Paris behind the screen

By Yanan Wang:

Paris is perhaps the most romanticized city in the world. Its very mention conjures images of wine on sunny verandas, violinists in the street, and long strolls by the Seine in the nighttime. In his latest film, Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen showcases the beauty of the French capital through the centuries—from the intellectualism of the 1920s to the halting glamour of the Belle Époque. Paris has always been portrayed as an old city, a city of nostalgia.

What’s more, it is one that North Americans turn to for an escape from our own over-scheduled, hyper-modernized lives. The pace is slower here, we are told by the movies and the songs and the charming brochures that paint Paris as an ancient city with romance bursting at its seams.

So like any unwitting tourist, I stepped foot in Paris for the first time and was surprised, above all, by how incredibly modern it is.

The tension between tradition and modernism that lies at the heart of Paris’s development was well covered in the recent presidential elections. During their campaigns, both Nicolas Sarkozy and newly-minted President Francois Hollande spoke of preparing France for a future within a globalized world. It has become evident that in order to distance itself from a fragile Europe and to establish itself as a player on the international stage, the country can no longer depend on its cultural history alone. And at the turn of the new year, Mayor Bertrand Delanoe wrote in an open letter to Parisians that “Paris, in these hard times, continues to invest in solidarity and in innovation, and in changing its image, out of respect for its past and concern for its future.”

The Seine River, a 776 km waterway that flows through Paris to the English Channel, has inspired many a romance. At the Pont des Arts bridge, there is a railing on which couples have attached padlocks proclaiming their undying love. The keys to these locks are thrown into the water’s flowing depths. (Wang/TYG)

Over dinner today, my 14 year old host brother, Baptiste, finished recounting his packed schedule for the week, which included Boy Scout meetings and a Saturday morning Chinese class. When I commented that kids today are occupied by countless activities, my host father, Patrick, retorted that kids these days are distracted by countless electronics. Like the rest of the world, French young people are obsessed with Facebook and e-mail, text messaging and smartphones. On a given day, they are probably more likely to be surfing the Internet than taking bike rides through the Latin Quarter.

One of the clearest signs of Paris’s little spoken-of modernism is its convenient and effective subway system (called “le metro”), which is scheduled to be improved and extended through the project Le Grand Paris. Sitting in the moving train and watching the lights change on the flashing map above my head, I thought that I liked this realer, more complex version of Paris that I was just beginning to discover. Beneath its stone-lined paths, the City of Light rumbled with the sounds of friction between the new and the old.

Yanan Wang ’15 is in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at