With my French teacher, Monsieur Michel Martin, I often have enriching conversations about culture and life in general. I wondered if he would like to give me an interview on Parisian life and people since he is a quintessential Parisian in my view and our readers would enjoy knowing how the locals think and feel about this enchanting city and its various shades. He kindly agreed…
How long have you lived in Paris and how many generations of your family?
I was born in Paris, my parents as well as grandparents from mother’s side, so 3 generations.
In your view what are the three things that best define a true Parisian?
I would say elegance and good taste in clothes, not necessarily big brands but making an effort to be well dressed in everyday life. The other thing is attention to food, the ingredients, freshness of product, not the quantity but the quality. Even a few decades ago, for the common man it was all about eating a lot, eat to survive but since the last 20 years our attitude to food has changed. We don’t just want a sandwich; we want a good quality sandwich. It is no longer the rich that eat well; it’s a way of life for all.
For a Parisian, what makes the city special, what do you like or dislike?
I love that it is a city of culture; there are so many theatres, cinemas, exhibitions. I have fond memories of my childhood going to the cinema with my parents. More than sports, it is art that has more popularity still. Also, I love that Paris is a great city for walking, with many districts, and bridges. On the other hand, I dislike that Paris is not a very clean city. There is a strange smell in the metros, people care less and litter freely. It is not a question of the administration as the facilities are there but the attitude. Also I very much detest the pollution in Paris, just the other day we ranked as one of the most polluted cities in the world on the news.
Have you noticed any changes in Parisian life and culture in the last couple of decades?
Yes, the population demographic has definitely changed. It is becoming more mixed today, more open to foreigners. There is a huge middle class today. However, people are also becoming more individualistic, more alienated from each other. My grandparents knew everyone in their neighbourhood and even town but today, people hardly know their neighbours. Neighbourhoods are no longer a small village.
What would you say are the main differences between Parisians and French people in the rest of the country?
Paris is really the big city with everything, big schools, and career opportunities. It has been this way for centuries, whatever happens happens in Paris and we say ‘Paris and the Province’, meaning Paris and the rest of the countryside. Non-Parisians on the other hand feel that Parisians are arrogant and conceited. Even in history, in the 2nd world war we speak of the liberation of Paris and not France. In the early 20th century, Paris was the favourite of intellectuals and artists who would all come to stay and work in Paris from all over the world like the early Cubists, Hemingway and the Fitzgerald’s. After the 50’s, this trend moved more to the US.
How has the culture changed, do people still appreciate fine arts, theatre, cinema like in the old days?
I think today the young generation do not have the same attitude. When I was young we learnt the piano, violin, classical music, went to the ballet, classical concerts with our parents but now it is mostly the older generation that can be seen in ballet or classical music shows. Also, reading as a hobby is disappearing fast. Unlike our times when we read the newspaper together, spoke of the news, talked of new artists and intellectuals, listened to them on the radio or TV, even met many in cafés; today parents and children do not have many discussions or conversations about art.
Paris is today also known for its thriving business district-La Défense. Do you remember reactions of Parisians when it was being built?
The idea of La Défense came up in the 50’s, the choice was to modernise or stick with tradition-old vs new. We decided to experiment with NY style high rises in La Défense, new buildings and gardens and perhaps extend the same concept to modernise the whole city over time. But, people protested when Tour Montparnasse was being built in Paris and the idea to expand was dropped and applied to the suburbs instead. Paris was retained with its old nostalgia.
Can you share with me a secret that only Parisians know?
Le Buttes Aux Cailles an area in the 13th with small authentic French restaurants old houses and streets with yesteryear charm with names like ‘Rue de Cinqdiamant’ is something to discover.
What movie, song or book best captures the spirit of the Parisian life?
Movie-Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Book- Hemingway’s ‘Paris estune fêtes’ and Josephine Bakers song ‘J’aideux amours’.