The Houses We Live In

I‘ve been thinking the last couple of days about something Bill’s dad said to me before I left. I’m paraphrasing here since I don’t remember the exact phrasing he used, but something to the effect of “people are essentially the same everywhere, they just build their houses differently.”

Mr. Bill is widely traveled from his time in the Air Force so it’s not like he just pulled this idea out of his ass. I also don’t think he meant it in too strict of terms. But with this idea in mind I’ve been paying more attention to architecture than I ever did in the past and, if for no other reason than that, I appreciate Mr. Bill’s point. Or as my dad likes to say, when you get to Paris you really feel like you have gone somewhere.

Paris’s architecture is unlike anything in America. There is really just no comparison. A few neighborhoods in the more modern parts of town remind me at times of San Francisco if it were pancaked and painted mute colors. But by and large, Paris architecture is completely unlike anything in America. And I think one of the reasons that is so has to do with the way in which architecture reflects culture and the ideas of the people that make up culture. So while Mr. Bill may be right that people are essentially the same, nevertheless, important differences distinguish them from one another and sometimes these differences are reflected in the houses they make.

Eiffel TowerTo Americans the French are renowned for the emphasis they place on pleasure and sensual details of life. When Americans think of the French they tend to think of food and art and sex. Whereas I cannot pretend to tell you what the French at large think of Americans they seem somewhat obsessed with our bad television dramas, particularly those with detective/police/crime bent. Which to seems to reflect a view of Americans that is perhaps not entirely unfounded.

We’re obsessed with regulating things the French don’t care about, yet we love the anti-hero who flaunts our own regulations. We’re gruff, only semi-civilized and most importantly very, very young as a culture. We still love to play cops and robbers (though cowboys and indians seems to have fallen out of favor). Many Americans would take tremendous offense to the nudes that adorn French gardens, which is just silly, but undeniably part of America’s historical Puritanism, a history the French lack.

Of course I am speaking in clichés and do not want to imply that I actually believe either of these perceptions is in any way accurate or even representative of each culture. Still there may well be something to be learned from clichés.

There are more concrete cultural differences I’ve observed, for instance, one which really irritates Laura, is that Parisians at least, have a concept of personal space that’s radically smaller than American’s concept. The French have no problem basically stepping on you in crowded metro cars for instance. The other related irritating thing is the Parisians’ habit of not getting the hell out of the way. For instance no one here runs to catch the metro train. Whereas in New York, if you are descending to the platform and clearly hear or see a train arrive nearly everyone speeds up and tries to make that train, not so here. People continue along at whatever plodding pace they may have and good luck getting around them. Yet curiously they have no problem moving into the 10 inch space between you and the supermarket shelf. These two things combined make the Louvre quite an ordeal even on a weekday.

Clytemnestra and AgamemnonYet perhaps if you are always running to catch the train you cannot produce something like Clytemnestra and Agamemnon. And I don’t mean that in the sense of stopping to smell the flowers, it’s much more than that. It’s an entirely different approach to life, something so big I don’t pretend to fully understand it, but merely catch glimpses of it here and there in the smaller actions and movements of a culture similar too, and yet entirely different from mine.

At the same time I have come to see certain ways in which I am indelibly American. Laura, who has been here about three weeks longer than me, pointed out that while we tend to think of America as having no unifying culture, it actually does. It’s just very hard to see until you look at it from along way away. I think perhaps it’s doubly noticeable when encountering a culture that is very close to and yet not, your own. That is to say that certainly India will be so different from America as to virtually incomparable in any meaningful way (which raise the question whether or not comparing cultures is in fact ever meaningful, but I can’t go there at this juncture). But France is just close enough that the differences are more obvious.

Yet similarities remain. For instance if you want to see the French go crazy with Americanesque consumer frenzy just stop by BHV on a Saturday. And BHV is itself a very America idea, and yet, as with everything, the French have refined the Target/Wal-Mart concept to a new and somewhat higher level. Everything under one roof takes on a new meaning at BHV where literally everything is under one roof except groceries. Imagine Wal-Mart mashed with Bed Bath and Beyond, Home Depot, Pier 1, Macy’s, True Value, and Ikea. Nine stories of crazed French consumers. And yet the cafe has good coffee, beer and pretty good photography on the walls. They take what they like about an American idea, and add that distinctive French refinement.

Chocolat ChaudIf you pinned me down and wanted some definitive difference between Paris and say New York, I would, aside from the architecture, point out that Paris has a relaxed culture where the emphasis is on doing things well rather than the quantity of things one gets done. Or perhaps it would be better to say that the things the French love to do, they fashion into an art form, and even when the output may be thought of as consumerist, there is still an art to it that distinguishes it from its American counterpart. Sometimes, as in the case of food, art, etc this is a wonderfully refreshing change from the homogenization of American culture. But other times this can be a bad thing. Which brings me to another point in favor of American culture, despite how many of might complain about a visit to the DMV, the paperwork involved in American life is nowhere near the bureaucracy the French deal with. Interestingly enough the word bureaucracy come from a French word, bureau (meaning office). But if the trade off for the way of life I see around me in Paris is to have a bureaucratic nightmare of a government, well damn it sign me up, I’d love to wait in line for health care. [And please please don’t bring up taxes. I guarantee French taxes are nothing compared to visiting the ER in the states]

What seems like it might be ideal is a melding of the good aspects of both cultures, though inevitably such an idea would be doomed to failure. Perhaps the truth of culture is simply that you cannot have the good aspects without accepting the bad ones. Viewed from this light it seems to me that the question becomes not how much you love the good, but how little you mind the bad.


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