A Tale of Two Continents: When Beauty Surprises You
This semester, instead of living down the hall from overly emphatic freshman or having to share a bathroom with that guy who shaves every day but never cleans the sink, my neighbor is the Arc de Triomphe.
Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. In Paris, where I am studying abroad for my COL major, I live right down the street from the Arc. The monument commemorating French soldiers commissioned by Napoleon in 1806 is an ever-present aspect of my life. Going to do some grocery shopping at the Monoprix (an all-stop French supermarket, clothing store, beauty, and liquor shop)? Forgot an adapter and have to run to the Fnac (which has electronics, paper goods, and a surprising amount of books)? The Arc will casually stand by, watching over you as you run your mundane errands.
One of my favorite views in Paris is at the metro stop near my host family’s apartment. As I come home at the end of the night, the illuminated Arc, with the Eiffel Tower lit up and peeking out over its shoulder, shines against the Parisian night sky. At first it shocked me to live so close to something so famous, but I’ve become more like a Parisian in that respect of late. That is one of the things that has struck me about this city: there is so much beauty everywhere, yet it seems to me that the locals don’t notice.
Let me throw in a disclaimer here. I’m from New York City, a place filled with international monuments, including—ironically—a mini Arc de Triomphe in Washington Square Park. But I feel as though no matter what the context, going to the Empire State Building will never be as breathtaking as finding yourself on the rue between the Petit Palais and the Grand Palais (built for the Universal Exhibition in 1900, the latter is topped with a beautiful glass roof that makes it resemble a huge botanical garden), while doing something as simple as walking home. Only in Paris can you find yourself looking over the Seine River and realize that the bridge you just crossed to get there is widely considered to be the most ornate and beautiful in the city, perhaps the world (Pont Alexandre III). In this city, there’s no distinction between history and daily life, between art and function. A bridge is a bridge, even if it was built in the late 1500s with expert craftsmanship and funding from a turbulent monarchy.
My first week in Paris, I visited Notre Dame. I didn’t, however, set out to tour the famed cathedral, nor did I plan my day around it. After class one day, my friends and I set out to get a beer, as the French do (we take our cultural immersion very, very seriously). The bar was down a type of alleyway, and since we had nothing to do after finishing our drinks, we decided to see where it would lead.
Around a corner, Notre Dame appeared. The suddenness of the our discovery was probably more due to what little knowledge we had of Paris and a general lack of impetus to read a map than fate, but we took it as a sign to go in. Of course, there are large signs directing tourists to the cathedral in the middle of the city, but part of the magic of Paris is emerging from a tiny street onto one of the most famous spots in the world.
Yesterday, however, I made the conscious decision to set out to do something deliberately touristy. The Arc is at the western end of the Champs-Élysées, the most famous shopping street in Paris, and also the name of a very catchy old French song. My host family is always telling me to “profite bien de Paris” (take full advantage of Paris), so I decided to walk it. My real reason for the excursion was that at the other end of the Champs-Élysées lies Ladurée, the patisserie in which Paris-style macarons were invented.
After showing miraculous restraint by eating only a bite out of my stash of cookies, I decided to make my way home via a less touristy route. Once again, rounding a corner, I came across a beautiful church with a rose window reminiscent of the one in Notre Dame. What was this church called? That’s a great question. I tried to find out, but there were no signs, and the griffons adorning the building (whose heads, it looked like, had fallen off years ago) weren’t telling me anything. In Paris, this gorgeous building was just another church, not an attraction. It might not even be on most tourist maps, yet it was a sight, and an experience, I will never forget. Perhaps that is why Paris is so magical—stumbling upon gorgeous, ancient, historic sights at every turn is the norm here. Things that are so casually a part of the scenery, yet so full of beauty, have only left me wanting more of this mysterious, wondrous city.