I lived in four apartments in Paris, each with varying degrees of coolness. I lived in a chambre de bonne the size of a bathroom in the 16th, a tiny one-bedroom in the 7th shared between my boyfriend and his best friend, a charming studio in the shadow of Notre Dame, and a larger, more modern studio in the sleepy Paris suburb of Boulogne. I knew where each place fell on the grand, stressful chart of Parisian Chic, and more pressingly, how disappointed my American friends would be when they visited me. I knew exactly the image they had in their heads when they visited, most for the first time, and I knew that my apartment in Boulogne, for example, would be an enormous letdown. Situated between a mosque and a tiny shopping center with a massive grocery store, it was absolutely nothing like the Paris they had imagined, despite it being a very realistic portrayal of how many working Parisians live (if they want a modicum of square footage).
When I first started learning French, it was with the help of my Québécoise grandmother, who always spoke of her time in Paris with great nostalgia and reverence. Though the French were never kind to the Canadian accent, and she didn’t spend her time doing high-end shopping or eating at fine restaurants, she still painstakingly cut out and mailed me magazine stories about what to do in the city, which she had collected for me before I moved there. She still loved congratulating me on what she always called my “official Parisian accent,” so different from her own Canadian twang. She talked about her time in the Jardin du Luxembourg the way someone might talk about an old lover.
My grandmother had Paris Disease, as many of us still do—a disease that flared up again after the recent terrorist attack. In a much-quoted and typically lauded segment, John Oliver ranted:
If you’re in a war of culture and lifestyle with France, good fucking luck! Because go ahead, bring your bankrupt ideology; they’ll bring Jean-Paul Sartre, Edith Piaf, fine wine, Gauloises cigarettes, Camus, Camembert, madeleines, macarons, Marcel Proust, and the fucking croque-en-bouche. The croque-en-bouche! You’ve just brought a philosophy of rigorous self-abnegation to a pastry fight, my friends! You are fucked! That [croque-en-bouche] is a French freedom tower!”
I admit that I, too, first visited carrying some of this monolithic expectation. I hadn’t seen Amélie, but I’d watched enough perfume commercials and lusted after enough blogs with bistro-menu typeface to have those same images in my head. Though my rose-colored dreams were tinted by reality by the time I moved there, I still remember walking around on my first day at my new job in the posh, calm 16th arrondissement and marveling at how charming everything was. Shit, even their pharmacies looked like fairy tales, I thought.
I remember being intoxicated by the neighborhood, by the Paris-ness of it, so much so that the first time I was caught in the foot-traffic jam of the sortie of the Orthodox Jewish school down the street from my apartment, it felt like I suddenly was no longer in Paris. Nothing in the decade-plus of binge reading about Paris had ever led me to understand that there was a sizable Orthodox Jewish community in the city. Nor had it explained that, when I would go to the prefecture at Porte de Clignancourt to change my visa from student to worker, I would see the broad community of Maghrebins and West African immigrants that called the area home. I had learned nothing about the Northeast corner of the city, predominantly non-white and lower-income, where I took my initial language exams to enter French university. My first year as a working person in the City of Light was one of constant revelation, marked by all the things no one had ever told me about the city when talking about the excellent macarons, or the vibrantly quirky collage of incrementally-different white people.
“Pinterest Paris” is what I now think of all of those blogs and movies and commercials I consumed thoughtlessly, imagining that they were a real image of the city I longed to live in. It is comprised of clichés, of fromage and vin and those beloved pastel macarons, of perfect images of bakeries and smiling white people, everywhere. It is the endless articles about how to emulate the Parisian Woman (spoiler alert: be white, be thin, be rich, have good skin), it is pictures of the Eiffel Tower with text over it about living and loving. It’s Instagrams and blogs and books full of nothing but images of good bistro dinners and interesting fish mongers and cute dogs sitting on a café chair. Pinterest Paris turns the city into a caricature that plays to our most regressive interests, the Bergdorf Goodman of whiteness. It’s the version of the city that pushes it into being the most-touristed city in the world, at the expense of every Parisian who doesn’t fit that neat little mold.
When I moved from my comfortable studio in Boulogne to the much more cramped and dingy one in Notre Dame, more than one friend expressed excitement. “I have to come visit you now,” one said. “You’re not near that mosque anymore,” another noted. And I wasn’t. I wasn’t near the crowd that would gather every week after Friday prayer, children playing in the street and grown-ups chatting, drinking little coffees or reluctantly agreeing to buy the kids a pastry. I wasn’t next to the halal deli that had, hands-down, the best merguez I’d ever tried. I wasn’t in the shopping center where teenage boys would play soccer on the concrete, little messenger bags hitting their sides. I wasn’t there anymore, and everyone thought I was finally “back in Paris.”
But were those people not Paris? Those people who went to work everyday, who played in the streets, who ate good bread and sat by the Seine and joked with their friends that they would push each other in, were they not Parisians? Were they not as deserving of a perfectly-framed Instagram or an article about how to ape their style? Were the women whose hijabs were expertly matched to their nail color not deserving of their own Parisian Style reverence? For anyone who has lived in Paris, the style and life of the millions of immigrants and non-ethnically French are as much a part of what makes the city itself as any bourgeois white woman in Comptoir des Cottoniers. Pinterest Paris is as unrecognizable to the average Parisian as it is to someone who has never even visited.
And today, as much of the world wants us to look at French Culture as a monolithic thing that The Outsider is trying to destroy, it’s more important than ever to reject the shortcuts that this idea tends to entail. Those boring, repetitive articles and books about how to be sexier/thinner/more stylish like a Parisian woman represent a privileged few. Those movies and commercials that cut everything out but smiling, quirky white people have had to strategically remove half of the city. The trend pieces on what women are wearing in Paris that don’t include the hijab are dishonest and narrow. Parisian Culture is, and has for years, been constructed of a thousand cultures and languages. Its style has only benefitted from becoming more nuanced and diverse, and everyone who chooses to still represent Paris as this pre-war fantasyland of whiteness is willfully keeping the rest of Paris at its disenfranchised margins. If our Paris looks like a Dior commercial, it is to the disservice of everyone in the city who wouldn’t make it past an audition room for looking “too urban.”
Paris is not a manicured blog about being in the Land of Cheese and Croissants. It’s not a perfectly-styled shot of Ladurée, or yet another tedious book about all of the amazing little hidden cafés that you have to hear about. It’s not a bunch of white people with slightly varying features, all conveying the same monolithic national image. Paris is beautiful and rich in its difference – it is Orthodox Jewish schoolchildren and Senegalese restaurant owners and a whole arrondissement written in East Asian languages, and women laughing and riding the train while wearing the hijab. It is a place that any of us would be lucky to visit, let alone live in, and it has nothing to do with that poster of a poodle standing next to a lingerie shop. And the sooner we take down our cheesy posters and rid ourselves of Paris Disease, the better off everyone will be.
We should not be living in the Paris that my grandmother lived in. Because the Paris of today is so different, and so much better for it.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby
Chelsea Fagan is a writer, and the founder of thefinancialdiet.com. She lives in New York City.