210 Cultural Essay

After visiting L'Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysées a couple of times during my stay here in Paris, I decided to write about how the Champs Elysées is an excellent study in French/Parisian culture.

My five weeks in Paris has taught me a lot about French culture.  One reason I think it is hard for American visitors to appreciate French culture immediately is that tourists may not realize that the culture is full of contrasts.  At first I was confused by the culture of Paris and her citizens, but I finally figured a few things out.  Parisians are complicated and there is a lot of dualities it the culture, which can be illustrated by the Champs Elysées.

First, Paris is a city of both old and new.  There are catacombs and crypts dating back to Roman times.  There are Gothic cathedrals and churches.  There are tons of museums housing the first written code of law and ancient Greek sculptures, just to name a couple of items.  Parisians are surrounded by history every day, even though they probably have grown immune to these amazing sights.  Although Paris is full of history, the city continues to move forward.  There is renovation everywhere.  People emailing from blackberries or iphones.  Parisians live in harmony with history, but they continue to move forward.  The Champs Elysées is a mixture of old and new as well.  The avenue sits between Place de la Concorde (which houses a 3,300 year old obelisk) and the Arc de Triomphe, yet the avenue is filled with movie theatres, modern restaurants (McDonalds and Quick Burger), bars, night clubs, and stores.

Second, the Champs Elysées demonstrates the clash of wealth and regular citizens.  The avenue is known for its designer boutiques, including Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and Cartier.  The avenue boasts one of the highest rents in the entire world.  The Champs Elysées is the epitome of wealth and extravagance.  Like most nations, France has had to deal with class discrepancy.  Living in a historically wealthy area of Paris, I have enjoyed feeling safe and being surrounded by people with extremely nice things (Aston Martins parked on the street, Hermès bags, and nannies), but when I go to other areas of Paris I see the homeless in the metro and gypsies, and I am reminded that Paris has poverty, just like every other large city.

The last thing that really struck me about Parisian culture and the Champs Elysées is the clash of globalization and maintaining French tradition.  I especially see this in the younger Parisians.  I see teenagers wearing t-shirts with American brands and slogans, but they sitting at a café with some friends.  It is just weird to see people wearing American styles, but not be able to understand what they are saying.  The Champs Elysées shows this clash really well.  At first, international stores were welcomed to the Champs Elysées, but as time went by the French people wanted to keep the Champs Elysées's French identity and reduced the amount of non-French stores on the avenue.  This is bizarre because Abercrombie and Fitch has a store on the Champs Elysées, but H&M was not allowed to put a store on the avenue.  I can definitely understand that the French want to preserve their very unique culture because the culture is great!  I think the fear of globalization has increased the sense of bad feelings towards the US, because the some French may feel threatened by the intrusion of American culture, but I think that our culture coming to Europe and blending should be a good thing, not scary.


Susan said...
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SC said...

very astute and I like how you pulled in various periods/influences - important to note perhaps that old "squeaky wheel" phenom... what you hear the loudest are people talking about scary aspects of the culture meld but overall I think you guys saw how open the French are to Americans and American culture - at least much more open than we tend to say/believe and even tho sometimes it seems like it's despite what they (say they) want or really feel about US culture...