Andrew McFarland

Our Man in Paris

In the spring of 2010 I wrote a weekly blog for BU Today, Boston University’s news and information site, about studying and working abroad in Paris – aptly titled “Our Man in Paris.” You can find the rest in this series here

Becoming annoyed at tourists is a sure sign that you’re starting to feel like a local. From a Bostonian’s perspective, there are only so many times you can tolerate a duck boat–load of middle schoolers screaming “QUACK, QUACK!” as you stroll down Newbury Street.

Now imagine that duck boat is a bit bigger, equipped with mile-long museums and picturesque cafés. That’s Paris.

Even without warm weather, tourists aren’t hard to come by, and they easily garner the lowest level on the social totem pole.

Of course, I’m one to talk.

When you participate in the BU Paris Program, you get an ID card that grants you free access to countless cultural sites, ranging from the Louvre to the Arc de Triomphe. I’ve been taking advantage of this opportunity by spending nearly every afternoon in a museum or the like.

The other day, I met one of the kids who lives in my apartment building and walks my host’s dog. At the age 13, he boasted that he’d never been to the Louvre, the palace at Versailles, or the Eiffel Tower. I didn’t see why anyone would be proud of this accomplishment until I visited Versailles for myself.

After spending hours on its grounds, I realized that the Château de Versailles must be in the running for one of the most ridiculous buildings of all time. Overflowing with marble and glass and surrounded by gardens the size of a national park, this once-royal residence is only outdone by the behavior of its visitors.

Room after room oozed with tourists from the United States, Germany, Japan, and Britain, each armed with their credit card–sized digital cameras and guidebooks — their eyes aimed upward toward frescos and tapestries and chandeliers as their mouths fired away with “OOO!” and “AHHH!”

As though shocked to find themselves in the places they had so long admired in art history books, postcards, and on television, tourists seem dumbfounded to the point of taking yet more photos — collecting dark, unrecognizable images of places whose names they’ll never remember.

The more I witnessed this behavior, the more I understood that it wasn’t unique to Versailles. All around Paris — Notre Dame, Sacré Coeur, le Moulin Rouge — people run around taking photos, posing with friends or by themselves, as though the activity of observing or preserving these landmarks will somehow meld tourist and place together.

As a result, I’ve decided to take up a different type of sightseeing: tourist tourism.

What’s the point of taking pictures of buildings that have been photographed a million times over? Why not record something that’s constantly changing?

Paris is the most objectified city in the world, in the sense that its image is its greatest export. Almost everyone in the world who’s old enough to talk can recognize an image of the Eiffel Tower.

The truly unique aspect of this city is certainly the people who visit it. I’m keeping my eyes peeled for the ridiculous things people do around Paris. Perhaps these images and souvenirs will be a bit more memorable than what you could find in a gift shop.

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