by Ethan Seavey
Every hour of every day I hear the pulsating rush of le Periph and I am reminded that Paris is dead. My dorm is at the very bottom of Paris such that if the city were a ball I’d be the spot that hits the ground. I sit in my windowsill. I watch cars drive on the highway in an unending flow, like blood in veins, fish in streams, but they’re all metal idols of life. Life does not go this fast. Life stops to take a rest.
It seems to me that Paris died forty years ago and is now taxidermic like the fawn I saw guarding an antique shop in the 9th arrondissement. Someone must have prepared the fawn’s body to be preserved, then sewn a tailored military uniform for its cartoonish appearance. Through the window it looks perfectly reanimated and proud to be enlisted in the French infantry. Up close it’s just dusty and reminds me that it has been dead for a long time.
Something stopped in Paris in the 1980s. I think it happened when Parisian food stopped developing. You love French food until you live in Paris and then you decide you can’t have another meal of meat, cheese, butter and bread. A waiter in a French café will serve you a brown omelette, ignore you until you’ve properly begged for the check, and proceed to charge you 14 euros. Paris is proud of its food. They won’t change it any time soon.
For the most part architecture died long before the 80s. Haussmann had leveled the city in the 1800s for his classic design of Parisian buildings. You know it: cream colored buildings, six stories tall, with large shutter windows and a ledge right outside to sit with a friend and smoke cigarettes all day. Haussmann’s legacy extends beyond his success, such that even areas he never touched were made to look as though he did.
The few exceptions to Haussmann’s uniformity stand out and beg for your opinion. The Eiffel Tower was hated at first but now it is so beloved that seeing a glimpse of it between buildings and through fog can make the dismal day a little better. The Centre Pompidou looks to me like a large plastic home for hamsters and many Parisians agreed upon its construction. The Tour Montparnasse is the only skyscraper in central Paris and it is the most detestable sight for Parisians. Upon its completion the city banned buildings taller than seven stories to be built. Parisians love their past or else they hate change and so Paris will never grow taller.
The Paris you see today wasn’t built for people, but cars. When Napoleon III gave Haussmann free rein over the design of the entire city, the emperor asked for expansive boulevards for his military to easily pass through the city and remind its inhabitants that they are under his control. Before the 1800s Paris was a tight medieval town, somewhat difficult to navigate on wheels. I can still see this environment in tiny portions of the city, like the Marais, where you walk on cobblestone streets past Jewish bakeries and gay sex shops. But to go there you must dodge cars which own the city and you sigh.
Chicago was built for cars, too. New York wishes it were, and it compensates with bridges and tunnels everywhere. I didn’t realize that cities were built for people until I went to Spain. Santiago de Compostela is a tiny medieval town where cars are left at the city limit. People walk everywhere by foot. It’s a wonderful space for welcoming pilgrims from across the globe, but it’s hilly and full of loose cobble stones, so it’s not built for people who don’t have the mobility to hike to work.
Leaving the US has gifted me many ideas about the best way to design a life. For me, Amsterdam should be regarded as the model. It’s a city that was built for people, for bicycles, and continually tries to squeeze its cars out of the city. It has canals to swing your legs over and parks to lounge on and good food to enjoy.
But to you maybe Amsterdam is hellish. Drugs and sex workers and gays and other sorts of hedonists are everywhere. Maybe Amsterdam is hellish because you can’t ride a bike. Maybe it’s hellish because you don’t like the homogeneous Dutch architecture; maybe it’s too expensive; maybe it’s too cloudy. Maybe it’s because you went there as a college student, took too many shrooms, walked around in the rain, spent half of your travel budget for ten minutes in the red light district, and you were hit by a bike and fell into a canal.
But my Amsterdam isn’t cloudy at all. My Amsterdam is sunny every day, and just cold enough to be comfortable walking and not sweat or wish to rush inside. My Amsterdam was street art and grassy lawns and quiet coffeeshops and vibrant shades of orange and red and black. The people of my Amsterdam were the hosts of a two room B&B whereas the Parisians I know were the front desk of an expensive hotel. I’ve only been twice now, and I’m certain my third visit would change everything, so I’m somewhat content with never going again and preserving my sunny Amsterdam. I’d try to rebuild it if I returned and would hate to see that anything had changed.
If you were given total control over the construction of a new city, the buildings you’d design would look very different from mine. The people you’d choose to live there would not get along with mine. You’d want a Seine and I’d want dozens of canals. You’d want hot, muggy summers and I’d want sunny, snowy winters. You’d cull the pigeons and I’d build them rooftop birdhouses.
One of the wonderful thing about life is that we can disagree about it.
Because it is so mysterious, it leaves a blank canvas for all sorts of faith. It doesn’t matter to the world if you believe there is a god or many gods or if spells work or if all human souls are the frayed threads of the same rope. If you believe that a god exists, that god exists for you. If you decide that such a god no longer exists, this god disappears and has no hold over you anymore.
If you like the idea that everyone who has done wrong will go to Hell, if you prefer that your badness goes unnoticed by the universe, if you do or do not believe in soulmates or monogamy or love at first sight, that is your world. If you think life is best spent alone in the woods by a small pond with buzzing mosquitos, you’re right; and if you think life should be spent spreading your name far and wide across the earth, you’re right. If you think animals are in danger from humans, you can use your life to make them feel better, and if you think that animals taste delicious smoked and salted you can spend your life eating them. If you like other people you’ll be happy to find many people that you like. If you don’t like other people you’ll have an easy time proving your thesis.
Of course, the terrible thing about life is that we can disagree about it. Your belief in your god is considered a threat to most everyone else’s worlds, because one friend believes that your god is different and another believes that your god is dead and another believes there was never a god in the first place. And your colleague, in turn, threatens your world of one god by saying that there are forty thousand gods and they’re each much more interesting than your single god. People who want to live alone in the woods encounter people trying to cut down their trees to rise up in status. People who want all animals to live happy lives encounter those who kill them for food. People who like people learn to dislike people who don’t see what they see; and people who don’t like other people are enraged to meet these condescending optimists.
People decide that their way of life is the best way, and that they have a duty to share it. The religious try to evangelize non-believers; atheists make speeches on why they are wrong; vegans argue that meat is murder and carnivores say that they’re living how man was designed to live; the verdict’s still out on whether people are good or bad.
Perhaps what’s even worse than disagreement is that everyone on earth must deal with the world you create. Your neighbor is hurt by your belief that the world should have music playing loud and late into the night; and you are hurt by your neighbor’s belief that the world should be vacuumed every morning. People intent on progressing technology run into people trying to save the earth from our own hands. The Amish must deal with the punishments of our excessive use of electricity. Hungry children sew what rich people order. Religious leaders force their citizens to abide by the rules of their favorite book. It’s the people on earth who are hurt by the lofty dreams of astronauts. It’s tomorrow that struggles with today. It’s the living that deal with the dead.
It would be wonderful and terrible if we could create the world exactly as we believe it to be, if we could float to the top like soap bubbles and live happily in our spheres side by side and never overlapping, a space where you can protect all your animals or eat them all, where you have no conflicting neighbors, where the people you create are complacent and reliable and content to just love you, where you can use the Earth exactly as you’d like, where you are equal to God because you were the one who decided he exists and no one is there to disagree.
Paris is dead, and many people like it that way. Living in the ruins of an old Cathedral, Parisians are the ivy that overtake it, the vandals who paint their names on the side of it, and the squatters inside who reinforce its cracking walls.
Amsterdam is just happy to be alive but many hate it for enjoying itself. Chicago is easy to enjoy without getting out of your car. Santiago de Compostela is happy to be small and will never change. Lisbon is the long shadow of immense wealth. Denver is a new city which sprouted senselessly out of an infertile desert. Budapest is a new hermit crab taking a liking to a battered shell.
Tel Aviv is for surfers and techies. Galway is for drunk college students and gentle old Irish folk. San Francisco is for rich beatniks. Rome is for Catholics and people lusting after Italian passion. Nashville is for loud bachelorette parties and quiet country music. Minneapolis is home, but for family that lives too far away.
Philadelphia is too new and too old. Montreal is too French and too American. Washington DC is too powerful to be so weak. Seattle is better than Tacoma and Tacoma is better than Seattle. New York is crowded and lonely.
Perhaps that’s the wonderful and terrible thing about life: these cities that we imagine with clear, wonderful vibrancy somehow coexist with the fact that cities are made of rooms with beds, and every bed has a person whose world looks wildly different. Their bubbles overlap constantly and in that space there’s more tension than agreement. These cities don’t exist, in the sense that when you lean in too close, you only see the little bubbles chaotically combining into a vague aesthetic and culture. Nothing is as you expected and everything is in contradiction. But still, you’re happy to love the parallel worlds created by others.