It took me some years to clear my head of what Paris wanted me to admire about it, & to notice what I preferred instead.
~ Julian Barnes
I need to begin this post by telling you two things: First, I’m being honest in my views about Paris. I’ve been there three times, and if I add those days together, the total is just over two weeks. I am, by no means, an expert on the city (or France, for that matter). And, two weeks in Paris—especially split into three separate sections—is not enough time to accurately assess life there. Two weeks is tourist time, plain and simple. So, take that into consideration when you read what I have to say.
I have no idea why so many Americans dream about living in Paris, although I have to admit there is something that I really like about it. After careful consideration, I’ve come up with a few reasons why I might be able to live in Paris.
Paris has long been the capital of French literature. Honoré de Balzac. Beaudelaire. Marcel Proust. Victor Hugo. Emil Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre. They, and others, spent time in the city falling under her influence and writing about her. Americans found the French capital just as intriguing. The magic and mystery of Paris drew in Mark Twain, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, Langston Hughes, and so many others. Gertrude Stein even wrote, “America is my country and Paris is my hometown.”
Of course, those are just some of the French and American writers who fell under Paris’s spell.
Most people do not realize that literature in Paris is as important as art. There is a literary season—mid-August through September. And, there are literary prizes, many dating back to the early 20th century. Normally, there are four categories: French novels, debut novels, foreign novels, and essays/short stories/narratives.
And then there is Shakespeare and Company. Located on the Seine across from Notre Dame, the bookstore baby of American George Whitman has been home to literary writers and readers since it opened in 1951. If I were younger, I might consider being a Tumbleweed at the store.
While I do not consider myself in the same league as any of those writers, I think Paris could inspire my literary endeavors.
Something about the buildings in Paris intrigues me. Until my second visit there in 2013, I hadn’t realized that there is a height restriction in place. The construction of the Montparnasse Tower (59 stories) in 1973 caused quite an uproar that city council stipulated that buildings within the city limits cannot be more than 37 meters in height (except for residential buildings which can be 50 meters in height). Most buildings within the city center top off at five stories. This allows the Eiffel Tower and other Parisian monuments to stand unobstructed.
In addition to building height, the classically beautiful Hausmann Architecture appeals to me. Charged by Napoleon III to modernize Paris, Georges-Eugène Haussmann razed many of the decaying medieval buildings and narrow streets and replaced them with wide boulevards, elegant buildings, parks, and squares. Today, there are 40,000 Hausmann buildings still standing in Paris.
To me, the grey mansard roofs are one of the most attractive parts of the Hausmann buildings. The mansard roofs, which are angled on four sides, allow maximum sunlight on streets below.
As someone who didn’t drink coffee until I was 42, I am wild about cafes. It makes sense, then, that I like any place that embraces a cafe culture. Forget embracing it; Paris squeezes it. With wide streets and sidewalks, the city provides the perfect home for cafés.
If you are thinking that Parisian cafes are like American cafes, let me clear that up for you. Whereas both of them provide coffee, drinks, food, and pastries, the similarity really ends there. Parisian cafes are more of home away from home (Excuse the cliche). Keep in mind that many Parisians live in tiny apartments. The cafes serve as a meeting place, an office, a living room. You’re just as likely to see friends getting together to enjoy a glass of wine or espresso as you are to see colleagues gathering to discuss politics, news, art, and life. And, as social as cafes may be, you will also find a solitary writer tapping away at a computer or a quiet reader engrossed in a novel in a corner.
There are about 7000 cafes in Paris today, down from more than 45,000 in the late 19th century.
This is going to sound repetitive, but those of you who know me know how much I love dogs, and I could probably live anyplace that celebrates our canine friends. There are more than 300,000 dogs in Paris, and they can go almost anywhere—restaurants, shops, buses, parks, the metro, offices, salons. I would be in heaven.
Dogs are often my in to meeting people. “ Que beau chien!” (What a beautiful dog!) I will say to someone while leaning over to look at the cute canine. I know I combined Spanish and French in that sentence, but the owners get the point and puff up their chests in pride and stand by while I pat the cute pup on the head. Well, some of them puff up. Others yank the dog and hurry down the street away from the crazy lady who butchers their language.
The only negative I see in Europe is the same as the one over here: People do not pick up after their dogs. That, of course, is not the dog’s fault.
Ok. Whom am I kidding? I could live in Paris for the patisserie alone. My doctors might not like my eating all of that sugar and spice, but since I would have to find new doctors if I moved to Paris, I could get away with eating pastries for a while.
I’ll be honest and say that I like the standard Parisian pastries—macaron, croissant eclair, profiterole, pain au chocolate. Give me the fruit, the chocolate, the cream. I’m in heaven.
That said, not wild about some of the “artisan” recreations of the old standards. Black charcoal croissants? Matcha salt caramel Tarts? Black sesame, yuzu, or wasabi macarons? Black sesame cookies? Buckwheat-topped cookies? Augh.
Those flavors may all be good and mesh well with whatever pastry they’re meant to enhance, and they obviously appeal to the tastebuds of many. I’m not willing to pay to try them, though. Just thinking about black charcoal croissants makes me cringe, and I admit to having tried a charcoal bun in London once. It didn’t kill me, but I didn’t like it. To make charcoal baked goods, the bakers do not leave them in the oven until they turn black. They use activated charcoal which leaves a smoky, indescribable taste.
So, give me the flaky, buttery, creamy, and airy layers of pastry accompanied by rich creams, spicy fruits, or smooth chocolates. . . and don’t tell my doctors.
Next up: This American in Paris, II