Taming Firenze: Some Americans in Paris

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The first time I went to Paris, I arrived, starry-eyed and jet-legged, to what I thought was a city of magic and wonder.

I remember a blur of a taxi ride from the airport to the hotel. I remember the wildly colorful graffiti flashing outside the window. I remember the steak and french fries they served us before exhaustion lassoed us to our first sleep in Europe.

I remember loving every miserable minute. I remember leaving with only one thing: a burning desire to go back.

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Returning to Paris is like opening a favorite storybook from your childhood. The pages smell like home. The characters are like old friends. The story is a distant, cozy memory.

In two days I wandered my way around the familiar streets, reacquainting myself with the storybook setting I had fallen in love with five years before. From the grand collection of art at the Louvre to the intricate Gothic architecture of the Notre-Dame cathedral, I remembered why I fell in love with Paris.

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We started our fairytale in a sunny, flowery park near our hostel. Complete with a duck pond, a carousel, paths for running, benches for reading and even horseback riding, we were mesmerized by the bustling nook tucked into the corner of the city. A breath of fresh air – a change in landscape from the rickety, cobble stone alleyways found in Florence.

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Just as we happened upon Paris’ bright patch of life, later that day we happened upon its darker counterpart: the Montparnasse Cemetery.

Housing the graves of French philosophers, Holocaust victims and monuments honoring police officers and firefighters, this cemetery blossoms with stories.

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As a writer, I have always been attracted to the things people leave behind. To me, a cemetery is the perfect place to watch a person’s legacy unfold.

The Montparnasse Cemetery is unusual, however, because it is a mere 10 minute walk away from the second tallest building in Paris.

The view of the looming Montparnasse Tower behind the aging gravestones split me between two realities: one of a fragile past – of dust delicately accumulating on an old shelf, and another of a reckless future – of bulldozers barreling toward the blinking signs of “progress.”

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Is it comforting to see the burial sight of an Auschwitz prisoner and the not-even-fifty-year-old tower in the same glance? Is it reassuring to know that history can live on where modernity thrives? Or is it disturbing to know that something bigger, better newer will always overshadow the few faint whispers of the past that still linger in our loud, fast-paced future?

Even more erie was the view from the top of the tower. Looking down on the Montparnasse Cemetery, we were struck immediately by the shameful feeling of ignorance. In other words, the cemetery, which we thought was a just a quaint community of maybe 100 gravestones, was a massive square of land taking up 10 times more land than we thought.

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The distracting beacon of modernity actually gave us a new perspective on the incredible piece of tangible history below. From our 210 meter vantage point, Paris’ history unfolded. The stunning 360 degree panorama viewing platform served Paris to us on a silver platter. We walked around and around, picking out the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame and, or course, the Eiffel Tower.

I cannot claim to better understand Paris after seeing it from the top of the world, but I can claim to love it more. Its history spread vast and vibrant in the streets and buildings spanning for miles below.

Later that evening, when I finally saw the Eiffel Tower twinkle, I found the happy ever after to my favorite story.

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This semester abroad has not only graced me with opportunities to see the new corners of the world that I have not yet discovered, but it has also allowed me to return to familiar places with a new mindset. I am not who I was when I first saw the Eiffel Tower and walked the Champs Elysees.

Traveling is not just about seeing new things, it is also about learning new things. To me, there is no better way to learn then to return to the places that once taught us. To return to the places that once inspired us.

Leaving Paris for a second time I had only one thing on my mind: a burning desire to go back. And I now know that, no matter how far you go or how long it takes, there is always a way to go back.

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