Turn and Face the Strange... / by Brian Beck

Paris is changing.  I noticed the same thing when I moved to London in 2007.  London was more or less culturally homogenous when I first visited in 1998.  It was relatively unusual to hear a foreign language spoken on the streets except for the occasional and obvious tourist.  Ten years later, the number of foreign languages that could be heard on a short walk through the West End was staggering.  These days you can hear everything from Russian to Polish, Farsi to Lithuanian, and everything in between.  There are those who argue otherwise, but I think it's overall a net positive.  It brings a certain energy.

Paris is moving in the same direction.  I took my camera to the Trocadero last night to shoot some time-lapse video and for the next few hours I was blown away.  The Eiffel Tower is said to be among the, if not THE, most visited tourist attractions in the world.  On this particular Saturday night in July, there were, just by my rough guess, somewhere in the neighborhood of 40,000 people spread out from the Trocadero to Ecole Militaire and the crowd was more what I would have expected at the Tower of Babylon.  Most were surely tourists but here's something that was also surprising: it was almost midnight and the atmosphere was more house party than casual photo-op.

The crowd was splayed out on blankets, hanging over balustrades and bridges and packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the plaza underneath the structure.  The wind, what little there was, pushed the smell of alcohol and sweat across the lawn.  Selfie-sticks, the newest manifestation of instant narcissism, waved over the sea of humanity like a battle flag in support of congratulatory self-aggrandizement.  North-African micro-entrepreneurs hawked light-up replicas of the Tower and slung blue and purple LED-lit glide copters high up into the heart of the monument to guilded-age engineering, while their younger brethren, some not more than ten years old, chased through the crowd to recover them before the they could be carried away by the drunken revelers.  A rag-tag army of others heaved hardware-store buckets of ice laden with Heinekens and, for those wishing to commemorate the evening with more aristocratic libations, bottles of champagne.  Emerald dots from laser pointers painted the details of the iron that nameless tourists wished to highlight for their fellow sightseers.  This wasn't just a tourist attraction, it was a makeshift World's Fair.  

To be honest, it was refreshing.  The Eiffel Tower was constructed for the 1889 World's Fair and this seemed a more fitting celebration of its provenance than the well-heeled visitors experience at the overpriced restaurant Jules Verne 115 meters above the fray.  Can you imagine a scene like this in front of the Washington Monument or at the foot of the Statue of Liberty.  I can't, and having been ushered unceremoniously from the vicinity of the Eiffel Tower by the National Police shortly after 9/11 for the unspeakable crime of taking a photo with a tripod, I for one think it's fantastic.  The French seem to understand their future better than we Americans understand the responsibility we owe to our past.  This is what freedom looks like.  It's messy, it's risky and it smells like an armpit, but it's a beautiful sight to behold.  Turn and face the strange, ch ch changes...