The never-ending story of Paris
Celebrating the beauty, and recognizing the banality, of one of the world’s great cities — and massive tourist destinations.
The New York Times
Northwest travel guides
Even Hemingway struggled with this city, working on a memoir of his poor early days, “A Moveable Feast,” off and on for years, before it was finally published after his death. Christopher Hitchens once called it “an ur-text of the American enthrallment with Paris,” identifying an unthinking nostalgia “as we contemplate a Left Bank that has since become a banal tourist enclave in a Paris where the tough and plebeian districts are gone, to be replaced by seething Muslim banlieues all around the periphery.”
Sometimes, reading about Paris in newspapers, magazines and on websites devoted to tourism, I feel the clichés piling high enough to touch the Eiffel Tower — or even the still-hideous Tour Montparnasse, which for decades has given skyscrapers a bad name here.
All the clichés are still there, if that’s as far as you’re willing to look, from the supposedly haughty waiters to the baguettes and croissants and the nighttime lights on the Notre-Dame de Paris, shimmering with a faith now largely abandoned.
After more than five years living here as The New York Times’ Paris bureau chief, having experienced some of the best and worst, from a state dinner at the Élysée to a long, cold march down a blocked highway to Orly airport during one of France’s many strikes, I leave with regret. We all try to make our own Paris, of the flesh and of the mind. As the Canadian Morley Callaghan once wrote, “it was a lighted place where the imagination was free.’’
But to live and work in a place forces you to love it differently, with more will and less passion. One of the other great foreign chroniclers of Paris, Mavis Gallant, once described the Paris sky as having the look and consistency of wet gray felt. And the narrow sidewalks on the Left Bank are charming until you nearly break your ankle trying to dodge a phalanx of Parisiennes gesticulating with cigarettes.
But even if social critics like André Glucksmann can rightly mock the place as a “musée doré,” a gilded museum, Paris remains a fertile place for the imagination, for a transporting of soul into a setting both familiar and still different enough to matter. At the end of every vista you’ll no longer find the gallows that Edmund Burke decried during the French Revolution, but the prospect of pleasure. If you can afford it, of course.
Adam Gopnik, a New Yorker writer, finds “the Parisian achievement” to have created, in the 19th century, two concepts of society: “the Haussmannian idea of bourgeois order and comfort, and the avant-garde of ‘la vie de bohème.’” While these two societies seemed to be at war, he suggests, in fact they were “deeply dependent on each other.”
Today, however, the balance is gone, and Paris is too ordered, too antiseptic and too tightly policed to have much of a louche life beyond bourgeois adulteries. In that sense, something important has been lost.
Its history is one of sex and blood, of revolution and insurrection, the guillotine and the Communards, the regicides and infanticides, the foreign occupations and those who made their peace with the occupiers. Frederick Brown, an American historian, caught something important about France’s tumultuous confrontation with modernization in the 19th century when he contrasted the two competing symbols of Paris on two competing hills — the Eiffel Tower, that exemplar of the secular industrial age, and the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur, built as a national penance for the moral decline and sanguinary excesses of the Paris Commune of 1871.
Even the great battle between left and right seems muted now. But underneath that consensus, there is a loss of self-confidence and identity, leading to more extremism on the fringes. There is a deep and hostile racial and religious politics that is trying to redefine what it is to be French, in a country that feels as if it has lost its way — its place in Europe slipping, its moral leadership tainted by Islamophobia and ultranationalism.
This, too, is part of the Parisian story. You only need to travel to the 19th Arrondissement, with the gorgeous Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, where young gangs of Muslims, Africans and Jews fight for turf, or head for the street markets around Tati, in the 18th, or spend time in the Gare du Nord, one of Europe’s busiest transit stations.
There, businessmen and tourists avert their eyes as young Roma male prostitutes jostle with Tunisian female prostitutes and underage Muslim and black bandes de filles (girl gangs) from the poor suburbs come into Paris, changing out of their modest clothes on the trains, to meet boys and shoplift. Armed police do gruff identity checks of young people of color, despite a ban on racial profiling.
Paris is the most beautiful city in the world; to me, only Prague comes close. But Paris is also filthy. While tourists regard Paris with awe and respect, for the most part many Parisians treat it with studied indifference, a high virtue here, or with contempt.
It is the Parisians who leave dog excrement on the sidewalks, who ignore the trash containers. With smoking now supposedly banned inside restaurants, the terraces of cafes become more crowded. But the streets have become ashtrays, and the rubbish defeats the traditional sluicing of the gutters with city water by men with long green nylon brushes.
France still gets more foreign tourists than most any other country: 83 million in 2012, and 83 percent of them from Europe, compared with only 29.3 million who visited Britain. Paris alone gets 33 million tourists a year, half of them foreigners, many in search of that mythical place where Charles Aznavour meets Catherine Deneuve meets Zidane meets Dior, all drinking Champagne and nibbling foie gras, truffles, oysters and langouste.
While tourists to Israel sometimes suffer from the Jerusalem syndrome, imagining themselves in direct contact with God, some Japanese tourists suffer from what is called the “Paris Syndrome,” distraught at the difference between what they imagine and what they find. Of course, as Walt Whitman wrote about himself, Paris contains multitudes, and most visitors go away having found just enough of what they craved to develop a lifelong yearning to return.
Because everyone makes his or her own Paris, one of the great cities for walkers, with small alleys and hidden corners that can feel like personal discoveries and that can be cherished, later, and found again, even if some of the great old and unprintable street names of Paris have been bowdlerized in the antiseptic city.
Just meander over the footbridge near the Iéna Métro stop on an early morning, before the touts come out, watch the barges and the clouds, then climb the steep stairs to the street, to have a coffee at the Musée Guimet, and see some of the finest art of Southeast Asia (not all of it stolen) — there are hundreds of memories like that to be had by any wanderer. I like a narrow street lined with little antiques shops as much as anyone, especially at “l’heure bleue,” so long as I can end up in one of the grand parks, the Monceau or the Luxembourg or even the Tuileries. And I can never pass the Place de la Concorde without looking toward the northeast corner of what was once the Place de la Révolution, where they set up the guillotine and cut off Marie Antoinette’s head.
“There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other,” Hemingway wrote. “Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it.”
Yet then he added, with just the right soupçon of sadness: “But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”