A Clash Between Past and Present Paris

Bryan Yalta is a student at the University of North Texas and an ISA Featured Blogger. He studied abroad with ISA in Paris, France.

The world is full of reminders of the past. Every building you walk by, every street you pass–you’re surrounded by things that have surpassed time. I think, however, that certain places in the world make you think about history in this aspect more than others. Dallas, for example–which is where I reside–has a few historical monuments and districts that might cause one to reminisce about their beginnings for a short time but not enough, in my view, to spark mental journeys about their historical developments. On the other hand, in a city like Paris, thinking historically happens practically every day. I realized this one early, rainy morning walking around the Saint-Michel area with nothing to do.

A side view of the Notre-Dame Cathedral.

It was one of my first days in Paris and I had woken up early thinking I’d start the day with breakfast and some shopping. To my dismay, I found out that most restaurants near the area opened, at the earliest, at 8AM; stores at 10AM. It was 7AM. So I, being too lazy to take a train to another place, decided to mosey around in the drizzling, European grey.

Overlooking the Seine.

Saint-Michel can be characterized mainly by its location, which is right by the Seine, and an abundance of shops and restaurants crammed together in 19th-century design. It also has a great view of the Notre-Dame cathedral, which is what initially brought up the thought of clashing eras in a single area. See, Paris is filled with a lot of graffiti that seems to almost blend with the architecture it has vandalized. I mention this, because there’s a specific graffiti artist who is tied to the whole city: Invader. Using mosaics, Invader usually tags street corners all over Paris with characters from the arcade game Space Invaders, from which his name derives from, and one of his works just so happened to be in Saint-Michel. I stumbled into it accidentally when I stopped walking arbitrarily and looked up at the sky.

The Space Invaders tag. Similar tags of his can be found all over Paris.

Having seen the tag, I started walking again and kept glancing at the grandeur of Notre-Dame apathetically. It made me think of how many artists must’ve been involved in the design and molding processes to create the cathedral, how Victor Hugo fought against its destruction, the books and films inspired by this fine piece of architecture. Then I went back to thinking about Invader’s work. Sure, the Space Invaders character wasn’t as spectacular as walking by a monumental building, but it was just as interesting to find it by surprise on some street near the Seine. That’s what made me question a potential correlation between the two: how would the 19th century French school of thought react to Invader’s work if they could see it today? How would the French see Invader’s work centuries later?

Watching the Seine in its serenity helps to think about things like this.

Obviously both schools of thought–past and present–have different dogmas, but there’s a diverse amount of art movements that have come out of Paris that we as civilized people now preserve and display and revere as merely the city’s history. Paris has learned not to alienate certain styles of art but rather to embrace it all and make contrasting schools of though somehow come together. This is the conclusion I came to after this short-lasting moment of realization.

I haven’t had a thought like that come to me so quickly in Dallas as it did in Paris. In Dallas, sure, there’s graffiti all over downtown, especially in places like the Deep Ellum district, which is a lively music-driven strip in the city. However, I can’t think of things like contrasting outlooks in art when most of the graffiti is tagged in places that have been gentrified and rebuild so many times that its history gets buried underneath it all–but that’s another story. When a city lets time elapse long enough, and preserves at least part of its ongoing development, that is when creative thinking can casually flourish–and Paris has been flourishing for quite some time now.

The world awaits…discover it.

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