3rd year Laws/Arts student Aislinn Grimley travelled to Paris in December for the Global Paris 2018 course, led by ANU French Studies scholars Dr Gemma King and Dr Leslie Barnes.
“How was Paris?”
If you approach overseas trips as publicly and as obnoxiously as I do, you should really prepare for the questions you're setting yourself up to field on return. In the case of Global Paris, a long-standing passion project born of Gemma King's prolific flânages (or Paris ‘wanderings’), magically compacted into three weeks, "How was Paris?" feels like asking for a 20-second summary of War and Peace.
But, when anyone hits me with that question, I've settled into a decent rhythm with my automatic reply (think “enjoy-your-meal-thanks-you-too”): "Yeah, we were right off the Rue de Rivoli so we got front-row seats to the Yellow Vests every Saturday; two of my mates got tear gassed - yeah, they're fine - so jealous!"
And there’s nothing wrong with anecdote - we really did see national monuments set alight and graffitied with questionable comments about Macron’s wife, and we definitely did not go out riot-hunting on Saturday mornings to see the tragic demise of COP21 in real time.
That last part usually sends the discussion into a very different direction, and I'm sure any of my fellow Rue de Rivollers would say the same. But, fixating on the gilets jaunes would be an injustice to Gemma's course. So, setting aside my criminal glossings-over and wavings-off, what follows is my best attempt at How Paris Was.
In a city that hosts almost two Australias' worth of tourists each year, it's tempting as a student to tell yourself that this course is offering the Paris caché (“hidden Paris”), lost on that naïve, comparatively-uncultured forty million. After a few late-night métro trips, we all certainly saw a few things that should best remain cachées. But, in reality, we weren't getting Hidden Paris. We weren't even looking for Hidden Paris – from the moment our jet-lagged Baldessin Breakfast Club stepped into the Louvre, it was undeniably clear that Paris is proudly and resolutely impossible to hide. Shockingly, the 'global' part isn't just a qualifier the ANU slaps in front of any course to signify a travel component. Global Paris is exactly as the title suggests.
This course freed 20 ANU students from the Baldessin building, and showed us all the way around the globe, through the lens of a city which has somehow managed to stick its nose into every corner of the Earth. From monument to museum to municipality, Gemma and Leslie taught us to love and (fondly) hate Paris in equal measure, and as an added bonus, to express that love and (fond) hatred in French.
When I first sat down in the window seat that would be my home from Kuala Lumpur to Heathrow (my travel agent was more artist than agent, looking back), I’ll admit I had a few doubts about the utility of the whole experience. I mean, surely taking a long-haul flight to live out what I could have accessed on JSTOR is an affront to modern technology?
But, somewhere between Heathrow and Charles de Gaulle, the hobbitish scepticism started to wane. Being on French soil was different. This wasn’t an experience you could live out from the comfort of Ellery Crescent.
How to hate Paris
Everyone knows the glory of the French Empire isn’t exactly squeaky-clean. And, while it’s easy to downplay that from afar – and wax lyrical about the ubiquity of conquest in human society etc. etc. – it’s harder to play devil’s advocate when you’re in a city brought to greatness through the spoils of that conquest. Physically standing before memorial and monument, palace and project, we were privileged with a first-hand view of Paris’ struggle with its own bloody but brilliant patrimoine. We got to see one “indivisible” French identity, creaking under the weight of its own internal diversity.
This struggle was the heart of Global Paris. And, like many of Western society’s favourite hearts, this one was sacred, brave and tell-tale all at once.
Leslie and Gemma had a knack for letting us grow uneasy in popular tourist haunts. After a lunchtime stroll through the Bois de Vincennes, site of the 1931 Colonial Exposition, we entered the Palais de la Porte Dorée to see the old promotions for the Senegalese villagers who had once lived there. As exhibits.
Another day, we’d poke around Paris’ doorless “Chinatown” looking for lunch, and instead find memorials to the 49,000-odd Indochinese labourers carted in to cheaply pad out the workforce during WWI.
We’d take “jazz tours” through Montmartre and La Goutte d’Or to marvel at the supermarkets that have replaced the bars where the Harlem Hellfighters once played. We’d visit the Museum of the Arab World, and search hopelessly for a single mention of the Algerian War. We’d stroll through the Marais to read the names of countless Jewish children killed while the French police force took German orders.
The French identity is a national treasure, and Paris is all the more beautiful for it. But, conversely, changes to such a proud identity have always come with resistance. Those sticking points are where we found Ugly Paris.
How to love Paris
That being said, while it might be personally vindicating to run around steeped in self-righteous disdain for Ugly Paris, that view alone would have given us just as narrow a view as if we’d bought an Eiffel Tower keyring in front of the Louvre and gone straight home via Starbucks. Sure, the lens of post-colonialism gives a deeper understanding of the city, but not at the expense of its undeniably rich and admirable culture.
At its heart, Global Paris was about seeing the chameleon "Frenchness" through the lens of urban exploration, and tasting it through the lens of baked chèvre and falafel. And we got plenty of both.
Knowing where France had faltered, we could take a great deal more pleasure in seeing where it had recovered – hearing fragments of Arabic in everyday conversation, skipping hostel dinners to eat far too much Israeli food, listening to Louisiana jazz with French lyrics. Even our free time was an education on a Francité that moves too quickly to package up and teach in Australia.
It would’ve been a tragedy if we’d spent three whole weeks dismantling the romantic wine-and-Monet view of Paris. We took a few prods at it, maybe, but overall, we revelled in it. In a live-action replay of Gemma’s still-living blog, we threw ourselves into French art and history, sat before Monet’s water lilies, copped selfie-stick bruises checking out the Mona Lisa, quietly agreed on what Gustave Moreau’s Tumblr would’ve looked like (“bienvenue à my twisted mind †♥† follow for more soft grunge †♥†”). We quickly realised that museum tours are more than just gawping at pictures, but learning to dispute the indivisibility of the French identity by teasing out a vast range of different French identities reflected in sculpture, painting and music. Even the well-known, European French brand is the sum of countless, wildly different individuals, preserved on shelves and walls all around Paris. Even distilled to its barest, most stereotypical version, the French identity is a patchy mongrel, and la Francité indivisible is an illusion to support a palatable “France at a glance”.
Global Paris criticised a beautiful city to death, only to bring it right back to life.