How Paris Became Paris

Every now and then, Paris Syndrome pops up in the media. It’s a psychological state of near (or total) hysteria, apparently brought on by tourists expecting Paris to be all poodles and pastries. From Wikipedia:

The susceptibility of Japanese people may be linked to the popularity of Paris in Japanese culture, notably the idealized image of Paris prevalent in Japanese advertising […] Japanese media, magazines in particular, often depict Paris as a place where most people on the street look like fashion models and most women dress in high-fashion brands.

It seems to me that anyone with the wherewithal to fly to another continent for a vacation would have brushed up a bit on what to expect upon arrival. Still, the fantasy of Paris as the ne plus ultra of style, architecture and café society remains. In fact, that reputation for romance and sophistication is why French continues to be a popular second language choice for students, even though Chinese, Portuguese or Spanish might serve them better career-wise. The myth of Paris serves as an ongoing public relations campaign for the French language. And ask yourself: Who doesn’t swoon when you tell them you are headed to the City of Light?

How exactly did that myth get built? The new book How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City breaks it down in a thoroughly enjoyable read. Author Joan DeJean plops you into Paris of the 1600s (mainly). Two color prints in the book telegraph the extent of transformation in Paris, from marshy outback to the most sophisticated city in Europe. In about 1600, King Henry IV is pictured on a verdant bank of the Seine. Most of the city in the background is green and undeveloped. However, a detail from another painting, from 1640, barely resembles the king’s portrait (the image above is from 1657, but you get the idea). Here we see not only both banks of the city crowded with housing, but also the newly developed Ile St. Louis, which was designed with grid-like straight streets out of chic, pale pierre de taille—and inhabited by new breeds of Parisians: real estate developers and financiers.

This book makes Paris make sense. Why do Parisians will make out on benches in parks? Maybe because the Tuileries were the first public garden in Europe where women were perfectly free to roam around unescorted by men. Naturally, it became a place for flirting. Why are Paris stores so emulated by the rest of the retail world? Maybe because this is where indoor retail for luxury items was born (previously, merchants went to the homes of their wealthy customers). How has Paris, despite its majority of jeans-clad residents, maintained a rep as the fashion capital of the world? This was where the first fashion magazine was published, spreading Gallic fashion to other countries via the newly invented fashion plate. And finally, why are the words boulevardier and flaneur known worldwide, making Paris synonymous with round-the-clock café culture? The city’s streetlights—again, a first for a European city—made it possible for people to stay out late at night without fear of thieves.

How Paris Became Paris takes a holistic view of the city, offering not just dates and decrees, but illustrating social trends via the theatrical plays and expressions that came into vogue to illustrate them (think nouveau riche). The book gives you more than ideas on how the city went from armpit to world capital. It explains a lot about Paris of today—both the real thing, and the fantasy that can lead some people to literally freak out.

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