The Petit Four: Paris vs. Brussels
A trip to Paris gets Emily Miller thinking about its ties to, and fundamental differences from, her first European love - Brussels.
I always forget how intensely French Paris is as a city. Remembering this is always my "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore," moment. And it always comes like a slap to the face too. The sharp painful zing comes from the awareness of my sheer idiocy - of course Paris is French. Different country, different culture - this isn't high-grade cultural studies, you idiot.
It just takes a moment for my mind to capture the reality of Europe - I haven't traveled that far, and yet, the cultural change is substantial. In America, I can drive twelve hours and still be in my home state. In Europe, I start driving in Belgium and twelve hours later I'm in Budapest. An hour on a train in the US gets you nowhere, an hour on the train in Europe takes you to a different world.
Reorienting yourself to a new social concept of distance and its relativity sometimes feels like the cultural equivalent of Neo bending the spoon in the Matrix.
Which makes the city combination of Paris-Brussels-Amsterdam so weird. Traveling the two hours from Brussels to Amsterdam doesn't feel extremely different: there's plenty of the same architecture with Dutch Brick row houses and gabled roofs, and despite the acceptance of Brussels being a primarily French-speaking city (an acceptance that is entirely debatable), the feel of the signage isn't too starkly different. There are plenty of K's, AA's, OO's, EE's crammed into word compositions so the eye is tricked into thinking it's all relatively the same.
It's similar between Paris and Brussels. The two cities are only an hour apart and share a similar affinity for café culture, chocolate shops, boucheries, and patisseries who pump out that captivating smell of warm, buttery croissants. The two cities also have their fair share of dog doo on the streets, which makes walking an exercise in constant vigilance and gymnastic leaps.
But if you were to travel direct from Paris to Amsterdam? Culturally, it's like driving from Brussels to Budapest. And yet the two cities are only three hours apart by train.
For me, it's this similar enough quality to Paris that makes it hard to judge the city as a separate thing, as an ‘other' to Brussels. It's hard to walk around without feeling that something's missing, but you can't quite but your finger on it.
Instead of having public transportation stops with names like Maalbeek, Rodebeek, or Defacqz, Paris has painfully French names like Réamur, Cité, or Porte de Montreuil. The missing presence of K's and X's makes the language of Paris feel smoother, more round. But as an anglophone, this roundness of language makes me thankful for Belgian French. It's as if the Belgians removed all of the linguistic gymnastics required for a tongue to speak "proper French" and substituted words that are plays on Dutch or Anglophone names.
The sartorial style of Paris is distinctly French as well. Parisians sport the stereotypical wardrobe - darkly-hued classic pieces that remain on point and stylish. But never flashy. Nary a pair of funky modernist eyeglasses or a bright pop of color bursting from dark sweaters, those punchy visual influences from more Northern cultures found in Brussels.
There's no muss, no fuss though about Paris' identity that always surprises me with its matter-of-factness. It's not confused about what it is or which culture it needs to represent, therefore opening itself up to meld and fuse together with other cultures in the state of its confusion. There is a specific sense of place - and confidence - in what the city is and what it represents to its home country. I sort of admire this conviction of being, and remaining, a city for France.
But at the same time, this unflinching attitude of being France makes Paris the tippy top apex of the cultural ideal. So much so, that there's not much room to provide ground for anything else to take root within the city limits. Which in a way, makes me long for the cultural blender of Brussels. Although I know not everyone feels the same way. I don't think Paris would ever be looked upon by the French as the bastard child of its country, which is how some Belgians feel about Brussels. So there's something to be said for both.
I realize this is a funny way to talk about Paris, about talking what it is not. Most people talk about Paris with a wistful sigh and a dreamy far off look. Most cities are compared against Paris, with what the city is and what other places are not. But Paris got to me too late. To me, Brussels is my Paris, that European city holding all of my notions of what it means to be quintessentially European. I will take my culturally confused city over the sweeping Napoleonic boulevards any day. Paris can try as hard as it wants, but that sigh and dreamy look is already reserved for a city a little farther north from the city of lights.
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Reprinted with permission of The Petit Four.
The Petit Four, a space for all things related to food, pleasurable drink and the good life, is maintained by Emily Miller, an American expat who first fell in love with Belgium as a study abroad student. Since then, Emily has returned to Brussels to further her exploration of Europe's capital city.
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