Photo: Romantique & Rebel
Just as no one wants to meet their hero and discover a real human being, no one wants to move to a fantasy for fear of finding just another city.
Paris is not perfect, obviously. It’s not a postcard. It’s not even, really, a fair representation of its own mythology, for all the beauty of the Ile de la Cité and those Haussmann boulevards. (Catch the RER to the north-eastern suburbs, for example, and see how much égalité you find.)
So, in the spirit of killing idols, and conceding to a format that is drowning magazine journalism, here are four Paris clichés that are about as accurate as, well, those images of accordions, berets and daily croissant intake.
Myth 1. Parisians are fashion-forward.
In Paris, the uniform reigns supreme. This is true for the city’s immaculate firemen and gendarmes but also for the general population. Quirky is the stuff of movies or for les anglais. The out-there dressers you see photographed “on the street” during fashion week are usually bloggers from Tokyo or Brooklyn or London snapping selfies outside the Grand Palais or in the Haute-Marais. Parisians themselves are more about calibrated understatement. One trend per season is quite enough, merci beaucoup. Last winter, it was oversized, horse-blanket scarves that swamped the wearer from shoulders to nose. Often with just eyes and a tuft of perfectly tousled hair sticking out the top. This autumn, the cropped jacket persists, be it a leather perfecto (so 2015) or collarless brocade number. (Actually, collars seem to have been done away with altogether by the unspoken consensus that governs French wardrobe choices.) That said, a lack of slavery to trends should never be confused with a deficiency of style. Recently, I saw a fifty-something woman in full ladies-who-lunch finery, including strappy stilettos, cycling through the eighth arrondissement. Despite the narrow intersection, she conceded neither speed nor poise to the traffic and pedestrian chaos around her. Classe, as they say around here.
Myth 2. Parisians don’t snack.
Even the most perfunctory nose about a Carrefour or Monoprix supermarket shows this statement up as fallacy. Aisles and aisles of baked goods – from mini waffles to cheese straws – scream, “Eat me outside of mealtimes”, to say nothing of chocolate, chips and charcuterie offerings, in irresistible bite-size portions. Barely a baguette makes it home without the end being nibbled to oblivion. The biscuit brand Lu is this year celebrating 170 years of offering sweet sustenance for transport riding and street strolling. Every Metro station has its vending machines. The much-loved apèro is surely just a culturally sanctioned pre-dinner taster of pretzels, peanuts or popcorn. How is it, then, that France is ranked not first but 65th on the WHO’s list of national obesity rates? Well, a few possibilities spring to mind: portion control, walking and stair-climbing as facts of life, and smoking (the national rate is 28 per cent, compared to 16 in Australia). In this way, they have their venoisserie and eat it, too.
Myth 3. Parisians are rude.
Paris suffers from big-city indifference, crowding and time poverty. No one smiles in the street. I used to find this off-putting; now I consider it efficient use of facial muscles. But are Parisians rude? I have taught English to hundreds of people here, of all ages, from school students to retirees, from all walks of life, from the city and deepest provinces, and found the overwhelming majority to be polite and charming. However, the dismissive stereotype does have some foundation (see previous blog entry Politics of Polite) in that ignorance of French etiquette will often be greeted with cool disdain. The thaw begins with the introduction, be that a formal presentation in the workplace or a breezy bonjour as you enter a boutique. Personal connection is the social lubricant, and this means face-to-face exchange, not just an email. To add further nuance, as a friend explained, les Parigots are difficult to get to know – yes, they’re polite but not always especially warm, and unlikely to extend the hand of friendship easily.
Myth 4. All the bread is delicious.
The scent of Paris is neither Chanel No. 5 nor smoke from discarded Gauloises butts, it’s bread fresh from the oven. Sadly, though, not all baguettes are lovingly crafted with organic floor and natural cultures. Many are baked from frozen dough shipped from the back of beyond. Vigilance pays off, and it’s worth scoping out any neighbourhood in which you find yourself for more than a day for its best boulangerie. My newest discovery is Le Bricheton, an artisan addition to the 20th with Instagram-worthy miche, spelt and multigrain numbers, and enormous loaves weighing several kilos that you buy by weight. Crisp of crust and dense of crumb, their bread is everything you want it to be. It’s probably just as well (in the interest of maintaining Parisian portion control) that they’re only open in the late afternoon and they don’t bake baguettes. For those, there’s Philippe Bognor, near Gambetta. (The winner of this year’s best baguette competition was La Parisienne in Saint-Germain, by the way.) Food blogger David Lebovitz offers some tips for bread hunting: look for an “artisan boulanger” sign and the name of the baker on the awning, hand-made loaves will be irregular, and choose une baguette tradition because that’s where the love usually goes in making the bread.
Some things are true, of course. The city is beautiful in spring, many a local rocks a striped marinière T-shirt, and in mid-summer, vacated by its citizens (they’re all on holiday), Paris has a breezy nonchalance of vacation that is hard to resist.