Stephen Clarke may have adopted Paris as his home, but he still has an Englishman’s eye for the people, cafés, art, sidewalks, food, fashion, and romance that make Paris a one-of-a-kind city. This irreverent outsider-turned-insider guide shares local savoir faire, from how to separate the good restaurants from the bad to navigating the baffling Métro system. It also provides invaluable insights into the etiquette of public urination and the best ways to experience Parisian life without annoying the Parisians (a truly delicate art). Clarke’s witty and expert tour of the city leaves no boulevard unexplored—even those that might be better left alone.
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About the Author
Stephen Clarke (b. 1958) is the bestselling author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction that satirize the peculiarities of French culture. Born in St. Albans, England, Clarke studied French and German at Oxford University. After graduating, he took a number of odd jobs, including teaching English to French businessmen. In 2004, he self-published A Year in the Merde, a comic novel skewering contemporary French society. The novel was an instant success and has led to numerous follow-ups, including Dial M for Merde (2008), 1,000 Years of Annoying the French (2010), and Paris Revealed (2011). After working as a journalist for a French press group for ten years, Paris-based Clarke now has a regular spot on French cable TV, poking fun at French culture.
Read an Excerpt
The Secret Life of a City
By Stephen Clarke
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2011 Stephen Clarke
All rights reserved.
Dieu a inventé le Parisien pour que les étrangers ne puissent rien comprendre aux Français.
(God invented Parisians so that foreigners wouldn't understand the French.)
ALEXANDRE DUMAS THE YOUNGER, NINETEENTH-CENTURY WRITER
Paris is full of Parisians
PARISIANS HAVE a terrible reputation for being self-centred, rude and aggressive, and the worst thing is that they're actually proud of it. A few years ago, the daily newspaper Le Parisien made a series of commercials that were shown in cinemas. As the paper is the local version of the national Aujourd'hui, the ads were obviously aimed at Parisians themselves.
One of the films shows a pair of lost Japanese tourists begging for help from a middle-aged Parisian man. He stares blankly at them as they point at their map and valiantly try to pronounce 'Eiffel'. Then, when the penny drops, he points them back along the way they came, and they thank him as if he'd just saved their lives. He goes off in the other direction, turns the street corner, and there, looming large, is the tower. The Parisian deliberately sent the tourists the wrong way. Cue the punchline, Le Parisien, il vaut mieux l'avoir en journal—The Parisian, it's better to have it as a newspaper.
Another ad shows a respectable-looking man peeing against the outside of a public toilet. He zips up, walks away and smiles innocently at a woman whose shopping bag is standing in the rivulet of urine he's just created.
Then there's the one in which a guy strides quickly to a supermarket checkout, cutting in front of the little old lady with her meagre supply of groceries. He has been waiting in line for a few seconds when his wife turns up pushing a huge, overloaded trolley. The Parisian shrugs to the horrified old lady as if to say, well I did get here first. Cue the punchline.
And the funniest thing was that every time I saw one of these ads in a Parisian cinema, it got a huge laugh. I was astonished - it was as though the New York Times had put together a campaign saying that the paper was like its readers—thick and opinionated.
But Parisians don't mind the insult at all. On the contrary, they love to think of themselves as anti-social pushers-in, always trying to get one over on anyone gullible enough to fall for their tricks.
They even enjoyed the ad that went too far. In this one, a tall, chic Parisian businessman is seen leaving a café. He grudgingly accepts a business card from a small, subservient type who is leaving with him (from his grovelling demeanour, the little guy has to be a provincial). The Parisian goes to his flashy 4WD, reverses and hits a parked car. He's been seen by everyone sitting at the café terrace. He gets out to inspect the damage—his car is fine but he has dented the other car—and has a brainwave. He takes the little guy's business card out of his breast pocket, holds it up to show everyone what an honest fellow he is, and slips it under the windscreen wipers. The little loser is going to take the blame. One up for the totally amoral, treacherous Parisian, and the city's movie-goers cheered.
Who actually likes the Parisiens?
A survey in early 2010 by Marianne, a national news magazine, asked its readers what they thought of Parisians, and the answer was a typically French contradiction.
Overall, provincials had a bonne opinion of the capital-dwellers, recognizing that they were sophisticated, well-educated and trendy—while also showering them with insults.
The survey found that Parisians were seen as arrogant, aggressive, stressed, snobbish and self-obsessed, as well as being much less generous, tolerant, light-hearted and welcoming than people from the provinces.
But was the Marianne survey accurate, or just a reflection of the clichés bandied about in the media (including those Le Parisien newspaper ads)?
Parisians certainly think of themselves as a race apart, probably because the city is separated from its suburbs not only by its postcodes, which all start with '75', but also by physical barriers. The boulevard périphérique, the ring road that encircles Paris, is lined for much of its length with high-rise HLMs—habitations à loyer modéré (low-cost housing) —the modern version of the old city ramparts. And even though the walls have long disappeared, the twenty arrondissements comprising Paris itself are still referred to as intra muros—inside the walls. No wonder Parisians are considered snobbish—they're using a medieval term to distinguish themselves from anyone unfortunate enough to live outside the périph' (the abbreviation commonly used by the locals).
This sense of geographical uniqueness does seem a bit exaggerated, though. After all, a commuter who lives, say, 10 kilometres from Notre-Dame is still going to be pretty Parisian, even if he or she does live on the 'wrong' side of the périph'.
And commuting and working are at the root of the Parisians' famous aggression. That man pushing past you on the métro, or snarling at you when you ask directions in the street, probably got up at six that morning, wedged himself into a suburban train and/or a métro carriage, stood for forty minutes with his nose in someone else's armpit while the carriage jerked his spine out of shape, and then got told by his boss that his workload was being doubled because a colleague has been given three months' sick leave by an indulgent doctor. He's not going to smile at you if you can't find your way to the Sacré Coeur.
So, oui, Parisians and their suburban cousins are aggressive and stressed, but no more than the inhabitants of any big commuter city. And they seem intimidating only because they know how the city works, and therefore get impatient with people who don't—the tourists and provincials. To Parisians, cohabiting with outsiders is like going fishing with someone who has never baited a hook before. Surely everyone knows you're not supposed to throw the fishing rod in the water with the hook and line? No? Well, then they must be really, really stupid.
This uncomprehending impatience explains why Parisian drivers' fists seem to be permanently jammed on their hooter, and why waiters (who more often than not give perfect service, despite seeming to ignore you) can get irritable with their customers. Many diners, especially the non-French and non-Parisians, are mere part-timers in the restaurant game, and the waiters are old hands. They're simply expressing frustration at being forced to share their territory with untrained beginners.
In short, the Parisians' apparent unfriendliness is not a deliberate attempt to insult outsiders. It's just a symptom of their wish to get on with their lives.
On the other hand, the accusations of snobbishness and self-obsession are entirely justified, because right from birth, a sense of their city's greatness is hammered into Parisians' heads with a gold Chanel mallet.
Paris is undeniably the centre of the French-speaking universe. It's only a slightly skewed interpretation on the part of some Parisians to see the city as the centre of the universe, full stop. The top dogs of pretty well every prestigious French institution—cultural, economic and political—have to be based in Paris to stay close to the centralized action, so the crème de la crème are always going to be here, and, being Parisian, will always think that their own particular brand of crème is the creamiest.
And their snobbishness is not only inflicted on outsiders—Parisians weave a tangled web of snobbery amongst themselves. For example, those in the posher arrondissements will look down on their less chic counterparts with a mixture of scorn and pity. Try telling someone from the ultra-snooty 7th on the Left Bank that you live on the other side of the river in, say, the 20th, and a polite grimace will come across their face as though you'd just confessed to an infestation of headlice. And it works both ways—a TV cameraman living in the northern media ghetto of the 19th will think of a blazer-wearing 16th arrondissement banker over in the southwest of the city as a slug-like, brainless slave of philistine capitalism. Meanwhile, someone with a loft in a pleasantly gentrified part of the 11th, but near to a poor neighbourhood, will see themselves as an urban pioneer, living much closer to the edge than a person whose apartment is 500 metres to the south.
The rules of Parisian snobbery are as complex as a 3-D chess game played on twenty boards at once, despite the fact that the city is a rough circle of only about 10 kilometres in diameter. The key thing being, of course, that if you don't live inside the circle, you're totally out of the game.
This is not to say that Parisians don't have their chinks of self-doubt. They can, for example, feel inferior to New Yorkers, San Franciscans, Londoners and the Milanese—in short, to anyone with their own superiority complex. And Parisians are scared of, and therefore a little overawed by, the poorer banlieusards, believing that anyone who can survive life in an ugly apartment block more than a kilometre from a cinema or decent restaurant deserves le respect. And the success of French rap, as well as mainstream films like Neuilly Sa Mère and Tout Ce Qui Brille (in which young Arab banlieusards make fun of absurdly stereotyped snobbish Parisians), have proved that Paris is losing ground in the trendiness stakes—the irony being that as soon as a banlieusard rapper or film star becomes famous, they move intra muros and turn into typical Parisiens.
Paris's twenty arrondissements contain some 2.2 million people, who can be as different as Champagne and absinthe and yet still remain quintessentially Parisian.
There are as many types of Parisians as there are fish on a coral reef. But what makes them all Parisian, apart from simple geography, is the way they interact. Like the fish, they have to negotiate their way around the reef. The small fry have to steer clear of the sharks; the shrimps have to watch how they cross the open spaces in case a crab runs them over; and for all his or her bright colours, even the most beautiful individual will never outshine the reef itself.
Certain species of Parisian gather in certain arrondissements, and take on the characteristics of the neighbourhood as if trying to camouflage themselves. Of course, there are dozens of subtypes that will have to be left out to avoid turning this book into a sociological encyclopaedia, but here is a run-through of the main species of Parisian you will find in each of the arrondissements, and the best places to see them. And the good news is that you won't need a mask and snorkel to explore this particular coral reef.
So much of the nucleus of Paris is taken up by the Louvre, the Palais-Royal and shops that hardly anyone lives there, except around Châtelet and Les Halles, where you can get a loft with a balcony and exposed wooden beams much more cheaply than in the nearby Marais. Though not many people want to live in an area that attracts all the suburban racaille (the establishment's insulting name for young wasters) who come in from the northern banlieues on the RER (the suburban métro) and hang around Les Halles, chatting each other up and getting hassled by the police. If you want to spot weekday locals, especially civil servants from the nearby Ministry of Culture and the Conseil d'État (the state's legal department), sit on the terrace of Le Nemours, the café at the entrance to the Palais-Royal gardens, near the Comédie Française theatre.
Until about fifteen years ago, this was an area of fascinating contrasts. The Sentier was still full of clothes workshops, while the newly pedestrianized area around the rue Montorgueil was attracting all sorts of intellectuals and their families, just metres away from the rue Saint-Denis, where prostitutes stood in every doorway. Now gentrification is almost complete—the Sentier is getting lofted up, rue Montorgueil has changed from a street market into a hipsters' food court where you can get mango sushi, and the prostitutes are being squeezed out. The only time you can see residents en masse is on a Sunday morning, when the buggy brigade come out to buy their baguette and grab a coffee before the sushi fans arrive. Local-watching is best outside any café on the rue Montorgueil at eleven o'clock on a Sunday morning.
This comprises the northern half of the Marais, gentrified long enough ago to have achieved maturity. Its remarkably quiet medieval streets house art galleries (thanks to the Picasso Museum run-off effect), tasteful estate agencies, clothes shops and ultra- trendy restaurants, peopled by exactly the kind of staff—young and slightly snooty—that you'd expect. However, the shops and cafés in the rue de Bretagne are surprisingly down-to-earth, and mainly cater to the arty young things who can afford to live nearby. Spotting spot: the Café Charlot on the corner of rue Charlot and rue de Bretagne. The interior is a bit of an 'Old Paris' theme park, but locals don't care because the terrace is so sunny. It's packed every lunchtime with fashionistas from the area's showrooms. The same goes for the lunchtime foodstalls in the nearby hyper-hip Enfants Rouges market.
Forty years ago the heart of the Marais was a gloomy dump inhabited by people who had been there forever. The hôtels particuliers (urban mansions) were soot-blackened and falling down. This was why the city felt free to unleash the wave of destruction that gave us Les Halles (in the 1st), the Centre Pompidou (known by Parisians as Beaubourg) and the hideous modern Quartier de l'Horloge. These days, post-gentrification, the Marais' surviving buildings are all spruced up and it's almost impossible to identify any residents, except perhaps for the second-home Americans on café terraces on a Sunday morning and the parents watching their toddlers play in the small public gardens. The area does attract some easily spotted Parisian groups, though—gays (along the rue des Archives, where I once heard a little girl ask her dad, 'Papa, why does that princess have a moustache?'), Jews (shabat in the rue des Rosiers is a veritable falafel-fest) and shoppers. Neither the Jews nor the gays follow the old-fashioned French Tuesday-to-Saturday shopping timetable, so the area buzzes all week long. Spotting spot: the falafel bars and bakeries on the rue des Rosiers, or Les Marronniers, the gay and straight brunch place at the bottom of the rue des Archives.
A large but subtly disguised proportion of Paris's old money is concentrated here. The Latin Quarter used to provide shelter for penniless writers like James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, but these days they couldn't afford to live there, except maybe above a crêperie in the rue Mouffetard. The residents of all but the tiny chambres de bonne (top-floor garrets) dress down so the taxman won't ask how much their apartment is worth, and these people's kids try to look sloppy so they won't get mugged by the youths who come into the area on phone-hunting trips. You see that dowdy-looking middle-aged woman with a baguette and a sprig of parsley poking out of the top of her beaten-up shopping bag? She's a property millionairess, and one day she'll leave her fortune to those schoolkids who are huddling around a café table making a coffee last for hours and smoking their cigarette as though it cost them all their pocket money (which it will do if Papa finds out they've been smoking). The locals shop for food in the rue Mouffetard, despite the heavy presence of tourists, and some of them sit in the sun at the place de la Contrescarpe, though they all retreat to their country houses in high tourist season.
Excerpted from Paris Revealed by Stephen Clarke. Copyright © 2011 Stephen Clarke. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
4 The Métro,
Appendix 1: Addresses,
Appendix 2: Further Reading,
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