Welcome to Coffeelosophy, where I co-philosophise with a friend over a metaphorical cup of coffee or glass of wine. For my very first episode I decided to talk to my old friend Xin You, who’s currently abiding in Louisiana, US, about his time in and thoughts on the city of lights.
Battling the odds of conflicting schedules and a 13-hour time difference, we finally sat down to an internet messaging chat. But pretty soon I realised my mistake: never interview a fellow writer. And if you must interview another writer, don’t do it over a medium where they can, well, write. Two hours later and 1.5k words later, our end result isn’t so much of a conversation as a monumental task for me to translate his words into anything above a TL;DR. But I guess that’s what happens when you ask anyone who loves the arts, growth and inspiration about the city that they believes encapsulates just that – you’ll get responses at length about their passion for the place.
I remember when I first visited Paris with my friends, one of the things I knew I had to do was send a postcard to you in Louisiana. You were studying French and I knew it was a dream for you to visit. And then under a year later you tell me you’re moving there for five months, living in the 16th arrondissement on student exchange. You’re a Malaysian already studying abroad in the US. What was the deal with Paris?
Paris was to me – a city full of art, and everything historical about art. Artists across centuries have lived and breathed the same air, and it was that city where they congregated, exchanged their most outrageous ideas, and then continued on. Painters, poets, musicians, writers – everything and anything that involved the process of, well, creating.
One of the five pillars of Islamic belief is to visit Mecca. To travel hundreds of miles perhaps, just so your eyes have laid sight on that incredible ebony structure, that your brain can process every particle across not just the palpable structure, but everything that surrounds and lives with it. To Muslims, a pilgrimage to Mecca is considered the ultimate fulfilment of its faith. To me, a pilgrimage to Paris is something every artist should do.
Embarrassingly, I knew peanuts about Paris before I went. My knowledge extended as far as movies and romantic poetry. The picture in my head was the Eiffel Tower and a river. But I developed the thought about Paris as an artists’ pilgrimage after a couple of months in Paris; maybe it was unconsciously hidden in my mind. So that’s the deal. It was a deep longing for inspiration perhaps, and even before I touched French soil I had a feeling it would be fulfilled in Paris.
So, to you Paris is a need for the artist’s soul. That’s me paraphrasing, I know only half of you believes in the human soul – a conversation for another time, Xin You. But if I remember correctly, when you were showing me around the city – your favourite place in Paris is… Place de la République. That’s hardly artsy, is it? In fact, you could say it’s more socio-political than anything else.
Let me break down why Place de la République is my favourite place in Paris.
After the terrorist attacks in November, the square in front of République transformed. People turned the monument into a tribute to the lives lost. When I first saw that place, it filled me with incredible sadness, as most memorials do – I expect most people feel the same way too. Yet, after looking a little more carefully at the messages that people left, I found them full of hope, love and solidarity. Messages of encouragement, of support, were scattered across every inch of the monument. There were an awful lot of candles too. Pour moi, it was as if the monument was a canvas – the people of the city of Paris painted on what and how they feel, and it was beautiful.
To touch on the socio-political aspects of that special square – much later on, it turned into a meeting place for a revolutionary demonstration called Nuit Debout, which started to oppose a labour bill introduced by the government. The square hosted thousands of people throughout long hours into the night, and its agenda was nothing but simply letting people speak their mind. I sat through quite a number of those passionate speeches – those nights were dark and cold, and I remember bringing a small bottle of whiskey to warm up – yet the voices were fiery and bright, and it made a deep impression on me about the type of people living in Paris. They stand together for a cause.
Do you think the socio-political aspect of the city is as prominent a part of it as its art? Or do you think these two aspects aren’t really two different parts of its character, and feed into one another somehow?
WELL, Parisians do love to protest… and go on strike… a lot. But yes, I do believe the art and socio-political aspects of the city feed into one another. I would say it arises from how the country and region has functioned throughout its history. There would be these great Salon meetings where artists everywhere gathered, interacted and exchanged ideas. It’s the talking that gets everything started. That’s how the French Revolution started as well – a bunch of people talking. Self-expression became a staple form of function for this city, and I believe that bleeds into a lot of different aspects of Paris.
Right. Now, on to the personal stuff. No, don’t whine. What do you think changed about you when you were living in Paris? Did it go away when you left?
I think the strongest change I was aware about it how much more in tuned I am to what’s happening around me. I started noticing, and appreciating a lot more – be it the architecture of a building, the aesthetics (ha, you’d be able to relate to that) of a landscape, the conversation around me – I was almost short of being overwhelmed. That can very likely be attributed to Paris as a city anyway… there’s always lots of things going on. I came away from Paris feeling as if I had seen more, felt more about life.
As for it going away after I left… a slight bit. But then again, I’m not going to feel anything like that ever again, even if I pack up my bags and leave for Paris right now. It wasn’t a measurable experience, and it wasn’t a measurable change. It just happened. We all grow a little more, and things change as easily as it is.
When you came to get me from Gare du Nord station, it was the day after my final exam paper of university. We hadn’t met in person in years and I was, by my standards, an absolute mess. I had to decide whether to act on a realisation I had rather abruptly come to after five years of a one-track ambition – that at the end of my law degree, maybe continuing on to be a lawyer wasn’t something I really wanted for myself. That maybe I should withdraw my accepted enrolment from Bar school that coming autumn in London, move all the way back home and figure out what the hell I wanted to do with my life otherwise. I gave myself one week in Paris to reach my decision. And I decided to quit law. Do you think Paris itself had anything to do with it?
You were at a crossroad. I can’t say for sure that your decision to choose a path had anything to do with Paris. It felt to me that it was going to come to you regardless – you would have to choose between the old and a new whether or not you had spent seven days in a beautiful city. To be honest, I think you coming to Paris was actually you not being ready to make that decision yet. Coming to Paris wasn’t to look for answers, it was to escape them.
The funny thing is, you found your answer anyway. Not because you suddenly spotted it hidden in some deep crevice of a crumbling building down the 5th arrondissement. You found it by simply living. Just by strolling down streets, going in bookstores and museums, and riding the metro. You inadvertently realised, through your seven days in Paris, that you have an idea, a glimpse of the life you wanted to live, and which path you wanted to take.
Maybe you knew that was going to happen. Maybe you had ran away from the crossroad and went all the way down that path you never knew you could take, but the one you had always known you wanted. Paris just happened to be a passing sight.
That’s my favourite part about travelling, and staying in cities, and visiting. It’s about discovering the veins of a particular place and finding out what runs inside them. It’s about looking for the things that have made a city tick for years and years, and asking yourself how these relate to yourself and where you are in your life.
And what do you do when you really like what you find about a place? I suppose you could find a way to live there, move there, make it your home. Or you could do the next best thing. If you’ve fallen in love with the very fabric of a city, take out a pair of giant scissors and cut out the patches that speak to your soul; put these little pieces of cloth into your pocket and take them back home with you. Maybe it’s not the same as waking up in a foreign place and slowly assimilating into its culture. But discovering passions you never knew you had and making it part of yourself regardless of where you are physically is a pretty close second.
(Note: All photos save one taken by me.)
Xin You has an advocacy blog where he plans to write about various change-making organisations so his readers can know more about them. In his friend Jacie’s opinion, he should update it more frequently because that’s a pretty great thing to be writing about, so go over there and give him some encouragement. He enjoys playing Korean drinking games, arguing about art and literature and looking at mountains. He hopes to have three dogs some day.