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Emails from Afar: Paris Edition

When people go away, they send the best emails. In a new, occasional series, we air them out. I arrived in Paris with some anxiety: prior...

When people go away, they send the best emails. In a new, occasional series, we air them out.

I arrived in Paris with some anxiety: prior descriptions I'd heard of the French (and you've undoubtedly heard them, too) ranged from irrational, blind admiration (we all know a Francophile), all the way to utter disgust (we've all had a Freedom Fry). Further, I came to Paris knowing I'd be on my own without much command for the language, and in this country above all others, I'd been told that was a cardinal sin.

My anxiety was grounded in the idea of dissonance and difference. And yet what I found was harmony, the type of raw and edgy harmony that can only happen when people and place intersect, with the very old and the very new working together.

In Blink, Malcom Gladwell gets at an unspoken truth: we have a sixth sense to "know" truth long before we can articulate the "why." Our guts tell us its good before we have the words to say so. After two hours on foot in Paris, I was able to know the city as Ernest Hemingway did, as a Movable Feast. After 24 hours immersed, I think I have the words to express why Hemingway was able to say that.

In my world, people and place are inextricably connected, so I'll have to address both. In Paris, I stand in awe of my physical surroundings: around me, the delicate choreography of thousands of people walking, biking, scooting, and driving, graceful as ballerinas, aggressive as teenagers. Cathedrals, palaces, museums, and parks, all dreamed up and executed on scales unfathomable at the time of their inception, and perhaps still today.

And the river. The River Seine flows as a primary artery through this city, as in so many of the cities I love. Norman Maclean puts it best: "Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters."

As for the people of Paris, they are mixed but not melted. A strong display of personal identity reminds us that individual cultures are to be celebrated, and accepted where they can not be understood. Civil discourse is an art form (a well-regarded one at that) that pairs thought and action. People protest here, and it is meaningfully done. Rather than repressing inner concerns, the French populace finds means to relieve themselves of civic passive aggression. Yes, young guys fight in the streets after succumbing to alcohol, always at hand, but they don't use weapons: they are bruised but not broken. Call it what you will, but I'll call it respect.

Exposure is what leads to respect, and it's perhaps the most important gift we can take away from the ideals of urbanism. Disregard is all too easy when you never cross paths with starving immigrants or wayward travelers. Standing face-to-face, sharing in our joys and our appreciation for beauty: you can not deny our shared humanity.

This shared humanity strikes a chord with this American of European descent. In the faces of those around me here, I've begun to see the roots of many of those people who surround me at home. The sharp and still prevalent features of our European ancestors transposed across generations and continents, not as copies, but almost like an old photograph. There is beauty in the rhyme that is history.

Before I left the US, Dr. Gary Weaver told our group that this trip would "help us understand what it is to be American." I have to thank Paris for some of my newfound understanding on the subject. This is a city that has returned to me thousands of years of lost personal history, not just the hundreds that I once understood: being an American means knowing that history didn't start with 1776. Paris is a place that speaks to the ages. And it reminds us, finally: we are more as many than as one.

Paris, je t'aime.

Josh McManus is one of CreateHere's co-founders and Creative Strategists. He's abroad on a month-long trip in conjunction with the Marshall Memorial Fellowship, and sent us this dispatch from Paris. A version of this dispatch appeared previously here. Photo (CC) by Flickr user · skëne ·.

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