Here, on our last full day in Paris, there's a bit of a challenge: how might one find a way to convey the ways a city has shaped a person over the past week? There are lessons to be learned, and now is the time to write a few of them down, lest they be forgotten.
In some ways, we experienced Paris just like we would have encountered any other major metropolitan city: mind-numbing choices of restaurants, activities, sights to see. People (especially waiters and waitresses) who were both delightful or rude, sometimes having nothing to do with your own disposition as a tourist. Metro to be learned, places to keep seeking out for solace (the arrondissement of St. Germain des Prés).
In the midst of all this, one thing about Paris kept coming back to me. Here is a city that passionately asks the question:
"What will you leave behind? And will it help humanity?"
Paris held up examples in every category – from letters (Hugo) to philosophy (Voltaire), from the healing arts (Curie) to the warrior-saint (Jean d'Arc), from the deeply wounded painter (Van Gogh) to the sculptor of an era (Rodin), from a designer and engineer (Eiffel) to a composer (Debussy). In each, the city held forth the full measure of their accomplishments, and with just as much excitement, told the story of their weaknesses as well.
Even the foibles of the city itself! We heard, at one point this week, a guide proudly calling the Tour d'Eiffel the "international symbol of the city of Paris". Yet in the same breath, the story was told of how Parisians hated the thing with a passion when it was first introduced at the end of the 19th century – and how, in the 1920's, an attempt was made to sell it for scrap metal!
And through all of these stories – stories of artists and writers and musicians and saints and philosophers – the question still comes forth, and comes forth with the kind of passion that comes easily to this place that was once the stormy meeting grounds of the Celts and the Romans: "What will you leave behind?"
One thing I learned about the Tower – the symbol some thought should've been relegated to scrap metal – just under the first level, around the entire base, are inscribed the names of the great thinkers and poets of the French world at the time of Gustav Eiffel. Even then, I think he was asking the same question of his contemporaries.
And even if we're not able to stroll and muse along the Seine River, it's a pertinent question for us, too. And it will be the one I keep close to my heart when I think fondly upon the City of Lights.
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