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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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October 2009 Archives

Urban Renewal

A new movie, out this month, charts the life of the late French fashion designer Coco Chanel. It's a story of ambition, talent, perseverance and, more than anything, constant self-redefinition.

By coincidence, I've been pondering that last subject all summer, thanks to a larger French context: The city of Paris itself.

Why, I've wondered, should personal reinvention be such a high hurdle for so many people, me included? Cities - even those as seemingly immutable as Paris - do it all the time: The more they change, as the old French saying goes, the more they stay the same.

I was reminded of that on a flight from Minneapolis to Paris in late June, thanks to a group of Minnesota college students who practically effervesced as they boarded the plane. One of the girls sat next to me; half a dozen more were seated around us.

What were they going to be doing? I wondered.

"We are spending a month studying French language and culture at the Sorbonne,'' my seatmate told me.

Wow, I said, mentally back in the Paris I'd first seen at about their age, on my way home from a Minnesota SPAN program in the Middle East. The youth-thronged streets of the Left Bank were as vivid in memory as they had been in 1963, and I was just as envious now as I had been then of students who could simply stay on - at the Sorbonne.

The memory made me a little sad, not for the passing of time, but for the fact that these kids wouldn't - couldn't - experience the Paris I saw on that first visit. It would have changed too much....

Just then - mercifully before I could slide deeper into negative nostalgia - the flight attendants closed the cabin doors and began the usual announcements. I didn't pay much attention until a deep male voice took over.

"Bienvenue,'' he began, in what was clearly his native tongue. The French syllables rolled elegantly off his lips, evoking candlelight and champagne, making "overhead bins'' and "buckle your seat belt'' sound magically romantic.

As he spoke, one of the young students ahead of me turned around and gave her companions a triumphant smile. It refuted everything I'd been thinking.

"See?'' her look said, "This is real! They really talk that way! We are REALLY going!''

Of course she was right: This was real, and when they got off the plane, they would find - not my Paris - but their Paris, and it would be just as foreign and exciting and real as mine had been for me.

Paris would still be Paris. Would always be Paris. The Eiffel Tower would still be rising above the Seine; the bateaux mouches would still be cruising the river; the square in front of Notre Dame would still be crowded; street mimes would still be, well, miming; the shops would be too expensive, the art great, the croissants fresh. And these young travelers would complain about the high costs the way my friends and I had, and they would be just as enchanted.

Paris IS still Paris. It reinvents itself constantly. The people change, the signage changes, a few tall buildings go up around the edges, and I suppose a few come down somewhere else. But its soul continues. It made me reconsider: If a whole city can do it, then with or without Coco Chanel, we ought to be able to do the same.