Heather and I continue our trip to Paris. We will post more of the details later, but first, some commentary.
Having been in the French capital city for three days, we’ve had a chance to experience what happens to a city when, after enough belle epoque songs are recorded, roaring twenties expat-authored novels written, and mid-twentieth century romantic films produced, everything that might have been redeeming about central Paris is replaced by something that looks quite like the authentic worlds portrayed in those cultural recordings but is somewhat askew, having been repackaged for the consumption of the touring masses. Paris is beautiful, its architecture endlessly pleasant, and its cafe culture seemingly unrivaled. And yet, everywhere in the tourist-visited regions, Paris is also terrible. I feel as much like I am touring the tourists as I am anything genuinely Parisian that those tourists and I both came to see.
Indeed, this morning’s trip to the Louvre left me not in awe of the incredible beauty of thousands of masterpieces nor struck by the almost unparalleled collection of French and Italian paintings and classical sculpture housed in this palace. Nor was I made at any point to remember that I was walking halls paid for by imperialism and the labor of many for the benefit of few. Instead, I watched tourists flock for a view of a select few masterpieces, seen only through the two-inch lens of a camcorder or worse, through the absurd pseudo-camera known as an iPad.
The huge number of people trying to see the Louvre in any given day seems to undermine the experience of seeing the Louvre by others (it’s hard to contemplate Mona Lisa’s smile when you’re surrounded by tourists taking pictures and signs warning you of pickpockets capitalizing on tourists taking pictures). It also lessens the value of the Louvre’s collection. The Louvre, as a result of immense, antiquated wealth and the pillaging of various other countries, houses a collection any individual piece of which would be the showcase item of almost any other museum in the world. And yet, the focus on “hitting the highlights” let’s those scrambling for one of the cramped spaces at the front row of the Mona Lisa to miss the wall of Raphaels just outside hanging for an empty hallway.
And so it comes to my conclusion and the explanation of this post’s title. Mount Everest is seen by many as the ultimate climb, a chance to summit to the top of the world. This dream is held so widely that now hundreds of people summit each year, a number scores of times larger than the number of climbers who summited in the first few decades after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first made it to the top. With so much interest, the mountain is over-crowded. People die as a result. And anyone with enough money can pay a guide team to get them to the top for the sake of making the summit with little regard for the value of making the journey itself. Hillary and legendary climber Reinhold Messner now both agree that fewer people should climb Everest, and advise interested parties to find one of the 14 other “eight-thousanders” that provide a nearly identical view as Everest, but with some actual variation in requisite climbing skill.
This, I feel, is an analogy for Paris. I don’t think there should be caps on visits to the Louvre or limitations how many people can ascend the Eiffel Tower. But, perhaps, it is time to find some other places worth visiting in Europe. The value of seeing the beauty and the romance of Paris is lost if everyone tries to experience it at once. Perhaps the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, and some other pieces could find new homes to draw the crowds away from the Louvre and to give people a chance at the rest of the museum’s collection. Paris is full of museums, many of which are better and more interesting than the Louvre. Heather and I were stunned by the beauty of the Musee de l’Orangerie, just two blocks from the Louvre, which had hardly a line and a strict no photography policy. The Musee d’Orsay, which we saw yesterday and is housed in a gorgeous Beaux-Artes building formerly used as a rail station, has a similar “no photography” policy that again seems to keep focus on the art rather than “summiting” the various masterworks.
In short, I am thrilled to be in Paris but I am less than thrilled by the style of tourism it seems to attract. “Hitting” Paris and its main attractions seems to distract from the immense possibilities on offer in this city and the need to see Paris for the sake of seeing Paris comes at the expense of a European experience. Having lived now for half-a-year (for the second time) in a small European city, I know that Europe has far more to offer than the swarm of tourists inevitably found in all the major cities. Europe has plenty of summits; hopefully tourists will someday learn to climb some smaller peaks rather than just go for Everest.