Book Club: Eiffel’s Tower, by Jill Jonnes

“But there’s no such thing as Paris without the Eiffel Tower,” said my friend Florence the other day.  Locals have complicated views about the tower of iron, but perhaps she is right.  But the beginning of pondering that question should
start with Jill Jonnes’ fascinating book, Eiffel’s Tower: the thrilling story behind Paris’ beloved monument and the extraordinary World’s Fair that introduced it.

In this book you learn just how much it took for Eiffel to overcome in order to build this true architectural achievement of its time.  It stood as the world’s tallest building for 30 years, and took only 2.5 years to complete (perhaps one of the few French building projects ever completed on time).  In contrast the previous “tallest building” in the world was the Washington Monument in Washington D.C., which was half the height of the Eiffel Tower and took 40 years to complete.  Mind you, there was a little thing called the War Between the States during that 1848-1888 period of construction, but still, you can imagine many Americans, including Thomas Edison, felt a bit of envy to have the French claim a technological achievement before America did.

Edison was feted when he visited the Tower – he was the great man of innovation and ideas and Eiffel toasted him with champagne at the summit of the Eiffel Tower.  But he emptily boasted that for the upcoming Chicago World’s Fair that they would build something twice as tall at half the price.  The French raised their eyebrows, understandably so when what ended up being invented for that event was not some tall tower, but the Ferris Wheel.

Jonnes writes a compelling narrative, bringing all the characters together in a cohesive story that is, oddly, suspenseful, especially given that we already know how events turned out.  I shared this book with some local Parisians and they told me it forever changed how they saw and understood the Tower, which is just the sort of antidote you need, especially when you’re walking past the Selfie Nation on the Champs de Mars.

But perhaps you will be most edified to learn how well Eiffel bore up under the most vile and vicious attacks, before, during, and well after the construction of the Tower.  It is his entrepreneurial genius – something the French could allow to flourish a bit more these days – that is the true story behind this great little book.

 

Why Paris?

Once people get past the shock of my moving to Paris, the usual next question is, “Why?”  Perfectly reasonable question.

When I first started answering this question, I responded with, “If you’ve been there, you know why, if you haven’t, when you come you will understand.”  But in a country populated by fellow Americans, that answer didn’t fly.  I had to remember that I couldn’t assume everyone had a good experience in the city of my dreams.  In fact, the default expectation, over time, came to be that they had not.

One of the things I’ve tried to do when I educate people about Paris is try to point out that some of the things they try to put on the French or Parisians are neither “French” nor “Parisian.”  They are simply “city” things.

Take for example, the sidewalk.  In a city like Paris, where walking is the norm and cars are the exception, there are certain lanes and flows.  There is a “fast-moving” lane in which people who know where they are going and are going there with a purpose and speed are walking.  There’s a medium lane where people know where they are going but aren’t in a hurry.  Then there’s the tourist lane.  Maps out, smartphones in hand, with the pace of a turtle.  Hey, we’ve all been there.  No harm in it.  Just don’t be upset when people bump into you because you stopped in the middle of a sidewalk.  It’s not your yard or a garden.  It’s a sidewalk.  And you would get bumped into in New York or Chicago just as easily as you would in Paris.

I’ve also been told about how many people are there.  No argument.  Almost 30 million people visit the City of Light every year, on top of the millions of French (plus one more American, soon!) who make that city their home.  But that’s part of city travel.  You’re not going to really understand how and why people live in the chaotic and yet ordered mess ANY city is unless you’re willing to lay aside some of your (unreasonable) prejudices and (reasonable) discomfort to simply move forward and embrace the experience.

Another is the language barrier.  Yes, sure there are French who genuinely don’t speak more than a few words of English.  But many French people do.  Americans often don’t understand what pride the French take in their culture, nation, and language.  But this is because France (for now) is both a nation and a people.  America is barely a nation and was never really a people.  From the beginning America has been a mix of Natives, French, Spanish, English, and later, Africans.  If you can understand that deep LOVE for a language (which English speakers, who rarely take pride in their language nor study its beautiful prose and poetry – which can go head-to-head with any other language in quality, in my opinion) then you can and should understand that the BEST way to encounter the French is always to ask, in French, if they speak English.  “S’il vous, plait, parlez-vous Anglais?”  Phonetically this renders as “see voo play, pahr-lay voo ahn-glay?.”  If they say no, try someone else.  If you just go up to them, speaking your language, assuming they too speak it, it’s not just rude, it’s disrespectful.  This is part of cultural exchange.  Americans are so used to everything being done in, around, and for them.  Going to other countries implicitly asks you to realize that they don’t necessarily go in for that (and why should they?).

But here I’ve been going on about answering objections to why people don’t want to go to Paris, and I’m missing the chance to tell you why I want to live there.  I’ll let some pictures tell that story.

Paris 2009 Day 1 045

The food, of course.  The French take eating, mealtimes, and food very seriously.  It’s impossible to fathom the idea of eating at your desk, in your car, or from a drive-thru.  I look forward to breaking myself of those habits.

Paris 2009 Day 1 075 (1)

Seeing things that are hundreds, sometimes thousands of years old, staring back at you, with the detail and symmetry of a human hand unguided by computers.  And seeing stuff like this almost everywhere you turn.

Paris and Versailles 165

And seeing it at night.

Paris 2009 Day 2 022 (1)

The Musee d’Orsay – a treat for any lover of Impressionism.  Set within an old railway station, it’s always there for you to stroll through.

Paris 2009 Day 2 027 (1)

Or if you want to watch people do copies of Van Goghs.  Awesome.

Paris Day 4 061 (1)Did I mention the food here? 🙂

Paris 2009 Day 2 003 (1)Nights like this on cobblestone streets, chatting with new friends and thinking about your day.

Paris Day 3 017Days like this, when you have the joy of digging into a crepe with Nutella on the side.

Begin at the Beginning

So when people first find out I’m moving to Paris, there are usually looks and sounds of astonishment.  And it’s only now, when I’m about 60 days out from beginning my journey, that I truly understand that astonishment, because I’ve felt the full effects of just how hard it has been to pull this off.

Let me explain.  I’m a choleric.  An ENTJ.  People think of my personality as “ready, fire, aim.”  When I made the decision to move to Paris I bought a one-way ticket and started all my preparations.  But, as I was soon to discover (the “aim” part), the science of picking up and moving when you are in your mid-30s and fairly well-established, with numerous possessions, is one that requires a lot of patience and fortitude.  And now, when I’m so close, I finally have the mental real estate to start getting excited.

Tour Eiffel a Nuit 008 My love affair with France and the French language started eons ago.  My sisters and family seem very surprised to hear about it now, but the signs were all there.  When I was 15 I delivered an entire speech dressed as Louis XIV in French (I was coached by a good friend on the pronunciation).  I bought a French course on cassette tape when I was 18.  And the first time I returned to Europe since my study abroad, I went to Paris.

I can’t tell you when I first heard French spoken.  I’m sure you’d want me to name the day, time, and hour, but I honestly can’t remember.  I just remember being elevated by the way it sounded, and I was desperate to one day be educated enough to speak it myself.

The picture on the left here was from the first time I stood under the Eiffel Tower.  You can see some flashing white spots on it.  This is the time of day when the lights come on the Tower and so for a period of time it flashes while it’s lighting up.  I just remember being incredibly entranced and happy.  I had wanted to come to this city for so long and I had worried that I had built it up too much in my head.

I hadn’t.  Paris was everything I thought it would be, and more.

There’s plenty more I’ll write over the next year, but I suppose I should end this first post at the beginning of this journey, which is what the title of this article promised anyway.

For those of you who haven’t read The Four Hour WorkWeek by Timothy Ferriss, stop reading this article right now, go buy it, read it, and then come back and finish reading my article.  For those of you who have (or who are unmoved by my hyperbole), the author lays out a number of thoughtful and stunning premises throughout the book.  The one I will share with you goes under the heading of “lifestyle design.”

The clue is in the name.  Instead of getting a good job or starting a business and then designing your life around that, Ferriss argues that the very FIRST questions you need to ask yourself are: What kind of life do I want to live?  What do I want to do with this life?  What will my legacy be when I leave this earth?  Once you’ve taken the time to answer these questions, then (and only then), do you get to figure out how you will make money.  The making money thing is secondary IF you are living the life you want to live.  Conversely, if you’re making all the money you want and you aren’t living the life you desire, what is the point?

So, at the end of one month off, which I used to spend traveling all around the lovely country of Australia, I had the answer to my question: I wanted to spend more time seeing Europe.  I didn’t want to have regrets later in my life that I didn’t take the time to see a part of the world I loved so much when I was still young (I figure you don’t get to call yourself that anymore when you hit 40, so I’ve still got a solid 6 years!).  I came home in mid-January, told everyone about my decision (nothing like telling everyone to paint yourself into a corner so that you HAVE to do something), and started my preparation.  I’ll tell you more about that preparation next time.