Angelene moved from Singapore to Paris, France in August 2017 to pursue her Master’s Degree.
It was a wet Parisian week with the flooding of the Seine. The downpours had caused the water to rise, barring boats from sailing under bridges, covering the sidewalks I used to jog on.
Finally the ebb and flow had petered out to its usual nonchalance. Text messages from friends and family trickled in, asking if the flood had reached me.
“Thanks for checking in. I’m fine.”
I wasn’t always just fine though. There was a time when Paris took my breath away. I’d swing my fourth-storey French windows wide, inviting my gloomy lover in with open arms. I’d plant my bare feet on the railing and let my glass of cheap wine suffuse my body in the affectionate Autumn breeze.
I wandered, and these wanderings were often accentuated with moments of awe; crossing the river on the many ponts, I’d stop to spend a moment on the stone parapet, watching the boats sweep under me against the Notre Dame backdrop with the conviction that the world was in my hands.
These novelties had dimmed into the everyday, simply a presence I could look past.
Paris truly lived up to what Monet and Funny Face made her out to be – a city forever coated in a sepia tint of nostalgia, yet saturated with romantic possibility. From my window, the chorus of nervous traffic and people at lunchtime simmered up, reminding me, in Nick Carraway’s words, that I was within and without.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, was always ambivalent between being in the thick of drama and alienation. On the periphery of the new money class of Long Island’s East Egg, he had one foot in its extravagance and decadence, and one foot out.
From my window, I was in the grasp of the city yet still a voyeur to the phantasmagoria in front of me. I was Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur, who – in the wake of the bustling new 19th-century city of Paris – was both observer and observed, lost in the anonymity of the streets crowded by the new bourgeois class; as I meandered the crowds whether on the way to university, to the supermarché, or just to bask in the occasional sun, my carefully curated black and grey wardrobe enabled me to go undetected as an outsider.
The flâneur’s wanderous gaze also extended to the goods on display in the magasins de nouveauté. These arcades or covered walkways lined with shops were the product of the innovation of glass and iron. As the precursor to the departmental stores, the new window displays enabled the fetishistic gaze of window shopping.
From a transitory space, it became a place to dwell for the Parisian bourgeoisie. Today, it is once again used to transit, most often as a shortcut to get to the next street. Yet, as one emerges from the arcade into the unforgiving Paris wind, one is greeted by a greater transitory space – the road.
I live just off Boulevard Haussmann, named after Georges- Eugène Haussmann who carried out a massive urban renewal of Paris under Emperor Napoleon II, in the 19th century. The Haussmannisation of Paris turned it into what we know of her today – perfectly tapered, plaster-covered icons of architecture and markers of Parisian national identity.
Yet, Haussmann was known as the artiste démolisseur because his construction of Paris, whose image occupies the common imagination today, entailed the destruction of another Parisian identity. The process arguably dehumanised the character of the city then.
In a more benevolent light, his aim was to build a utopian metropolis influenced by the Enlightenment’s affinity for the natural sciences – the city was to be a body and the people its cells, in constant, unhindered manoeuvring, according to social critic Richard Sennett. Though as the heel of my Saint Laurent boot clicked on the ground, I heard the pavement echo with the hollow space where the past was buried.
My footsteps followed in the reverberation of those who have walked before me.
“The operation of walking, wandering, or ‘window shopping’, that is, the activity of passers-by, is transformed into points that draw a totalizing and reversible line on the map,” wrote French Jesuit and scholar Michel de Certeau. As we learnt when to correctly use “je suis” and “j’ai” in French class, I was walking according to the grammar of the spatial practices designed for this city.
The direction of my flâneurial gaze extended from the shiny ‘Made in Paris’ goods in the windows to the towering monuments around me. As I stood on one end of the Champs-Élysées and looked straight, my line of vision was arrested by the Arc de Triomphe. As I crossed the Pont des Arts, I could not but be struck by the magnificent imposition of the Bibliothèque Mazarine. And as I emerged from the Iéna metro station, my panorama was punctuated with the exclamation point of an Eiffel Tower. Paris sold herself to me.
‘Made in Paris’ had fashioned its elegance into the global imagination. Despite this knowledge, her aura still stirred a near-dormant love within. My knowledge of her constructedness stood side by side with an irrational affinity, that even as the spark of novel experience extinguished, as the layers came undone to make plain the logic of the mystery of Paris’ aura, I continued to love Paris.
I have undressed Paris as I do my lover, peeling back layer by performed layer to reveal the good, the bad, and the not so beautiful. Love is blind until you step back from the arms of your lover and look at them in full view:
The aged lady in a headscarf and crutch kneels with her forehead on the pavement and begs for money next to the majestic Opéra Garnier. She picks herself up quite effortlessly and walks off at 5pm every day. The young man in a puffy jacket and beanie squats outside a café on Avenue de l’Opéra and places his transparent coin cup slightly too far into the middle of the pavement. He waits for a passerby to accidentally kick it over so that he will be compensated out of guilt. The middle-aged streetwalkers in scarlet berets and matching lipstick loiter on the corners of my street behind the palatial Galeries Lafayette on Saturday nights, waiting for their lucky hour.
As I take my daily walk, I am no longer invigorated by the ‘beauty’ that my gaze is told to meet. Instead they fall on that which has been displaced by the ideal. The veil of perfection is lifted and the mist of the idea of Paris has cleared. Now, all I see is Paris.