I've always just accepted that Paris is known as the City of Lights. But last Saturday night, as a friend and I were walking along the Seine, I looked around finally and asked why Paris, lovely as it is, is called the City of Lights. It seems just as well (or unwell) lit as any other city.
My hypotheses were probably a bit elementary at first:
- It could be the Eiffel Tower at night, but that seems a bit typecasted even for Paris.
- It could be the lights reflected in the Seine—a nice thought, but again, not much different from other rivers that pass through cities.
- It could be a historic remnant from when electricity was first widely used (which turns out to be partially true).
So I did some research, and it turns out there are mainly two reasons. The first was because under Louis XIV, there was a push to make it a safer place at night. As a part of this movement, they put up street lamps throughout the city, making Paris one of the first European cities to install street lights more universally. The other main reason was because of its essential role in the Age of Enlightenment. So the name took on a more symbolic meaning in relation to that of education and scientific revolution.
But that was so long ago! What, then, does the name City of Lights mean for me as an international student TODAY?
Well, it means the springtime sun! It means how the light hits the roofs and reflects off the windows. I've written before about how for nearly a month after I arrived here that the weather was grey and drizzly. Paired with a new environment, new language, and not knowing many people here it was a drear atmosphere overall. But since then, both the weather and I have changed. Paris isn't so grey anymore. When the sun is out, I see the shadows of branches moving in the breeze, and I look up to green leaves sprouting. I picnic with my friends an unreasonable amount and enjoy the lightness of their company. And of course, there is still a relation between light, enlightenment, and my studies here, which are quickly (and stressfully) coming to an end soon.
Light means Presence. And I've found myself being very in the moment here, which is really the point of studying abroad: finding a Home within a very temporary framework. It takes a lot of work as well as a lot of letting go.
Above all, Paris has allowed me to see my life, both present and future, in a new light. That is why it is my city of lights.