Of baguettes and romance; the idyllic city of Paris conjures narratives of lost lovers reuniting under the Eiffel Tower, or interlocking their romance on the iconic lock bridge over the River Seine. The notion of Paris as the city of lovers has become embedded as part of our psyche, either through pop culture or our own fantasies. Regardless, this mystical gaze has enthralled youths and adults for decades, with an everlasting allure that should last the rest of time.
I didn’t subscribe to this till about six years ago. Being an avid cyclist from the days that feel like a lifetime ago, Paris held a different allure; the spiritual home of the [in]famous Tour de France. From the age of eight, I dreamt of standing at the Arc de Triomphe, gazing down the Champs-Élysées, the same route the likes of Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain, and Sir Bradley Wiggins graced with their brilliance. And those six years ago, on a school trip, I realised this dream; I gazed down the rows of designer stores, and the gravity of the moment almost brought a gentle tear down a cheek. But, for some reason, the moment didn’t quite feel as sweet as imagined.
The anti-climax makes a lot more sense now. Paris isn’t a city for the casual tourist intending to add to their collection of souvenir magnets or stamps on their passports. The voyage requires you to be a lover in all sense of the word – a lover of worldly passions, and other-worldly desires. A lover of the highbrow of artistic excellence and the lowbrow of cheap kebabs off back alleys. A lover the world around you, the people you meet, the words you listen to on repeat.
Paris isn’t just a city, but it’s something more. The Louvre isn’t just a museum, but the pinnacle of expression. A macaron at Saint-Lazare isn’t just a biscuit with fillings, but the embodiment of heritage and pride. The Eiffel Tower isn’t just an obnoxiously large satellite tower, but a symbol of hope in a rather dark world. The omnipresence of these motifs in the city reflects what Paris is all about. It’s not just a city, but a way of life.
In many ways, musicians like Jay Z, The Chainsmokers, and The 1975 have opened up our concept of Paris to debate.
Jay Z and Kanye’s Ni**as in Paris illustrates the escapism of Paris, highlighting how the duo have been able to escape the entrapment of societal pressures to reach their positions in the music industry. Going beyond the extremely catchy hook and the addictive pace, and it becomes clear that Ni**as in Paris is something very real; gently blending defiance against the system with the euphoria of being the lucky ones to find a place in Paris. In this sense, the aura of Paris is celebrated as the yardstick of success, and overcoming the obstacles to find yourself at peace within the weight of the city.
The Chainsmokers ran with this thought, and created something new – the illusion of Paris as a lifestyle. The construct of escaping to Paris is no longer take in a literal form; one doesn’t have to buy a plane ticket to escape, but subscribe to a lifestyle of living fast and dying young. Much like Jay Z and Kanye’s hit, the Chainsmokers’ Paris comes across as an act of defiance of the status quo, breaking free and experiencing the euphoria of being yourself and living in the moment. The anthem highlights the magic of Paris, and how the perception of this French city is able to cross boundaries and impregnate itself into individuals who haven’t even been there.
The 1975’s track, also deftly titled Paris, took the idea from the tracks mentioned above, and ran in a different direction, illustrating instead the cautions of following this ‘live fast die young’ lifestyle. The track itself highlights the tales of a girl at a party, who attempts to keep up with the fashionable lifestyle of alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. The clean, repetitive rhythm of the guitar riffs and light peppering of the drums create a playful, comforting atmosphere. Yet, as the song progresses, Healy’s lyrics paint the socialite in a discomforting, almost unlikeable light. You get the sense that this girl whom you barely know is not someone you’d like to have at dinner parties, lacking substance behind the socialite exterior. It highlights the plastic, inorganic nature of mindlessly following fashion without really thinking much about it. Moreover it reminds of how this “Paris” lifestyle inebriates, and we become addicted to our fashions that we become synonymous with the crowd, forgetting who we really are.
The city of Paris is something special; its charm has been ingrained in our heads – with a mystique that is hard to isolate and understand. But, it harks back to something I learnt in a Geography class about spaces and places:
A space is any area that you take a map and draw a circle. A place, on the other hand, is the cultural and emotional connections that exist between you and this area that you’ve drawn on a map. Simply put, consider the difference between a house and a home; a house is a habitable space, but a home is a place that extends beyond its functionality, capturing moments and memories, embodying so much more.
Even though many of us have never been to Paris, it’s been embedded in us as a place of self-expression and fulfilment, a lifestyle of romancing strangers and cultures. The foreignness of the city space transforms itself into a safe place for us to dream.
Paris may have become a fantasy, an aspiration for all the world to see. Above all else, it embodies a lifestyle, and whether you subscribe to it is largely irrelevant. The important thing is to acknowledge its existence, and hope for the opportunity to be blessed enough to experience it. And, to be honest, that’s enough.