This article overlaps in conjunction with Taking the RER B
Writing about a city, just as writing about any subject, is a way of documenting it within history, for giving it a voice, for making it human almost, letting it breathe and move and speak. It may have dreams, it may have fears, it may have flaws and disease. The Nobel Prize-winning writer Saul Bellow asserts that “the city has always been an important literary symbol, and the ways in which a culture writes about its cities is one means by which we may understand its fears and aspirations.” When we narrate a city, just as we when we create any story, we add complexity to an existing or new narrative about it. Some cities, like Paris, have been written about for a very long time, by many people – famous, poor, foreigners, nobodies. They have been filmed and spun into verses, boxed into blog posts and captured in fiction. A place like Paris is complex because it has many narratives, regardless of whether these are diverse or multifaceted. Complexity is the key word. The more narratives that exist on a particular subject, such as the city, especially if they come from various types of sources, differing socially, historically and culturally, then the better it is. The story of the city thus gains complexity and there is more to untangle, to pick apart, to unravel into understanding.
Indeed, to document a city within the realm of literature offers a different kind of complexity however, in a way that a staid historical essay, ethnographic study or research paper simply cannot. Literature is an extremely fruitful vehicle for this because it is so precisely concerned with human experience. This is especially important because cities are only cities due to the humans inhabiting them; without human presence, they are mere nebulous land expanses. Even their imaginary borders are positioned by human hand. Thus, the very idea, the very construction of a city, is dependent on human endeavour, without which it is an amorphous stretch of space, formless and nameless.
In that sense, one can assert that cities as concepts to be studied and explored are entirely human constructions. So while it is vital to analyse these constructions in certain, more scientific ways, in order to conduct policy changes or future amendments for example, it is equally vital to comprehend cities as complex sites of primarily human experience. Unlike other forms of documentation, literature possesses immense emotionality, meaning it employs feeling, something so intrinsic to human experience, to evoke empathy within the reader and allow one not only to examine a city from an objective distance but instead be placed right within it, to nestle in the apple core and touch, observe, taste. Thus, writing and reading a city in text is an absolutely fundamental way for comprehending how it does and could possibly function as an evolving human construction.
This notion is reinforced by Bellow himself: “the city’s air too may be blent, composed of the hopes, aspirations, disappointments and pain of those who live in it; …it is a kind of vessel, filled with human experience. the city is an aggregation or accumulation, not just in demographic, economic or planning terms, but also in terms of feeling and emotion. Cities thus become more than their built environment, more than a set of class or economic relationships; they are also an experience to be lived, suffered, undergone…”
Situating cities in literature is a rather paradoxical experience. On one hand, we complicate the city’s existing narrative(s), we colour the lines in just a little more, we give it heightened complexity. On the other hand, we also trap the city in text, however multifarious this collection of words may be. The idea of the city becomes confined to the sum of several subjective experiences of it that have been combed through, examined, then pinned down into words, as if hammering down nails into floating ideas or gathering them into a picture frame. So whilst translating a city into literary text is enriching to our understanding of it, there is also a kind of loss, as it is with any kind of translation, that takes place.
However, what is unusual is that this loss does not particularly matter within the transferring of writer’s experience to written text, but rather in that space between written text and the reader’s experience. Any reader approaches a text like a solo voyager on a journey, carrying their own baggage – this could be emotional, cultural, religious, ethical, moral and so on. Therefore, whilst city narratives themselves are subjective sums of writers’ experiences, more importantly, the illumination of a city within a reader’s mind is a doubly subjective process. The reader’s predisposed background and ideas, or their specific subjectivity, is imposed on top of the writer’s own subjectivity.
The double subjectivity that occurs when encountering city narratives is an interesting idea to consider in how these texts eventually influence our experiences of that city. When I first went to Paris, I carried Ernest Hemingway’s romanticized “moveable feast” within me, but I also quietly carried my identity as a South Asian woman who grew up in a diverse southern African society. Before landing here, I dreamed and expected Paris to be smoking and drinking at streetside cafés, art museums, bohemian life and baguettes, and yes, it was. But it was also refugee slums parked outside an alternative youth club, graffiti-tattooed neighbourhoods, and metro stations housing the homeless whilst stinking of urine and abandon. It was feeling a constant sense of off-kilter, even when I managed to muster a conversation in the language, even when my coat was appropriately chic, and even when I began to change trains with a level of newly-minted confidence.
In her recent book titled “The New Paris”, author Lindsey Tramuta describes a similar sort of experience, in the sense that she too watched her fantasy-narrative of Paris disintegrating before her, only to be reassembled as something uglier but infinitely more complex and interesting. She states:
I came to Paris with many of the same motivations as the countless dreamers that came before me. As a student of French language and literature, I arrived…seeking a taste of the textbook reverie…the works of George Sand, Charles Baudelaire, and Victor Hugo…Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. Both their use of the language and their relationships to the city planted the seeds of curiosity…like most wide-eyed new visitors, my viewpoint was narrow. In my colourful imagination, Paris functioned as a one-trick pony on an immaculate stage of perfectly packaged historic marvels – a picturesque trophy city…more like a simulacrum of a city – a living museum that trades on its past to woo travellers…[but its] true colors [are] as a livable, everyday city that is as grimy as it is chic, as maddening as it is edifying…trash-strewn sidewalks, offensive odors, and all of the various imperfections that intrude on the tourist’s idyll…
When I go home and type the clunky French name – “Barbès-Rochechouart” – an immigrant-heavy metro station area in northern Paris, into my search bar, this is what comes up:
“Everyone has their own story about Barbès, but there are repeating themes in the stories of outsiders: the disproportionate number of men in public spaces, Friday prayers in the street, drug traders and crack cocaine, the market under the Metro overpass, hijabi girls, and pickpocketing. Told to loved ones and strangers alike, these stories form the public reputation of Barbès and regulate the paths that individuals take to work and the places they frequent and shop. “They’ve never been here,” a co-worker tells me of her friends as we’re walking to my apartment. “And I don’t think they ever will.”
When presenting cities in text, as blogger Anthony Chase tries to do on his neighbourhood of Barbès-Rochechouart in northern Paris, there often occurs a kind of dichotomy of narrative of the city. On one side, there is the beautiful, idealized Paris, which has many versions of course, but all of these seem to function under a kind of white, westernized, romantic umbrella, whether this is simply an area with few immigrants, or it is my fantastical Hemingway-esque moveable feast, or it is merely a neat, ordered and pretty Paris that conforms to European aesthetic standards (consider brightly lit cafes, Hausmannian apartments, spaces for riverside picnics and strolls, artistic bars, galleries, feats of historical architecture, museums, and so on). On the other side, there is a place like Barbès – immigrant-heavy, disorganized and non-conforming to traditional European standards, both aesthetically and physically, considering its ethnic, social, religious and cultural diversity. A place like Barbès, and other “shadier” areas of Paris, are present at the other end of the dichotomy as a kind of uglier, brasher, cruder counter-narrative to the idealized, ‘traditional’ Paris. This exists like a stain, that needs to be hushed up, ignored, avoided. It’s the rough area that travel blogs advise you to stay away from, its graffiti and foreign smells portents of danger, its very existence somehow carrying the capability to contaminate you with its disarray, unable to conform to an ancient, crafted mold for the European city. This side of the dichotomy exists on the fringes of both the city’s and the city writer’s imagination. It is the outsider.
Lindsay Tramuta too, as a young, green French literature student, like me, initially believed wholeheartedly in the beautiful side of the dichotomy. She functioned on a westernized, romantic, fantasy-narrative of Paris, built up from texts she had read, written largely by white European or American writers. – and perhaps even films, blog posts. tweets and magazines that contribute similarly to this narrative. Together, the various writers of the past that she mentions in her book The New Paris, make poetry out of Paris’ history and peddle it as one luminous yet, in Tramuta’s words, narrow vision – a city of love, a city of light, a city of history and wine and food and poetry and bohemia, a city of epicurean paradise and the starving artist. But this narrative is only one side of the dichotomy; it leaves no room for a place like Barbès-Rochechouart to be acknowledged and accepted, let alone celebrated as beautiful or ideal. It is stuck in the past, stubbornly clinging to a historical standard; it has not moved on with the turn of the century, with the influx of new cultural influences and people, with the rise of globalization. Tramuta herself describes recent attempts to gentrify neighborhoods such as Barbès, in a stubborn act of retaining the traditional dominance of the romantic, and ultimately white Eurocentric, Paris narrative.
There is a loss incurred through dichotomy of narrative and that occurs in the space in between. What is happening in the metro on the way from the majestic Tuileries Gardens towards Gare du Nord or Barbès? This liminal area too, equally, is Paris. Are we taking note of what happens between the glossy and the grit? The exclusionism occurring when we ignore more complicated issues in this space in between leaves no room for a complex city narrative, and prevents Paris from embracing true cosmopolitanism. By cosmopolitanism, I refer to philosopher Kwame Antony Appiah’s definition of a place where “we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship” and “that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance”, reinforcing the idea of community and solidarity despite social, financial, but more so, cultural differences. Tramuta herself urges that the modern approach to Paris must mean “grappling with what ails it and building upon the foundation laid by centuries of invaluable contributions to art, architecture, food, fashion and technology…but it’s also about finding constructive ways to address prevailing issues of immigration, security and national identity…” In other words, it’s stretching this dichotomy of narrative into a spectrum, spreading oneself out in new spaces and thinking critically about them in as many ways as possible, in order to arrive at more complex city narratives. It’s thinking about Hemingway’s Paris, about Vogue’s Paris, but also about the Afghani refugee’s Paris who lives in a tent next to a hipster bar in Stalingrad, or the Mexican medical student’s Paris, who lives in a lonely dorm in the unglamorous 14th, speaking more Spanish than French.
Paris, of course, cashes in on its dichotomy of narrative, especially its more dominant, beautiful side. The city is both a prisoner and an exploiter of its own deified history, of its immaculately constructed dominant narrative, of this one pretty end of the dichotomy, because its nostalgia towards its past glories, manifested still in the architectural and cultural monuments and aesthetic makeup of the city, makes it resistant to progress and diversification, or a more complex narrative, and this resistance is worsened when Paris perpetuates and capitalizes on it. It continues to market itself, through the lens of this romantic narrative, this la vie en rose, as an irresistible candy for the insatiable tourist.
For a few weeks, I have been working as a communications intern at a tourism start-up called Intripid, doing simple French-English translations and writing fluffy blog pieces to attract Anglophone customers to the company. The window by my desk at work looks over the city like an observant parent. In the distance, the Sacré-Coeur rises from the skin of Paris, a pretty little blemish that is the former village of Montmartre. Working at Intripid, coupled with living and travelling around Europe at the same time, has made me think a lot about how city narratives affect the tourist experience. Intripid is a company that organizes small “courses”, or “adventure challenges” within a particular city in order to discover and engage with more original, unusual and fun activities and locations in that city. The idea is to discover a “new” and “original” Paris, where the company is based, or Barcelona or Budapest or Nice, the other cities in which it additionally operates. As of now, Intripid’s customers are mainly bachelor(ette) parties in France, youth/student groups, businesses seeking team-building options, and young European tourists.
Intripid is part of a wave of companies that are trying to monetize the experiential tourist experience. This is defined as a form of tourism in which people focus on experiencing a country, city or particular place by connecting to its history, people and culture directly, as opposed to ticking off a checklist of Yelp-approved sites for example. The rise of this phenomenon is indebted to an increased desire “to escape from run-of-the-mill and homogenized experiences…travellers are seeking out more adventurous and experiential travel.” One web article cites a tourist lauding this new phenomenon, stating: “Travelling is always a new experience, but when you feel the place instead of just look at it, you have captured experiential travel. There are so many things that can turn a simple trip into a deeper experience. Suddenly you turn onto the wrong street, you find a new place, meet a new local friend and you make deeper connections.”
Experiential travel, in that sense, seems to encourage challenging the problematic dichotomy or dominance of one city narrative, to enter new and unusual spaces, really observe them and arrive at individual conclusions about a city that are perhaps more holistic. Essentially, experiential travel ideally perpetuates the creation of more complex city narratives. The idea is optimistic but as I witness the nature of the experiential travel packages offered by Intripid, something doesn’t sit right. It is not until I visit Vatican City with a friend of mine over spring break that I ponder this line of thinking deeper. After our trip, my friend Chiran pens a piece on how his experience of the Vatican Museum, which houses the Sistine Chapel, was akin to the curatorial imposition of visiting an IKEA store:
The place is full of people who are intent on taking pictures of the church’s grand arches, its frescoes. Each of these people, I imagine, have waited for more than 2 hours in intolerable heat to enter this church. I’m not a big photo-taker, but even I feel the need to capture my experience with a photo…to capture in a nutshell the experience of having completely and successfully achieved this feat of tourism… at the Vatican Museums, there is no liberation from the curator or from the Museum. Even the sense of sublime that one would expect the Chapel’s great art to incite in the viewer is undermined by the fact of imposed curation [like an IKEA] …an IKEA is ultimately a commercial venture, while we imagine the museum to not be one. The excruciatingly clear question, it seems to me, is why our museums are organized like IKEAs. The answer revolves around this notion of the reproducibility of experience. All tourism wants to curate experience so that the tourist has achieved all paradigmatic feats of tourism. Thus the museum, a touristic venue, is curated in such a manner that the tourist who is guided by the signs of curations arrives at the cumulative point – the realization of a feat of tourism.”
Chiran’s piece introduces a new element to this discussion: capitalism. Capitalism, being a system that encourages satisfaction of the individual as opposed to the society at large, ironically seems to perpetuate the reproducibility, the sameness, of experience, when it comes to tourism. In essence, capitalistic reproducibility diminishes the uniqueness of the individual’s experiences. Even a desire to individualize and complicate one’s own experience of a location is funnelled through the tunnel of capitalism and monetized into experiential travel packages such as those offered by Intripid – Amelie adventure in Paris, fiesta challenge in Barcelona, for instance. Although these packages promise a more unique, unusual and authentic “discovery” of the city at hand, their mere reproducibility for each person that engages in them, due to commercialization of the concept of experiential tourism, reduces the act of experiential travel into an inhibitor of complex approaches to cities and their narratives.
What can one take from this conclusion? Perhaps that any tourist must be extra mindful and critical when considering their approach to a city through the lens of a tourism company operating within a capitalist setup. Sure, many such packages can eliminate logistical worries like transport, food, navigation worries etc., but a more unique, complex and spontaneous experience of the city is also lost in this “adventure”. A tourism package itself is an imposition of a narrative: it is a carefully designed and curated experience just as visiting an IKEA store is, and in that sense it exerts control over the narrative of the city that you are left with. It thus robs the visitor of the agency to fully approach and construct their own narrative of the city, leaving no room for error, learning and of course, complexity.
I have been living in Paris for over four months now. I have spent these four months unravelling a tapestry of Paris that existed in my head prior to arriving here. Perhaps I’ve been trying to worm my way to the apple core of this city but then I’m not sure that’s entirely possible. However much complexity we create, however much we try to unlearn then understand then re-weave a place in our own words, will we ever really find the “real” Paris? Does the “real” Paris even exist? Can a city, like a human, ever be caught in essence, ever hold a singular truth about its identity?
The question then becomes a matter of authenticity. Everyone is in search of this mystical thing, this “authentic” experience. We want the local food and the checklist of historical monuments and the native lifestyle and all the years of history classes we took, come to life.
But what happens in between? In that liminal space that separates spectrum from dichotomy; the metro carriage travelling between Concorde and Barbès; the blank space between the checkboxes on your TripAdvisor itinerary; the margins of A Moveable Feast; the gaps in conversations between Arab perfume sellers, Canadian tourists, French bankers, Indian exchange students; the translation from imagination to text to imagination to experience then imagination again?
Perhaps we will think about this later, write about it later, as we board the train to the next monument, the next city.
This piece is part of our Invisible Cities series.
Artwork by M. Bleichner
Chase, Anthony. “Another Paris”, Shatter the Looking Glass. Web.
Faria, Wallace. “What is experiential travel? Here’s what we think”, The Travel Word, 11 June 2012. Web.
Fuggle, Lucy. “The rise of experiential travel and its impact on tours and activities”, Trekk Soft, 2 August 2016. Web.
H.A.T. “Book Review of Cosmopolitanism by Kwame Antony Appiah”, Global Ethics Network, 18 April 2013. Web.
Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. Jonathon Cape UK. Print.
Intripid. intripid.org. Web.
Preston, Peter and Simpson-Housley, Paul. “Chapter 35: Writing the City”, The Blackwell City Reader. Web.
Raj Pandey, Chiran. “Notes on Tourism, the Museum, Ikea and Capitalism”, Postscript Magazine, 23 April 2018. Web.
Tramuta, Lindsey. The New Paris. Abrams New York. Print.