Think of a famous idea. Any famous idea. Or for that matter any brushstroke, article of clothing, architectural style, camera technique, great thinker that should have been medicated, or hip reason to brew a Molotov cocktail. If that idea is Western, then it is probably French (or at least hotly contested and contributed to a French intellectual movement). Your first walk around Paris will be defined by a paralyzing level of excitement. Your first party in Monaco might result in a Hangover-esque situation. It’s no secret that young Americans “backpack” through France to lose their virginity and construct their identity at a safe distance from their parents. The successes of James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway suggest that we couldn’t have chosen a better spot; there is a pervading sense in France that everything is here.
Students might go to France to be fashionably disaffected artists in boho-chic corner cafes, but this isn’t the land of berets and baguettes anymore: it’s the land of sustainable energy and the 35hr. work week. As France wrestles with the economic and cultural ramifications of a globalized world, this is also, increasingly, the country of parkour and veil bans, sprawling Chinatowns and the Marie Leonie case of 2004. Nowhere is the cognitive dissonance of these cultural collisions more evident than in Marseille, whose burgeoning Little Algeria encroaches upon the city’s Old World streets. In the midst if these transitions, the most sacred of French traditions remain gloriously preserved—you might eat a lot of kebabs while you’re here, but you can still riot against The Man in the morning and commit adultery by noon.