Of Cities on Hills

Saturday, December 21, 2013 | Ottawa, ON, Canada

A city in miniature, photographed in a Paris shopfront
Sadly, memories of my first trip abroad—the trip to France that started it all, way back in high school—are already blurring. But one observation I remember quite clearly concerns the French people's relationship to their capital. It struck me, at that young age, that Paris was more than just a capital city—it was the sun around which the French universe turned. Everyone in Paris seemed self-absorbed, haughty, perfect—at the pinnacle of their society and well aware of their superiority. And everyone outside of Paris seemed to count the days from their last trip to the capital and until their next one, seemed continually obliged to justify why they were not living in the capital, seemed unable to hide how self-conscious they were of their very provincial existence. Paris was the center of a vortex, tugging ceaselessly at Frenchmen and -women, obliging them to make a conscious lifelong effort to resist its pull.

Twelve years later, I can't recall a single conversation that led me to this conclusion, but the impression sticks in my mind nonetheless.

I was reminded of this dynamic last week in Canada, where I had the opportunity to organize a small study mission for Algerian political party officials. In nearly every meeting, our Canadian hosts
would make some reference to the US. Whether bigger, smaller, better or worse at this or that, more advanced or less, America seemed the constant reference point. Perhaps this was the case simply because I and another colleague who were leading the mission were American, or perhaps it's because the US is just the big gorilla next door that no Canadian can ignore, or maybe some combination of the two.

Whatever the case, as someone who comes from a country that sees little need to situate itself in reference to others, I find these relationships and references peculiar. Perhaps that's just because we Americans are like those stereotypical Parisians, too caught up with our superiority to notice those around us.

This one is still an unformed thought. Further reflection needed...

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