Settling in to the Second Empire

It’s been almost two weeks since I arrived in Paris – a horrifying thought. I don’t understand how the start of the World Cup, which is in about fifteen days, can seem an eternity away while the 54 days until I leave seem like they could evaporate in a second. To return to what I said about leaving for Paris and how it always seems like you didn’t have time to prepare, I fear that no matter how long I stay here, my trip will come to an end long before I’m ready to leave.

I can’t say, though, that I haven’t taken advantage of my time here so far.

When I studied abroad here last year I lost ten pounds, which is remarkable for many reasons, not least of which being that I already weighed practically nothing before I came. Now, you might say, as many have, that it is inexplicable that someone could go to the country that gave us the macaron, confit de canard, rognons de veau à la moutarde, 300 cheeses and a thousand ways of eating butter and lose weight. In response I would say first that Paris is expensive and that I am a poor student, but that only accounts for part of it, I think. Because the first thing I noticed when I got into Paris was that I, for lack of a more insightful turn of phrase, stopped needing things.

If they didn't turn off the lights at 2AM the Pont Neuf would just be strewn with the corpses of people who couldn't tear themselves away

If they didn't turn off the lights at 2AM the Pont Neuf would just be strewn with the corpses of people who couldn't tear themselves away

My flight left DC at 8:45PM. I have never been able to sleep on planes and this was no exception. The woman who checked my luggage offered me a seat in the middle of the front row so I would have some leg room, which was very nice except that she counted wrong and put me in the middle of the second row instead. It was a long and unpleasant flight that culminated in a dawn transfer at Heathrow to another plane to Paris. I almost fell asleep twice on the RER train from the airport to my apartment and had already abandoned hope of staying up long enough to sync my body to Paris time when I yanked my suitcase up the last stair.

And yet (Yet!), once I had put away my things and stepped outside to feed myself before my nap, I found that my energy just kept increasing. I walked and walked and walked and when I tried to nap a few hours later I couldn’t keep my eyes closed. I am reminded that to this day, the longest walk I perhaps ever did was the serpentine walkabout I did from Auteuil to Les Halles after I got to Paris the first day of my study abroad.

The past two weeks has been an extended version of that walk, with me reading, walking, and going to libraries as often as I can in the hope that maybe if I don’t stop I won’t realize I’m hungry.

This is France's version of a "reading room"

This is France's version of a "reading room"

It helps that I have accidentally stumbled upon a subject that is fascinating. I admit that the formulation of my thesis was done, as the French would say, au pif. Of course I knew the basics of Haussmann’s reconstruction of the city and I knew it happened under Napoléon III, but the larger assertions about the significance of the period were mostly the product of guesses I concocted at two in the morning. As I read, I find that not only are those assertions justified, but that the effects of the Second Empire and of Haussmann particularly are much more far-reaching.

I will attempt to summarize at least a little of what I’ve learned, but in many cases, my research has just pointed me to the holes in my knowledge and the things I need to read next. (By the way, can I just say how cool it is to be doing research, like real, big-boy research on a topic that hasn’t been studied by anyone as far as I can tell? I’m really excited by how diverse the theories I’ll be applying are and how much knowledge I have to master to write this paper. I ordered a copy of a book of photography yesterday from the BNF and just felt like an adult.)

This is the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, the national library, where I'm doing a lot of my research

This is the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, the national library, where I'm doing a lot of my research

The Second Empire was the period in French history from when President Napoléon III declared himself emperor in 1852 until 1871 when the combined forces of Bismarck’s army and communists inside Paris caused the government to crumble. Although “crumble” is a very generous term implying a slow, relatively quiet decline, whereas the end of the Second Empire, like everything that happened during it, was big, explosive, tragic, hilarious, painful, etc.

It was a period that called itself something like Victorian, but while English Victorianism hypocritically insisted on Puritanism while secretly being rife with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, as far as I can tell, Napoleonic France barely even put on the puritan show. Married men bought presents for their multiple mistresses at huge balls held every night all over the city and were applauded for it, while their wives snuck off to secret rooms in luxurious cafés to have secret trysts that everyone knew about the next morning.

Millionaires were made overnight and spent themselves bankrupt just as fast. Napoleon III’s “benevolent dictatorship” passed a law allowing the city to take over any neighborhood in the city so that they could tear it down and build new houses and new streets. Paris up to then was becoming unlivable, with the new railroads bringing in thousands of new people every year into a city that was already struggling to support its population. There were shortages of clean water, a lack of sewer systems, not enough housing, crime, and almost regular popular riots. The city had to be almost entirely rebuilt, and it was done so according to the period’s prevailing theories of an impending rational, industrial utopia.

The Garnier Opera is one of the best examples of Second Empire excess (it's not really excess if I like it, right?)

The Garnier Opera is one of the best examples of Second Empire excess (it's not really excess if I like it, right?)

A horribly corrupt system for evaluating property values when the city bought land off its citizens led to a huge rush on housing speculation, with men buying up neighborhoods with borrowed money and then pulling strings with friends in city hall to inflate the price and make a profit when the city bought it off of them. One of the main characters of Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart is an employee of city hall who uses his knowledge of the government’s plans for construction to invest his aristocrat wife’s dowry in a 200,000 franc apartment under her name that he knows will be demolished soon, and then does the evaluation of the property himself and claims it to be worth 500,000 francs. He starts a bank that sucks up to the government to get special deals and protection and invests millions using insider knowledge of future construction plans.

Basically, it was a lot like America in 2008, only more extreme, and when the bubble burst there was no government intervention to save the markets. Instead, France declared war on Germany in the hopes of distracting unhappy citizens and brought upon itself a catastrophic war that ended with Paris under siege and former millionaires eating the animals out of the zoo (literally) to stay alive. When the siege was finally broken, a communist revolt took place – even during the siege the bourgeoisie managed to profit on the poor workers – which sent the government into exile and itself ended with a second siege of Paris. While the first only barely hurt the city itself thanks to the outcry from other countries when Bismarck bombed the capital and killed innocent children, the second siege of Paris ended with a desperate and disparate communist army setting fire to every building they could get to as the French army advanced in street fighting. The casualties included the Hotel de Ville and the Palace of the Tuileries and thousands of French citizens.

All of this happened in less than twenty years and arguably marked the end of France as the world’s technological superpower. The second empire was a crucial moment in the long build-up to World War I and obviously has deep similarities with some events taking place in the world today.

Lots of books to read!

Lots of books to read!

The combination of this historical study, whose eccentricities I’ve only begun to describe (the balloons!), and a period in French literature that is extremely fecund (Balzac, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Zola) has me very excited for the next two months of research. And I’m just constantly happy to be here.

One of the first things I did when I got to Paris was to go to the site of my old study abroad program and say hi to my old professors and friends who work there. When I walked in the door, I immediately bumped into my art history professor, Nicolas Baudoin, who immediately recognized me, shook my hand, and said, “You must be very happy to be back home.” Chances are he was just confused about what country I’m from or wasn’t thinking, but I kind of hope that maybe he knew something I don’t.

The fact is, whether or not Paris is my home, I’m very happy to be back.