Monday, August 07, 2006

A Cage with Golden Bars

Aurore, the other night at dinner, turned to Ken and asked, "so what do you think of Parisians?"

To which he replied, "Well, like anything kept in a cage, they're not friendly, they often bite, and they don't know how to feed themselves."

And then we had our little chuckle.

Complaining about Parisians seems to be a favorite pastime among those living in Paris. This isn't limited to expats. A large proportion of residents are not native to the city, and many who are born here don't consider themselves Parisiens.

American stereotypes about the French en masse are strikingly similar to the way in which les provinciaux describe native Parisians. Our Auvergnat and Breton friends have much in common with disappointed American tourists when they start throwing around words like "arrogant," and "rude."

Living here does not make one Parisian. This is entirely different from New York, which rapidly absorbs the newly-emigrated into its clubby fold. Address affords identity in NYC, but Parisians are rarely (if ever) made.

So what is it about Parisians? I can't claim to be an expert, and I hope that the comments will expand upon this, but I will begin with one stereotype: comme il faut.

Being in accord with conventions and accepted standards is, for a real Parisian, the mark of a life well-lived. This trait is widely applied but especially apparent with language and dress. To flout or be ignorant of convention is to reveal that one is pas très bien élevé (poorly-raised).

In language, this means speaking French - the good French of the Académie française. A provençal accent will raise eyebrows in many quarters, and the integration prospects among banlieue children are measured in part by their speech.

The standards in dress are narrow and change each season, but certainly exclude track suits, safari gear & fanny packs. Shifting styles are taken very seriously, and trends transcend different age groups. It was not uncommon last year to see 60-year old women wearing fishnets. This year it's Converse.

Whether or not one is fully successful with the particulars of the style sheet, one must at least make an effort. Sarah Turnbull, in her largely terrible book Almost French, got it right when she realized in horror that she could never again leave the house in sweat pants.

Standards exist in every society, but Parisians seem to have a particular affinity for them. While entrepreneurs and ingenues are greeted with indifference, the celebrated Parisian is one who has successfully executed a series of well-known steps.

Bohemians, punks, and avant-garde types seem to be flourishing in Toulouse, Marseilles, and Lille. The adolescent years of Paris are so far in the past, however, that the city has forgotten how to make fun of its squares. Even teenagers take seriously their role as standard-bearers for the republic.

The cage of Ken's joke could be the city itself - asphalt and crowding, all that. But convention, too, is a trap. French standards, born and bred in Paris, are enforced by Parisians who police both outsiders and themselves. Which puts them, to quote Henry from Barfly, in "a cage with golden bars."

Lucky for us, it's quite possible to avoid Parisians while at the same time enjoying the products of their self-discipline (art, lit, film, food...) Moreover, there are plenty of natives who through travel or cross-cultural marriage have discovered a world beyond their cage. And they, because they have a sense of humor and know where to eat, are often the best (post-) Parisians of all.


Anonymous said...

Reminds me a bit of LA. No one who lives in LA is from LA. There are over 10 million people living in the area, nearly all of whom are from Kansas or Illinois. Wonder why some large cities attract millions of outsiders while others maintain a pretty steady base of people who were raised there...

Le Meg said...

Good question, Stacey. To where do the native Angelenos flee?

When I was 20, I moved from Kansas to Phoenix, joining up with all the other midwesterners drinking iced lattes in the desert. Same transitory dynamic as LA.

I beat it back to Kansas (and later Illinois!) the following year...