Samuel Johnson is widely misquoted as observing that when a man is tired of Paris, he is tired of life (he was actually talking about London). I have happily misquoted him every time I visited Paris over the last 30 or so years, because the essence of the observation seemed irrefutable: there is so much to admire about the city, so much that touches the soul, that to be bored there, or glad to leave it, would seem an almost sacrilegious indifference to the best of what we humans have been able to come up with over the millennia — wonderful food, man-made spaces both magnificent and intimate, reminders of history on every corner, and a river flowing through it all like a constant benediction.
But on a recent visit to the City of Light, I had to confess that it wearied me. It wasn’t the miles of walking about sightseeing and revisiting favorite old haunts, and it wasn’t the hordes of tourists that clog the famous avenues and museums at virtually all times of year. It wasn’t that the Paris skyline seemed disfigured absent the spire of Notre-Dame and with the horrific addition of the Montparnasse Tower, a looming monolith as inappropriate to Paris as the Salesforce Tower is to San Francisco or the new glut of supertall condo buildings is to New York.
No, what wearied me was the unavoidable sense that Paris has, for too many people, and in particular its visitors, ceased to be a city and has become a prop, a thing, a meta-Paris to be used for what it represents – style, romance, luxury – rather than a place to be experienced with the reverence and awe it deserves.
Three vignettes come to mind: the ornate dining room at the Hotel Ritz, where one recent morning a trio of girls — and they were girls, at the back end of their teens — came prepared to turn their breakfast into a photo shoot, one wearing an evening gown in which she proceeded to pirouette about the room as her two producers took photos on their phones and the astonished guests looked on in disbelief that such a hallowed, elegant space could be reduced to fodder for envy-bombing by would-be “influencers.”
Another: at night at the Bar in the Ritz, two middle-aged, beefy American men held forth in loud voices about their own wealth and how they had shown up a woman who’d spurned one of them by pointing out to her the net worth she was missing out on. Their braying about money came in the midst of other patrons trying to enjoy a drink and some quiet conversation in a bar where a gin and tonic costs thirty Euros.
And one day on the Seine, among the used book and poster concessionaires that line the sidewalks on the left bank, a woman turned in frustration to her companion and asked in apparent seriousness, “Why do they have to print everything in French?”
What all this misbehavior has in common is a failure to understand, literally, where one is, a failure or inability to perceive a city, a hotel, a restaurant, as something more that a spot on a map or a check-mark on an itinerary.
Much of this is attributable to the smartphone and, more broadly, to the internet, once greeted as a mechanism for knitting together communities in new ways, but which has proved to be the opposite, atomizing them into isolated pockets of self-absorption, self-promotion, self-delusion, where anyone’s sense of propriety — or lack of it — becomes its own standard.
Tourists have always been blinkered and mean, even in cities as sophisticated as Paris. The proverbial “ugly American” of the last mid-century has been joined, thanks to the thorough democratization of international travel and elevated standards of living, by the ugly Asian, the ugly Russian, the ugly Arab.
But cities are communities through which we pass as guests, not backdrops to individual narcissism; hotels are places of refuge and renewal and not, no matter how expensive they may be, stages for the display of ego; restaurants, particularly in Paris, are small shrines to hospitality and the shared pleasure of eating grandly or simply, not platforms for self-reference.
So I was not tired of Paris by the time I left it; I was tired of the uses to which Paris, and so many grand cities like it, have been put by those, be they visitors or residents, whose world begins with the self rather than in the lived life of others. It was a reminder that to be good travelers, we must first be good citizens and, no matter where we are, members of a community.