During this time of year, school ends, and those who benefit from long summer breaks flee to all corners of the world for research, leisure travel, and other edifying experiences. For each of the past four summers, I numbered among these travelers, and now as I sit at home contemplating the future, I see my friends leaving for their new experiences, instagramming the oddities of living abroad, expressing their excitement at seeing a new painting or trying a new food. It’s not precisely that I am jealous, though I would certainly love to know that I could jet off to somewhere intriguing. Last week, I entered a travel writing competition because it seemed like all the travel memories I hold in my brain could be mobilized for something more fulfilling.
The first time I went to France, I was seventeen and had just graduated from high school. As an inexperienced traveler on a ten-day educational trip, it served primarily as an introduction to life abroad and to big name, legendary sites that had seemed like fantasies before I saw them with my own eyes. When I first went to France to start dissertation research in 2011, I knew the experience had to be something different and more productive—that I had to dig more deeply and broadly to understand the culture I meant to study. That said, my favorite place in the city turned out to be a place that had been a central feature of that first trip: the Trocadéro and the Eiffel Tower.
The Eiffel Tower has such a terrible reputation among many people I know who travel regularly. In some ways, it’s a clear demonstration of everything that’s wrong with tourism as an industry. During portions of the year, people swarm to the tower in droves, looking up instead of being aware of their surroundings, snapping picture after picture before paying an exorbitant fee to wait in line to take more pictures of the view. No wonder, then, that pickpockets threaten these distracted tourists, and people who prize authenticity in their travel experiences disdain going anywhere near the Eiffel Tower with a disproportionately ferocious “been there, done that” attitude.
I understand the negative views of the area surrounding the Eiffel Tower and also that they can’t solely be combatted by the fact that, if you stand in just the right place, the view looks exactly like the above—like Paris in all its genius planning, activity, and glory. It has always seemed to me that the Tower itself represents a useful historical intersection of the strife-filled years of the nineteenth-century that preceded its construction in 1889 and the coming uninhibited technological modernity whose beginnings remain apparent in its lacy ironwork and, for Paris, its exceptional stature. To object to the tourist fashioning of its superficial symbolism is one complaint, but it’s worth considering how Paris itself has used this structure to characterize the city in popular media. Any quick survey of Eiffel Tower history will tell you about its origins in the Exposition Universelle (the same one that inspired Gauguin to head to the South Pacific), its continued prominence in the advent of film and avant-garde theater in the early twentieth century, and then describe how it still serves as central to aspects of French cultural life—including the Bastille Day fireworks that crown the Tower in fire and colored lights every July 14th.
From that history, I believe it is possible to find peace in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. The lawn at the Trocadéro is one of the few non-museum places in Paris that I have returned to again and again, bringing a book to read for awhile and absorb the bustling city. I like watching the Tower change, knowing that the hours are passing when the cannons at the Trocadéro majestically fire and splash water all over the lawn or the Tower sparkles and everyone “oohs” and “ahhs” together. Even as I dodge the men selling tacky metal keychains and grasp harder at my purse, the Eiffel Tower grounds my professional expertise in the fascination I feel for France and its art and culture.