A Postcard from Paris

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On the afternoon of November 13, 2015, I set out from my apartment to John F. Kennedy Airport, Europe-bound. By the time I reached JFK many subway lines later, passed through security, and sat down to wait for my outbound flight, the sad news had made its way to me that there had been coordinated attacks across Paris that evening. But my flight to Prague left on time, and when I arrived in that city the following morning there were no perceivable special inspections at customs or an increased visibility of guards on the ground.

parizAs I made my way from Prague to Paris via Berlin a month later, though, the train on which I crossed the Czech-German border was held for passport inspection, something I had not experienced in several years. A Czech friend had told me a few days earlier, too, of his train being detained at the German border while headed in the other direction, back into the Czech Republic. The recent events in Paris, unfortunately, have been used to strengthen resistance across Europe to welcoming refugees, namely from the Middle East and Africa. While it is estimated that Germany (led by Angela Merkel) took in over one million refugees in 2015, countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary have been leading opponents to this “liberal” policy. The Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico has said following the attacks in Paris, “We have been saying that there are enormous security risks linked to migration. Hopefully, some people will open their eyes now.” But a tightening of border controls within the EU impacts not only refugees, but EU citizens, who have enjoyed ID-free travel within the so-called Schengen area for decades now.

Traveling around Europe in the midst of all this, conducting dissertation research on the Czech interwar avant-garde and its relationship to other major artistic centers of that period, I could not but think about renewed border controls in the EU territory within the context of, and in comparison to, travel in the period between the two World Wars. At that time, Europeans (as well as travelers from further afield) enjoyed a newly open, post-war terrain. The physical movement of bodies, facilitated also by new and faster modes of travel, helped to open up an unprecedented level of exchange between artists and intellectuals of diverse backgrounds and languages. In that brief window of freedom of movement between the two World Wars, Paris was a hub of such traffic, and many visitors came from Prague.

In a tour guide to Paris for Czech travelers, written by the artists Jindřich Štyrský and Toyen (who permanently emigrated to Paris after World War II), with the journalist Vincenc Nečas, the most direct route from Prague to Paris is provided in the opening “Practical Section.” This route includes no less than eight stops through Germany before reaching the coveted destination, with a travel time of twenty-seven hours. But this journey, about ten hours longer than the train trip takes today (or twenty-five hours longer than a non-stop flight), did not deter the wander-lusting Central European of some means. The 800-plus page tour guide provides ample motivation to make the trip, with images of the Eiffel Tower (affectionately dubbed the “Eiffelka”), sumptuous maps of the city, a full section dedicated to “Paris by Night,” and even a listing of the home addresses of some Parisian (though not necessarily French) writers, including Henri Bergson, Jean Cocteau, and Tristan Tzara.

Štyrský and Toyen were part of the Czech avant-garde group Devětsil, and many of its other members, too, made the journey, to stroll through the Luxembourg Gardens, visit the music halls, galleries, and salons, and meet with other artists and writers from around the world residing in Paris, such as Pablo Picasso and André Breton. Two of Devětsil’s most prominent members, the artist and theorist Karel Teige and the poet Jaroslav Seifert (who would ultimately receive a Nobel Prize for Literature), made their first visit in 1922, in their early twenties. In his autobiography, titled All the Beauty of the World, Seifert recalls their time in interwar Paris affectionately. “When I was with Teige in Paris,” he writes, “we would stroll daily to the entrance of the Louvre at our leisure.” They had had new suites made from the finest English textiles in preparation for their trip, but, as Seifert recounts, “The Eiffel Tower, to which we had made our pilgrimage, looked upon us unmoved.”

The characteristically blasé reception by Paris did not deter the enthusiasm of these young Czech travelers. In a letter by Teige to his friend Emy Haüslerová he reminisces a year later about that 1922 trip, where they also had the occasion to meet up: “Paris is an absolutely beautiful city, there is real life there, and where there is life, there is everything, beauty, industriousness, intensity, everything, everything. It is certainly not by chance that this city has bred the most exquisite forms of modern art: but, as you you know, that art, however interesting, isn’t anywhere near as beautiful as that life. The Louvre and purveyors of modern pictures are definitely something ce qu’il faut voir but nothing more.”

Increased restrictions on travel in the name of stemming immigration in France and across Europe (not to mention the United States) now threaten to inhibit the life that Paris has at times managed to foster by enfolding into its milieu citizens of diverse cultures and experience (though this is not to paint a utopianist portrait of Paris-past, a city that is also a dominant center of western hegemony, with its own fraught imperialist history). And there is no small element of irony that a country like the Czech Republic, whose citizens have enjoyed easy passage to Paris, and in recent memory also experienced what it is like to have their freedom of movement stymied from behind the Iron Curtain, would now join in efforts to limit the movements of others.

In his autobiography, Seifert, by then an old man in communist Prague, waxes nostalgic about the Paris he had visited in his early twenties: “In Paris it is beautiful, even when it rains. Not to mention when the weather is fair. […] Farewell, Paris! You’ll never again be so charming!”

Last year was a rainy one for Paris, a city still beautiful despite the armed guards that were a regular fixture of the winter month I spent there. They stood in front of churches at Christmas, strolled near the boulangeries and libraries I frequented, and—most ominously—were posted outside of apartment buildings. An extended state of emergency was declared in France in the days following the November 13 attack, and Prime Minister Manuel Valls has maintained that it warrants “temporary restrictions on liberties.” The state of emergency is scheduled to expire at the end of this month, but, despite public protests and “accusations that officials were unfairly targeting binational citizens,” the French government seeks to extend it now.

 

Image is the cover of Průvodce Paříži [A Paris Travel Guide] by Štyrský, Toyen, and Nečas (Prague: Odeon, 1927). Image reproduced from artbook.cz.

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