Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Monumental Paris

We stayed in Paris for five nights, or what comes to 4 full days. Our first experience in Paris was not so good. We arrived by train from Mainz, Germany. I was disappointed that the boys never got to ride a French high-speed train. However, I discovered that the German trains went a lot faster in France than in Germany. So we still went really fast, but it was not like I remember my first train ride in France, where you seemed to fly across the countryside. But the disappointment was that upon our arrival at the Gare de L'Est in Paris, we found people not all that friendly and, as was expected, not all that helpful in any language other than French. When we couldn't find a taxi willing to haul 5 people, we finally decided to try the subway, though we had been warned repeatedly about pickpockets, especially when you carry your luggage around and so are obviously tourists. We never had any trouble with pickpockets and we bought a 5-day pass to the subway system. It was very expensive compared to what we were used to in Switzerland, where children under 18 are generally free and transportation passes gave access to museums. At least in Paris children under 18 were generally free in museums.

We came to our apartment on Boulevard St. Michel in the Latin Quarter, named that because the university is there, and at an earlier time education was in Latin. We took a small lift to the fifth floor and then had to walk the final set of steps up to a kind of loft, with slanted ceilings. It was a cozy and fun place that we found through Vacation in Paris, a New Jersey-based organization. One of the great things is we paid in US dollars long before the dollar plummeted to the Euro even more, so it was a reliable price. The apartment was great, with internet access, free telephone even to the US, and a clothes and dish washer. But best of all we could see the Eiffel Tower and Hotel des Invalides from our window, and the Jardin du Luxembourg, a big park, was just across the street.

On our first night out we found a crepe place, Le Fondeil, which offered us a tasty but inexpensive meal. And we also met some friendly Parisians. The staff there was very friendly and made great crepes. They were not the first friendly Parisians we met. When Jill couldn't figure out how to get through one of the barriers in the subway, someone showed her and welcomed her to Paris.

I may say more about this later, but Paris is much more like the US than Switzerland. It is a place where you need to be on your guard, not sure you can trust people. Switzerland is a culture of trust, where you assume people can be trusted. France and the US are not. For example, during my entire month in Basel, Switzerland, I was never asked to show a ticket on the trams. They just assumed that if you were on the tram it was because you had paid. Now when I went on longer train rides sometimes a conductor asked for a ticket and sometimes not. But in Paris they had elaborate barriers, like in Atlanta or other large American cities, to make sure you had a ticket in order to get through. Of course some people would cut through anyway. To have open trams is a much more convenient way to travel than to have barriers.

Perhaps the big difference is between large cities and smaller communities. Switzerland has no city over a million people, with even Zurich having less than a million in its total urban area. The big Swiss cities have about 150,000 in the city, or a little larger than South Bend, and Zurich has about 300,000.

In any case, for our first full day in Paris we decided to go to the must-see Parisian monument, the Eiffel Tower. Unfortunately the lines were exceedingly long for each of the four routes, so after taking a few pictures that you can see here, we went to the Arc d'Triomphe. This is on the famous and beautiful Champs Elysees, which was in the news recently because the Tour de France always ends there. Unfortunately we missed the end of the Tour de France by one week.

The Arc d'Triomphe is in the middle of a huge traffic circle, or roundabout, where 12 streets come together. That's right, twelve. Fortunately there is a pedestrian tunnel under the roundabout so that you can safely get into the middle. The tomb of the unknown soldier is in the middle of the arch, and we saw the changing of the guard. They have two guards with modern weaponry and two with more traditional and showy weapons, also two men and two women. I was interested in how there were also two flags billowing under the arch, a French flag and the European Union flag. I wonder now whether that is always the case or whether it is happening now because France currently holds the European Union presidency. They also illuminated the Eiffel Tower in blue with a circle of stars on it. I know that is only happening now because of the EU presidency.

In this way France is also like the US, it seems to me. In both places there is great national pride. Displays of patriotism are quite common. This Arc d'Triomphe is commemorating the triumphs of Napoleon's armies, as they subdued much of Europe for France. In that sense what Germany did in World War II was just following the lead of France 150 years earlier. Of course the major difference is that France introduced religious freedom and democracy wherever it conquered whereas the Germans brought tyranny and extermination of Jews and other peoples considered undesirable. Mennonites in Switzerland first gained religious freedom in the days of the Helvetic Republic established through Napoleon.

Paris is a wealthy city with amazing architecture and sculptures and other artwork. To me it is important to remember that much of this beauty came from the concentration of wealth in the hands of the tyrannical kings of France with their absolute power. And then came the revolution with its great promise, only to have Napoleon become emperor and make France even wealthier through his conquering of much of Europe. I saw the painting "Napoleon crossing the Alps," (The more realistic one by Delaroche, not the romanticized one by David.) and it meant something different to me because I had been in the Alps and I thought of those conquered by his armies.

In many ways the US is in the position that France was 200 years ago, the world's superpower. Of course there are many differences, with the US not trying to conquer the whole world, just those places that block our plans.

I asked Mennonite missionary in Paris, Neal Blough about the way that France and America seem to have a love-hate relationship. He said he thought it was because both places think they are the light of the world, and both are wrong. I think he was referring to the Enlightenment which occured mostly in France and had a huge influence on the American revolutionaries. Both places also had a revolution in the late 1700s based on "liberty and justice for all" in America, and "liberty, equality, and fraternity" in France. Both countries see it as our duty to share the light of liberty with all the world, with force if we have to!

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