cakes, prose, woes -- the photos, food & thoughts of a french-speaking seattle-native in brazil

In the end, you're just happy you were there—with your eyes open—and lived to see it. -AB
In the end, you're just happy you were there—with your eyes open—and lived to see it.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Boulevard Haussmann--What Lies beyond Lafayette Does Anyone Know?

Meet the Baron. such heavy boots
It is not folly of cliché to dub repetitively Paris the shopping capital of the world, as it is a truth. Not in reference to haute couture is this idiom made, but rather in general to the inexhaustible French ability of consumer purchasing prowess. What justification, you may rightly ask, is there to cast such an invective upon the culture of refinery--and by an Americaine no less--well it is this: I see Americans everywhere. But they are not Americans. No. They are the French, the British, the German, the Japanese, the Spanish, the Mexican--yet, according to the world's definitions, they should all be Americans. I have never kept secret my embarrassment at being an American born with the worldly isms of capital and consumer, and the sins of self and greed--but it is not an American burden to bear alone as the world wishes all to believe. Whether the thousands who pack the shopping galleries and city side-walks are Parisian or not--the city of Paris is a never sleeping consumer capital.

January: the time of the soldes (sales) where just as in America, the concept of a just passed holiday season of gift-giving is completely forgotten by the flashing beacons of scandalous savings for all the things you wished people would have bought for you. Do not mistake me for a hypocritical wanna-be Ghandi follower, I am not. I own possessions, more possessions that I should, and I possess that lust for their acquirement. Walking the Parisian streets it is impossible to not see an object of temptation--shoes, pearls, cookbooks, that bathrobe (that yes I did buy and no I do not have money), bracelets, perfume, small matching espresso cups that according to George Clooney are absolute kitchen necessities--I love shopping, who, in honesty and truthfulness does not secretly love prancing around in front of the mirror in the new dress just purchased with the months grocery money--Stacy and Clinton, you know I am faithfully yours. though, today on an errand in search of a small chocolate shop to be reported on in this very blog, I had no honest desire running through my veins to buy, try, or even look at anything--every block, every corner, every alley--a shop. A sale. Is there ever rest? Is there anything else in Paris aside from shopping?

SOLDES SOLDES SOLDES. A sudden desire to knock the key from the gloved hand of the valet at the entrance of Chanel and bark at the Mercedes owner to get a life is overcome only when realized that if i had the means, I too would be squandering listlessly inside the uptight boutiques. The store tables of the lower bourgeois class are quagmires of disheveled piles of wrinkled silks and satins, the aftermath of the blitzkreig performed by the expert sniper shoppers. Shopping cards...that woman bought the same shirt bought in three different colors...I am embarrased. Walking quickly i dislodge every last centiem jingling in my coat pocket to the nearest street beggar--too ashamed to even make eye contact as she utters her thankfulness, and even more ashamed later when i remorse over the loss of the days laundry money. I refuse to believe that Paris can proffer only Shopping and food. There must be something more. There must. Parks yes, oh so many museums, but what else is Paris? Why is this Paris? What happened to the old romantic Paris? It is in reality no secret, it is called progress and western culture. But, it is much more romantic to blame it on a historical event, and so I give you the story of the Baron who burned Paris.

It is utmost fitting that the Galleries Lafayette lie on Boulevard Haussmann, as well as many of the other main shopping arteries of Paris including the Champs Elysees, boulevard de la Madeline, des Capucines, l'Opera, and perhaps every single other street in the city. "Baron" Georges Eugene Haussmann, Paris' "great modernizer" viewed alternately as either the great builder or the villainous destroyer of la vrai Paris began renovations in the early 1860's under the request of Napoleon III to transform Paris into a more "safe" and "clean" city. Ultimately, what this implied, like most political decrees of a central government for the "benefit of the citizens" was in reality intended to create a more uniformly structured layout with wider boulevards to make rebellious blockading more difficult and troop mobilization easier with central links to the grand train stations (note where the 4 grands are eh? l'Est, Nord, St. Lazare, Austerlitz--all are flanked by wide sprawling boulevards with critical links to the direct-most channels across the city.) The Haussmann buildings that define the Paris of today with their uniform height and identical shape replaced nearly every previous living space. Smaller lanes and streets were combined to create the symmetrical systems of boulevards that connect to main circles, places (i.e. Place de Clichy, Place Victor Hugo, Place de la Concorde, Place de la Bastille, etc.)

Medieval political Paris was wiped, and replaced by the whimsical commercial and social Paris of today. Paris' nineteenth century renaissance bloomed in a period of a new prosperity for a new social class--the rising bourgeoisie who were rapidly replacing the dying aristocracy. The luxuries of the new "upper middle class" were thus centrally affixed in the cities creation--no different from the city beautiful movements of first Chicago and then New York in the United States (Dr. D if only you read my blog, this bits for you) the cities were designed for leisure and uniformity; in the US to alleviate a time of social unrest and in France for a recovery from (and hopeful prevention of ) civil protest. Was Paris lost in its renovation? Does it matter? Are there those now, aside from historians, who know that the Paris of the past, of the days of revolution, philosophy, and politics was a completely different Paris from that of today? Does it matter? There was nothing in Chicago to lose other than the smell of bad sewage, but in Paris, perhaps, was lost something more.

Let us then blame Haussmann for man's greed. Or perhaps better, let us just be thankful for what we have. After all, there is no better selection of fine leather purses than in Paris, and 75% off really is quite the bargain. The rat terrier inside the boot boutique--I know why we shop. Olivia would look stunning with that black diamond collar of the same design. This is France. This is Paris. In search for other than shop, I find thought. And Haussmann, thank you for the park bench that allowed me the finishing of my novel. Capitalism, commercialism--these are things shared by many. While wrongly placed on the shoulders of Americans alone, it is undoubtedly as French a trait as it is American. But, I do not see it as an unforgiving fault. This world is become small, smaller than any could have predicted. Walking the shopping streets I see an American Café and smile; "The American Dream Café" sidewalk signs held by Mexican caricatures waving around tacos. Yes, the American dream, France touché, who knew you could be so cheeky.

The western West may be dubbed the material bastards of globalization--but secretly coveted in 32 Starbucks and 84% of the playing films is the fact incognito yet known to all--France, we all know Sarko's not the only Frenchie wearing the Yankee hat around town, though, any hat bought in Paris would be twice the price. Oh how you spleen me. But eh, vive la France!

A bientôt

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