In Traveler’s March issue, renowned travel writer and former Paris resident Taras Grescoe takes readers through the streets of authentic Paris, a city through the eyes of Parisians themselves. IT had the chance to grill Grescoe on his first Parisian encounter, his favorite little rue, and how those Frenchies are holding up under the new smoking ban.
I was bumming around Europe with a rapidly diminishing stock of travelers checks; Paris is where the last of them ran out. I ended up staying for four years, teaching English, living in four different arrondissements, and doing a great deal of walking.
Paris in the 1990s was a somewhat grittier place. Cigarettes cost ten francs a pack, less than two bucks at the time (now they’re five-plus euros), and people smoked everywhere—metro platforms, elevators, toilet stalls (they had convenient ashtrays set above the toilet paper rolls). There were still first-class cars on the metro (identical to second, but less crowded), and cell phones had not become the chief means of flirting and conducting a love affair.
In many ways, Paris has become greener since I lived there. Bicycles are everywhere, as are bike paths. There are far more pedestrian-only sectors, and vast new parks (like the one at Bercy). But Paris is still Paris, and there are still passages, museums, and café-tabacs I’d like to discover. I wouldn’t mind running out of money and getting stranded there all over again.
In Authentic Paris, your friend Hélène Lurçat says that, “Parisians still shop in it [Paris] like it’s a village.” What is your personal favorite petite slice of Parisian “village” life?
I always make a beeline for the Rue Montorgueil in the second arrondissement. It’s a pedestrian street near the former site of Les Halles food market, and it’s full of fishmongers, cheese shops, bakeries, pastry shops. I grab a seat at a café terrace some time before noon (if I can find one—competition can be fierce) and watch the parade: check out which pattern of scarf everybody seems to be wearing this year, which breed of dog is fashionable.
What is your favorite free Parisian activity?
Walking. Especially on a rainy day, I like the challenge of interlacing the series of covered pedestrian arcades on the Right Bank, window-shopping for embossed visiting cards, movie posters, canes, wooden toys…
Describe your Paris in three words. Seriously.
Fluctuat nec mergitur. Or maybe: C’est pas possible. (Delivered spit-fire fast, in response to a completely reasonable request.)
And now, for a bit more on general, modern-day Parisian culture…
We are itching to know how you feel about the Voiturelib’ program, the motorized version of the bike-sharing system mentioned in Authentic Paris, that mayor Bertrand Delanoë recently proposed.
It’s not a bad idea. I participate in a similar program in Montreal called Communauto. They’ve got hundreds of parking lots around town, and once or twice a month, when I absolutely have to go to the suburbs, I pick up a car from a lot about three blocks from my house.
With that said, I think Paris should take a page from London and charge a congestion fee for entering the downtown. Paris intra-muros is highly compact—you could walk across it in less than three hours (at 4
in the morning, when there are no cars and it’s heaven).
In a word, Paris doesn’t need more cars—even if they happen to be communal ones. It needs far fewer cars, and far more bikes and buses. Its metro system, ridden by everybody, is already fantastic.
How would you describe the general consensus among Parisians regarding the new smoke-free atmosphere?
I thought the worldwide smoking ban would have its Waterloo in Paris. But apparently, and to my great shock, they’re obeying the law. Which makes it official: Now I’ve seen everything. If the Japanese quit, we should all start watching the skies for squadrons of flying pigs.
Do you think these changes have more to do with catering to tourists than appeasing les vrais Parisiens?
No. Parisians tolerate tourists, but they don’t let them set social policy. The greening of the city, bicycles, and even the smoking ban are signs of genuine societal changes.
With that said, there’s a deep dirty part of my old soul that misses the insalubrious Ancien Régime…
Photo: Taras Grescoe poses with a bust of his namesake, Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, in Paris' sixth arrondissement. Contributed by Taras Grescoe