I have often gushed about my love of England on this blog. It is the country I called home for a few months my junior year of undergrad and have been homesick for ever since. However, it was not the first European country I visited. That belongs to the country across the Channel, France.
The first place I even touched down across the Atlantic was Paris, Charles de Gaulle Airport to be precise. I’d even arrived in First Class because of airline mistakes leading up to the trip. I was overtired and wired but I was in France. Finally. Cliche or not, Paris was my favorite. Well, a close tie with Caen in Normandy. I loved the vibe of Paris, how we moved from one museum or monument at breakneck speed but it was still just a city with its own classy agenda that took no notice of us. You may run from one tourist attraction to the next but the city never seems to be in a hurry itself. That first trip was a whirlwind as we started in the north of the country and ended on the Mediterranean five days later. My second trip, a weekend while I was living in Bath, was even faster but I remember walking more that trip, actually taking the time to meander along the Seine (I think we may have been lost but I have fond memories of that walk no matter why we took it). I could actually jump on the Point Zero that trip and walk up the steps of the Palais Garnier to peek into the splendid lobby and wish I could take in a performance. I appreciated Paris more on the second visit; it wasn’t simply the holder of all the things I’d heard so much about but a place to see as a place, and not just a conglomeration of museums.
So, you can imagine I was excited to read a history of Paris. Some I knew, thanks to Madame’s excellent blend of language, culture and history in high school, but I knew little of the ins and outs of how Paris became Paris. After reading Graham Robb’s Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris, I can tell you that I definitely do not. This book was not at all what I was expecting. It wasn’t bad by any means but it wasn’t quite what I was looking for either.
Robb tells the story of Paris though fictionalized moments in the lives of real people who lived in Paris over the course of its history. He dramatizes Napoleon’s first visit to the city and the story of the man who dreamt up the Catacombs to save Paris from sinkholes. He examines what was happening to Paris through the eyes of those who lived it. While very interesting, he was also assuming a level of understanding of Parisian history that I didn’t necessarily have. I lost an entire chapter because I didn’t known anything of a siege of Paris by Prussians or the resulting Commune (I still might have that wrong). I know more about it now but that’s because I googled it, not because Robb told me. He’s also an uneven fictional writer in my opinion. He’s much better when he stays more on the history side with some flowery language than when he goes full-on novelist. It was, I must admit, an ambitious and unique way to tell the history of the city but I don’t feel like I learned a ton about the city at the end. I should have started with something a bit simpler to get to know the City of Lights better. I’m sure I have a book like that on my list somewhere…
[Also, as an aside, I am an awful digital archivist in my private life. I don’t have any photographs of my 2003 trip to France digitized (they are mostly labeled and well preserved in acid-free boxes so I’m not a complete lost cause). I need to get a scanner for the apartment one of these days and tax refunds.]