Where tourists, impressed by the beauty of Paris, would have got away with sauntering at ease through the sparsely populated streets of the city and glided, unfettered, onto most of the city’s metro’s a few weeks ago, similar hesitation is likely to invite a range of impatient reactions from harried locals. (Reactions tend to range from mild curses to unabashed aggressive outbursts of anger in impassioned French).
Well, one could even venture to argue that the imposing and assertive nature of Paris and her inhabitants is not anything particularly new. Nor has it, historically speaking, only been confined to the boundaries of the city. Evidence of Parisians imposing their presence reaches far across space and time.
While on summer holiday, my appreciation for the extent of Paris’s influence beyond her peripheries deepened: It became clearer to me that the city I love most has clearly found means of asserting herself consistently through the centuries.
During this past summer I had the chance to observe traces of Paris in towns and countries that owe their very urban form to the imposing cultural influence of Paris.
What was almost always interesting to observe was the glowing pride of association to Paris that inhabitants of these cities seemed to hold – or at the least, the abiding respect for the city’s reputation as a strong personality.
There was Poitiers, the French city that used to be part of ‘Aquitaine’, an independent political entity prior to the mid 9th Century : The city that also also had an extended spell as part of England before becoming subsumed into France to this day. To my mind, Poitiers serves as a very early and poignant case-in-point of the power that ‘Paris’ historically held to assert herself in significant ways, often completely absorbing those who came under her influence.
Well, the story of how Aquitaine came to be part of France is a long, interesting tale given that it was a region that used to have its own language, a distinct prior to and under the nomen of ‘Aquitania’ under the Roman Empire, and an extensive claim over territory. One would need to delve into a complex unraveling of factors tied to religion, kinship, political alliances, romantic intrigue in some cases, the Hundred years war – all a bit too substantial for the purposes of this blog. But, suffice it to say that as one travels through the region around Poitiers (Poitou-Charentes), spends time in her churches and with her historic landmarks, one appreciates that the annexation of Aquitaine to France certainly attests to the vitality and political dynamism of ‘Paris’ of the time. It would have required significant, consistent political and military capacity and powers of persuasion/coercion on several levels on the part of France to integrate what was already an advanced and sizable, contested piece of territory.
Today, the evidence of Paris as an influence over Poitiers is symbolised most apparently at the very core of the city: through the design and form of City Hall (i.e. the ‘Hotel de Ville’). Apparently, the building took architectural notes from Opéra Garnier and is clearly styled in the fashion of the Napoleon III’s Second Empire which sought to solidify the power and cultural assertiveness of Paris beyond the confines of the city itself.
This is not to say that Poitiers is merely a study in the power of Paris to subsume. Quite the contrary. As is the case with several parts of the French ‘provinces’ – it is deeply rich in its own domestic traditions, culture and it seems to live and breathe at its own pace. It is an ideal setting to live a medium sized French-city dream. I could rant for hours on end about the great food, the friendliness of the locals , the affordable way of life, the beauty of the landscape in the surrounding region, the artistic community – and did I mention the food?
Voyage à Vaud
Not too far from France, I also ventured into the Vaud region of Switzerland. But, before speaking about the traces of Paris and France that one would find in Vaud – the road trip itself is worth recalling:
Three of my favourite people and myself set out from Paris in our family-sized Renault on a balmy, bright summer Sunday morning to the sound of jazz and bossa nova, cruising through the uncharacteristically sparsely populated Sunday morning streets of Paris.
It was a matter of minutes before we hit our first ‘bouchon’. (NOTE: I learnt – and internalized – a new French word. ‘Bouchon’ translates into ‘traffic jam’.) We traded in Ella Fitzgerald for highway radio 107.2 fm which dished out advice on ideal routes in between servings of electro pop music from the 80s.
After half an hour or so, traffic became more ‘fluide’ and after leaving the dour architecture that clings to the hems of Paris we gradually launched into the most glorious series of landscapes. These folded effortlessly into each other : only getting better and more captivating as we travelled through Burgundy, Haute Savoie and as we finally caught our first glimpses of the glorious mountainous scenery of Switzerland. It is impossible to reduce to words the remarkable landscapes. It is best experienced in person. And I hear that the road trip in the direction of Burgundy is most glorious around this time – autumn. The endless expanses of green and golden landscape give way to the more multi-coloured garb of autumn. Lush reds, warm oranges, bold gold – deep woody browns. What I would give to see that!
But, I digress. The Vaud region, part of French speaking Switzerland, holds quite an interesting history tied to its encounters with France and the ideas coming out of Paris. Perhaps the most poignant of these encounters was the fling that Vaud had with French revolutionary ideas in the last 18th Century. Backward looking conservatives, ‘reactionaries’, contended with new, radical, transformative and disruptive ideas were emerging from Paris that were capturing the imagination of Vaudoise folk. The Vaud region emerged as one of the stages were the conflict of political philosophies and visions for the future of European political entities was being played out.
As in the case of Poitiers, a disclaimer is in order: the Vaud region is markedly independent and quintessentially Swiss in political administration and lifestyle. It offers more to the visitor than insight into the influence of Paris. For the holiday maker it offers a distinct experience – beautiful silence and peace, tranquil lakeside promenades, mountain hikes, the deep stillness of heavily wooded forest. It could not be further from Paris in these respects. The capital of the region, Lausanne, is also an interesting study in human ingenuity for its urban form, the traces of the city’s Roman past, the feats in civil engineering that managed to carve the prettiest of little streets into steep rock. The Cathedral is also worth a visit if it is the only thing one gets to see.
The Vaud definitely ranks highly as a recommendable spot to recover and recuperate before returning to Paris – and indeed, the intellectual influence of café debates held in Paris upon the Vaud makes for interesting background reading before setting out to the Vaud. (It also important to note here that as one reads up on the Vaud that things became a bit complicated after France took over Switzerland. Locals in Vaud who held land and often under feudal terms had strong reservations about their occupiers’ approaches to alternative approaches to land/property rights.)
Montreal offers perhaps the strongest instance of French identity that has defiantly endured in a radically transformed political landscape. The French identity could assert itself even further if Quebec succeeds at secession at some point in the future.
What is clear from a rudimentary appreciation of street names and from conversation with locals – is that the influence of the ‘Metropolis’,Paris, and of the idea of a distant mother France seem to remain robust enough to influence the spatial configurations and cultural life of Montreal.
While Paris has evolved considerably, identification with a French ideal remains pretty strong in modern day Quebec has shown itself strong enough to continue to tip the balance in Quebecois politics, centuries later. Montreal stands as an enduring attestation to the extent of Parisian and French cultural assertiveness that one can trace back to the first ‘Seignuers’ who slowly pieced together communities around Montreal, to fledgling colonialists that built fortifications against native populations while forming alliances with others, defended themselves against the Dutch and English – and who established the region as a trading centre for fur coats. Indeed, the first signs of an urban form around Montreal were driven and shaped not only through laws established in Paris but by the eye and taste of French royal engineers who had a hand in determining the urban form of Montreal and its surrounds.
As a matter of course, other very local factors have shaped Montreal – the topography of the region, climatic factors, earlier security considerations. Yet, it is clear is that imaginings of a mother France and Paris are still alive. The persuasive strength of Paris and France still persist centuries since the birth of Quebec.
Back to Paris
I have a fresh appreciation for Paris for the legend that surrounds her – and her reputation abroad. Several questions also present themselves: what stands out about contemporary Paris? Can her former assertiveness resurface or has she decided to rest on the glories of her past? How are new generations of Parisians shaping the city – and influencing other cultures abroad, if at all? I hope to explore some of these questions this academic year.