort of analysis where the everyday lives of common people, and not the dramatic and elegant lives of the famous few, are the engine of social and historical change. We will be seeing plenty of Chateaux, of elaborate tapestries, of elegant paintings. They matter, but so do the egoutiers, their tools, and the life above the surface that they make possible. In short, I am suggesting that without the elaborate network of sewers that bring water in and wastewater out, Paris itself could not, and would not have existed.
And, of course, there is that famous scene in Les Miserables....