The Old World

The Roman bathhouse at Cluny was lost for almost a thousand years. Destroyed in the barbarian invasions sometime around the 3rd century, memory of the grand remains on the South Bank faded as inhabitants migrated to the more easily defended Ile de la Cite. With vaults fifty feet high, a simple public utility was grander than almost anything that would be constructed in France for the next millennium. In time, the frigidarium of the baths would be incorporated into the Abbey of Cluny until its original purpose was rediscovered in the modern era.

Though rich in so many ways, Americans are poor in perspective. Our mental universe always balanced on the neurotic knife-edge of the present. We are truly young, with all the passionate extremism and impatience of teenagers.

A slow visit to Paris was a fine way to remember time. From Roman ruins to Medieval churches to the still-throbbing cabarets, you’re left feeling pleasantly small. So much of what matters is larger than a lifetime, and mostly untouched by the worries and struggles of today’s to-do list. It was a healthy escape.

At the flea market in Saint Ouen the next Paris is taking shape, youthful and unruly, fueled by the optimism of immigrants. In a cafe in St Germain, a rich, comfortable, stylish present basks in an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity. Meanwhile an old, dying way still struggles against irrelevance, donning their sad yellow vests and shouting into the void. Cycles of history all run together, framed by an ancient backdrop.  

Like an underground river, a relatively consistent current of culture runs beneath this historical march. We visited one of Picasso’s old haunts, Au Lapin Agile, where modern Parisians continue Montmartre’s cabaret tradition. Other similar dives, many of them literally underground, link an age-old past to an unforeseeable future.

It was a great trip, much needed.

Remains of the Roman baths in Paris

The flea market at Saint Ouen
The cabaret, Au Lapin Agile, in Montmartre
Singers at Au Lapin Agile
A memorial on Ile Saint Louis. Reads: In memory of the 112 inhabitants of this house including 40 small children deported and died in the German camps in 1942.

8 Comments

  1. “…..fueled by the optimism of immigrants. In a cafe in St Germain, a rich, comfortable, stylish present basks in an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity. Meanwhile an old, dying way still struggles against irrelevance, donning their sad yellow vests and shouting into the void. Cycles of history all run together, framed by an ancient backdrop.”

    I think that paragraph perfectly describes the quandary that much of the developed (Western) world finds itself in at this time. On the one hand, the culture that was developed following WWII is being overwhelmed by the onrushing era of data driven innovation that is driving changes in the 21st Century. The areas of society that are firmly anchored in that culture are struggling, resisting and pessimistic. Yet the major metropolitan areas that are embracing the new culture are thriving and optimistic, attract immigrants and are developing a multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian culture. In Europe, those are places such as London and Paris. In the U.S., most of the left coast, Denver, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Chicago, Atlanta, Charlotte, Austin and some other Texas metros, New York, Boston and other areas are included in that category. In the former are included much of the Midwest, the Great Lakes states, Greater Appalachia, much of the South, the Far West and the Mountain states. Those are overwhelmingly the rural areas.

    Thus, the U.S. is struggling with the conflict and divisiveness that the present administration is exploiting so well. How much longer it will last is the big question. I strongly hope that the 2018 election was the inflection point. Hopefully, 2020 and 2022 will further reinforce the change. You discussed that quite well in a previous column, when you mentioned that 2022 would probably be the most crucial election of our time.

      1. Last week. They were marching across the north of the city on Sunday. The gilets jaunes are irrelevant. Someone is always protesting in Paris. We saw three other protests that week, including one by undocumented workers demanding basic rights. Paris without protests would be like Paris without wine.

  2. Welcome back to this young upstart among nations. I had the pleasure of doing a 6 week bicycle trip through Southern England, Northern France, the lowland countries, and Sweden in 1986. The different time perspective was striking and I missed all of Southern France and Europe, which were core parts of the Roman Empire.

    One of the things that really struck me was the WWI & WWII memorials in the small French villages. In every village there was a memorial with 20-30 or more names of the losses in WWI and that might be in a small village of only a few thousand inhabitants.

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