During college, one of my journalism professors described New York and Paris as “loveable cities.” They’re characterized by high costs of living, diverse populations, rich history, and the tendency to hold the world spellbound with their every move. While there are many other “lovable” cities out there (think Rome and Tokyo, for example), New York and Paris are arguably at the top of the list. Many people dream of living there, but few actually do.
For these reasons, people fall into the habit of comparing them. However, after spending over three years dividing my life between them, I must say it’s a habit we need to break. Press your nose up against the transparent definition of “lovable cities”, and two very different landscapes emerge. These cities aren’t reflections of each other, but two distinct entities gazing lovingly at one another through the wrong end of idealized telescopes.
New York-themed paraphernalia chokes Parisian department stores. They’re worn or presented as a badge of honor by the city’s youth in much the same way the young people in New York think anything French-themed is chic. (Case in point, the amount of shirts I own plastered with random French phrases is bordering on cringe-worthy for someone who’s studied the language for over a decade. I also digress that the French’s grasp of English quotes are often superior.)
Every time a little French café opens in New York, a barbecue joint seems to open in Paris. In short, they’re obsessed with each other, each city viewing the other as intriguingly foreign. Some find the mimicry dangerous, thinking that the two cities will eventually morph into the same tacky version of each other. I simply find it cute. The trends really come and go too quickly to corrupt either city’s soul.
New York is a loud cacophony of construction, sirens, and horns. It’s a gritty patchwork of little cities knitted together by the 8.6 million people who crisscross its streets every day. It’s fueled by an intoxicating concoction of frustration, passion, and some stale version of the American Dream™. It’s one of the few places in the world where even the happiest people feel a little alone. Those who come to stay eventually leave. Those who try to leave can’t help themselves from coming back for more.
Paris is an ancient and enchanting spider web of streets, twisting and changing names with every intention to get you lost. It’s 40 square miles crammed with enough monuments for ten cities, and enough restaurants to entice any gourmand for several lifetimes. It’s a ballet set to the soundtrack of poorly played accordion music and the gentle sighs of those who gaze out the windows of Haussmann-style buildings on a rainy day. It’s one of the few places in the world where you can fall in love with nothing at all.
They are the sun and the moon, fire and water, earth and sky. They’re loveable cities that fascinate many, and truly entrap a few. As for me, both succeeded. When I’m in one city, part of me always longs for the other, a heart pulled in two different directions. When I’m away from both, it aches even more.
It’s a difficult sentiment to describe, but when captured in a window frame, the swaying trees of New York City look like the sea. In Paris, they look like the clouds that airplanes skim across as they descend. Before a storm, both are terribly beautiful.