One of the most striking things about spending any amount of time in Europe is how “old” things are. In the United States, it feels like we are constantly looking for something new. How much of our history has been lost due to the people who got to decide what was important?
While it would be unfair to say that a lot of French history hasn’t been lost, it is overwhelming as an American to see how far back what they were able to preserve goes.
For example, while visiting Arles we were able to visit a Roman cemetery over 1500 years old. While the bodies were long gone, the sarcophagi that had once held them were still there. As my classmates and I walked and climbed around them, it was difficult to comprehend just how long this site had been around. Since then, it has become a place for people to visit. Vincent Van Gogh himself even painted a few paintings there.
In Paris proper, there are still places that you stumble on whose history can be overwhelming. It seems everywhere you go there is something older than you can comprehend. At the same this doesn’t mean that progress is completely impossible. It just needs to be made without forgetting what came before.
The very first few weeks we were in France, we visited the Palais Garnier. When we made it into the theater we were all taken aback by something unexpected–the ceiling. It in no way matched the style of the rest of theater. As we settled into the velvet seats, we were given its history. Apparently the original ceiling was damaged due to gas lighting and in the 60s it had been replaced with a fresco by Marc Chagall. But instead of going over the old design, a new ceiling was added over the original in case people changed their mind about the ceiling.
To Americans it may seem silly to preserve an old, damaged ceiling when there is a perfectly good ceiling over top. But we can’t argue that it’s not a very French thing to do. And besides, it’s kinda cool to look at knowing what kind of history lies underneath.