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Paris in the 1920s vs. Lisbon today
Lots of intellectual ferment going on. Plus: my last week in Bethesda, MD, and the dangers of desynchronized work
Greetings from Bethesda, Maryland.
This is the last week I’ll spend in this house, an old, 80s chique (i.e., shabby) brick rental so chosen for its proximity to my son’s school in Potomac. The landlord could easily sell this place to a builder, who would promptly bulldoze and put in its place a 4,000 square foot, $2 million mini McMansion, with one of those gigantic, never-used foyers, a 2-car garage, and some nice bay windows, but—good for us, and the next folks, there is still at least one moderately priced home to rent here in the middle of some of the wealthiest zip codes in the country.
Yet for all the wealth, there is actually nothing within a mile’s radius of here but row after row of single-family suburban homes—not a café, not a market, not anything to walk to except the nearby middle and elementary schools (the schools are why people live here).
When I moved in, I would give these directions to my friends: go to the suburbs of Bethesda, then go to their exact center. That’s us.
I must say, I won’t be sorry to leave. Even at my house in rural New Hampshire, I’ve got more to walk to. A new brewery, a country store, a swimming hole, and a world-class climbing destination are all within a 15-minute walk.
Months ago, I wrote a 3,000-word epic about why one should not move to Bethesda. It was about the thousands of Type-A careerists who move to DC when they are younger (I was once one of them), then turn 37 or 38, get married, have kids, and move out of the city to either here or to Falls Church, Virginia—for the schools, of course.
For some, Bethesda represents the pinnacle of a certain kind of wealth, success, and status, and with jumbo 30-year mortgages to match. For my part, I’m just frustrated there’s no climbing or mountains or ocean nearby. And I’ve long since lost interest in the big government, consulting, and advocacy jobs that are the area’s entire raison d’etre.
Plus, most of my friends here moved away years ago. They left in pursuit of cheaper living and more access to the outdoors, and perhaps to be surrounded by less career-focused neighbors—the same reasons I’ve spent as much time in NH as possible over the last four years.
And so, consider this a farewell, Bethesda.
Next week, I’ll drive the rest of my stuff north. I’ll see family in NH, climb, hike, work on the house, and eventually sell my little intrepid Honda Fit. Then, I’ll fly to Barcelona, where my son will join me and he’ll be attending a new school next year.
I’ve already rented an apartment there—you can walk to everything: his school, a hundred cafes and bars and restaurants, a dozen markets, the beach, the climbing gym, several metro stations, and a train station with actual, real-life high-speed rail.
In Barcelona, I’ll be able to walk out of the apartment, take a €6.75 bus from Plaça Catalunya to Barcelona–El Prat Airport, board an obscenely cheap Ryanair or Easyjet or Vueling flight and be in Sicily or Greece (or really anywhere in Europe) within 2 hours.
I must say, I’m quite looking forward to it.
#1: Will there ever be a next Paris in the 20s?
A few weeks ago,over at Global Natives wrote a kind of ode to Lisbon, Portugal. She called Lisbon “This Century’s Paris,” citing the “experimental creativity, extravagant parties, liberal drug laws, and affordable housing,” plus the city’s expat nomad scene.
In the 1920s, Paris was a gathering place for artists from all over the world. It became known as a hotspot for freedom, creativity, and experimental living—somewhere people went to embrace extravagance, diversity, and radical self-expression. Many North American and European writers abandoned their countries of origin to take up residence in Paris, where they lived, worked, and played as part of a global crowd.
In 2020s Lisbon, influence is currency. Here, now, a twenty-something can aspire to be a famous music producer and have a side hustle as a socialite in the meantime—carving out an income in exchange for throwing great parties. Everyone you meet aspires to something; is the main character in their own story; sees their wildest dreams as within reach. This isn’t hustle culture, it’s creative culture: a culture of people pursuing vibrant, fulfilling, and interesting lives.
There’s a thriving market for what’s globally good but still enough dilapidation and grit to keep things interesting. Culture is in the cracks, like in London or New York: relentless and intoxicating creativity, secret viewing spots, legendary street food, hidden-away bars, and other unexpected things to discover and tell your friends about. You can find every food culture imaginable here—all made to an impressively high standard—and nobody cooks because it’s affordable to eat out. You’ll hear 10 different languages as you walk down the street on a weeknight.
I too have had a love affair with Lisbon—I first visited in 2015, and immediately fell in love. It was the way the light hit the old buildings, the energy, the history, the city’s reverence for its writers and poets.
The first night I was there, I went to visit an intimate old fado bar, where I listened to Portuguese women sing about love, loss, and Lisbon. Every song in fado is essentially about soledad—which roughly translates to nostalgia.
I went back to that club for six straight nights, completely enchanted. I remember thinking I should quit everything, move to Lisbon, and devote my life to the study of fado. Maybe even learn how to play the special, 12-stringed guitar that accompanies every song.
I have since visited Lisbon twice more, bringing family and loved ones. I still love the city.
And yet—I wonder if anywhere could ever really be the next Paris in the 20s.
To begin with, none of us have actually been to Paris in the 20s. We’ve only read about it, our impression colored by the exact kind of nostalgic romanticism that I was so enchanted by in the fado club. I know Hemingway was there, and Fitzgerald, and all those writers and artists I saw portrayed in Midnight in Paris (which has one of my favorite scenes from any movie). But the nostalgic attachment is kind of the whole point of that movie: we romanticize the past.
But still. Maybe Paris in the 20s really was that magical. I’d certainly like to believe it was. But is Lisbon the same, or magical but in a different way?
One of Lauren’s main points about Lisbon is that it’s relatively inexpensive—a place where artists can still go to experiment:
In San Francisco last year, everyone I spoke to commented on how artists and writers could no longer afford to live there—that there’d been a mass exodus as a result, and the character of the city had changed. This highlights an important point: artists don’t tend to make much money, but they are at the heart of a city’s social, cultural, and intellectual capital. They may not be where the economic value is, but the value they deliver to a place and its scene is significant.
But Lauren is really only comparing Lisbon to a handful of the world’s other major tech and creative hubs, namely San Francisco, New York, London, and the like.
Sure, Lisbon is cheaper than those cities, but that’s not saying much.
When I visited in 2015, it truly did feel as if I’d discovered a massive secret—an extraordinarily beautiful, welcoming, and energetic European capital that was indeed cheap. But by the time I returned a few years later, prices were up 25%. A few years after that, they were up 50%. Now that the city has been “discovered” by seemingly every tourist in the world (and become a magnet for digital nomads), prices feel kind of through the roof.
Without the affordability, you actually don’t get the next Hemingway, whose first apartment in Paris was a two-room flat with no hot water and no toilet, where he supported his young wife and child with occasional freelance writing for the Toronto Star.
What is the equivalent of that in Lisbon today? I’m not sure there is one.
Paris in the 20s was also inter-war Paris. Hemingway and other writers and artists of the “Lost Generation” lived there just a few years after one Great War, which was little more than a decade before the next. It’s hard for me to comprehend exactly what living in the aftermath of that horror was like—I only know that it gave way to the decadence of the roaring 20s.
There is some sense in which the pandemic could be seen as a loose comparison—a global disease wipes out millions, and then what? We all go back to buying lots of stuff and living our lives, except this time perhaps with a little more urgency to live it up while we still can.
Still, I don’t think Lisbon is This Century’s Paris, and the most important reason why is that the digital nomads who have descended on certain cities around the world, Lisbon included, don’t seem to have much in common with the Lost Generation.
I just don’t think that the coders and software engineers who have fled Silicon Valley and the solopreneurs and writers like me who may romanticize the past are quite the same as the American artists who came to Paris for cheap living and to spend their American dollars drinking cheap wine in a post-war Europe.
Still, if there ever is another Paris in the 20s, I’ll be sure to try and visit.
#2: Substack and status—the downside
And speaking of me responding to another writer on Substack…
One thing I’ve noticed recently is that Substack is itself becoming a kind of status marker. You can have a blog—or you can have a Substack. The latter is better.
Besides luring a bunch of great writers and journalists to its platform, in the last few years, Substack has been building product features that make use of so-called “network effects,” i.e., the force-multiplying power that comes from having a large and established network. A lot of us Substack writers have seen large boosts in new subscribers when these features are added.
But the unintended (or, perhaps intended) consequence of all this network effects stuff is that writers on Substack now come into much more contact with other writers on Substack, and we do so perhaps at the expense of interactions with writers writing elsewhere. There is only so much time in the day, after all.
I’m not immune to this—when I was in Barcelona last month, two of the people I connected with were writers on Substack, Brian Weisner ofand Kevin Maguire of (look! Even the fact that I can tag their publications here is one of the network effect product features).
All this feels great. But I wonder if there’s a downside.
I’m reminded of an essay from last year (not published on Substack) about the high-status, usually low-wage work of being a writer. The essay is by Michael Makowsky of Economist Writing Every Day, and he notes that one of the problems with high-status, low-wage writing work is that those writers want to live around other people who recognize and grant the high status of being a writer.
This leads to geographic clustering, which in turn leads to homogeneity of thinking:
Status rewards incentivize geographic concentration, which will in turn intensify herding behavior. If the bulk of your compensation is in-group status, you’re going to want to spend as much time with that group as possible. Your social life will become more important than ever. That also means, however, that anything that might risk disdain or ostracism within the group is to be avoided whenever possible. Opinions, particularly on subjects that don’t directly impact your life, will tend to become more and more homogeneous over time.
Makowsky is talking here specifically about the number of reporters for national publications who happen to live in a handful of neighborhoods in Brooklyn: Greenpoint, Park Slope, Williamsburg, Red Hook, etc. In part, he blames this geographic concentration for the media’s short-sightedness on various national news stories. Essentially, all these reporters living in Brooklyn can’t imagine how anyone anywhere else might think differently than them, because they all live with each other and are so busy validating each other’s opinions.
I wonder if something similar might happen on Substack, precisely because of the clustering, although I don’t necessarily think it will.
There seems to be a ton of ideological heterogeneity on the platform. Culturally, Substack seems to attract writers who were either excommunicated from institutional publications elsewhere (see Weiss, Bari) or otherwise writers who, like me, cherish a kind of intellectual independence, and Substack’s subscription-oriented business model is designed to support this.
But maybe I’m fooling myself. In any case, I’ll be on the lookout for it. What I want is to be a part of 1920s Paris, with its intellectual ferment all feeding off each other and making each other better—not what appears to be the fairly homogenous world of expat Silicon Valley tech workers.
It’s a fine line, though.
#3: Desynchronized work is not good
Finally, I recommend every digital nomad read an old piece from The Atlantic that popped up on my feed recently: Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore, by Judith Shulevitz.
It’s from 2019, but as they say: more relevant than ever.
Shulevitz writes: “Whereas we once shared the same temporal rhythms—five days on, two days off, federal holidays, thank-God-it’s-Fridays—our weeks are now shaped by the unpredictable dictates of our employers,” everything from gig work to long hours and now post-pandemic, an explosion of remote work in myriad time zones.
I’m part of this trend. My routine next year in Barcelona will need to include matching as many of my own waking hours in Barcelona to the office hours of my clients in the U.S.
The challenge in this new world of remote work and digital nomadism is to remain connected to each other, to not let our social bonds fray beyond all repair. And for that, we need not just time off but shared time off.
Not to get too dire, but Shulevitz concludes:
It’s a cliché among political philosophers that if you want to create the conditions for tyranny, you sever the bonds of intimate relationships and local community. “Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals,” Hannah Arendt famously wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism. She focused on the role of terror in breaking down social and family ties in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin. But we don’t need a secret police to turn us into atomized, isolated souls. All it takes is for us to stand by while unbridled capitalism rips apart the temporal preserves that used to let us cultivate the seeds of civil society and nurture the sadly fragile shoots of affection, affinity, and solidarity.
Let’s try not to let this happen, shall we?