According to Merriam Webster, nostalgia is “pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again.” If I had to make an (admittedly sweeping) generalization about the chefs that I’ve worked with in French restaurants here, nostalgic would be a good word to describe them.
A confusing place
Maybe the world was a less confusing place for chefs, way back before “foreign” ingredients started flooding the menus. I actually worked with a chef, albeit in the provinces (which basically means any place in France but Paris), who asked me one day what this funny thing was the new owner wanted to put on the menu. He began spelling the mysterious word: “M-O-Z-Z-A….”
Did he really mean mozzarella? He did really mean it, because he’d never heard of it. I wondered if he’d heard of that new-fangled invention called sliced bread? In any case, for him, I guess things really were better “before” because he didn’t have to pronounce foreign words.
A lot of Parisians say that Paris was better before, too, but I beg to differ. One person who agrees with me is illustrator, architect, and occasional tour guide Sonja. I met her last summer, and was instantly drawn to her ebullient personality and the bright, contemporary fabric-covered beads that hung around her neck.
Sonja comes from Novi Sad, the second largest city in Serbia. She studied architecture and urban renewal there and in Paris, and during her studies, she was always drawing. Even today, anything she wants to remember, she simply draws: maps, quotes, and especially recipes – drawing the steps is how she remembers how to make the recipe.
A nationwide pastime
One thing I like about Sonja is that she loves Paris for the city it is today. Whereas some Parisians like to grumble (it’s a citywide, or maybe even a nationwide, pastime), Sonja says she’s never grumpy about living in Paris – she accepts the city for what it is. As she explained to me, she’s a guest here, and has respect for the culture that is embracing her. Well said!
And anyway, was it really better before? Sonja should know something about that, since she studied urban renewal in one of the most “renewed” cities on earth, right here in Paris. Starting in 1850, Georges Eugène Haussmann – better known as Baron Haussmann – began the city’s transformation from medieval to modern.
The upper sidewalk
It’s hard to imagine now, but before Haussmann’s intervention, Paris was a dark, smelly slum of a city that looked pretty much like it did in the Middle Ages. There was no sewer system, so people emptied their business straight out the windows. Have you ever walked next to an old-fashioned person who insisted that the lady walk on the “upper” sidewalk, closest to the shop windows? This habit is a holdover from the tradition of the lady, or an important person in general, taking the haut du trottoir, so s/he wouldn’t get rained on by an indiscreet person emptying their pot de chambre above her.
So Parisians threw their waste and all kinds of trash into the streets. When I see the papers people throw on the ground nowadays, I have to wonder if things really have changed, but I bite my tongue instead of yelling “litterbug!” But maybe that’s just because there’s no word for litterbug in French.
Mr. Trash Can
But that’s nothing compared to back in the mid-19th century, when a lot of Parisians were ill with tuberculosis and cholera. Hygienist theories were the order of the day, and all sorts of people were working to make Parisians healthier. In 1883 Monsieur Poubelle passed a law that required trash removal, with 3 different types of cans for different materials – the first tri sélectif, or recycling! Francophones will recognize that Poubelle gave his name to the French word for trash can.
Haussmann destroyed entire blocks of buildings in the central parts of the city to open it up and make way for the wide, tree-lined avenues you see all around Paris nowadays. Haussmann’s vision for a new Paris was so all-encompassing, he even demolished his own family’s home during the renovation! But if you’ve ever taken advantage of the gorgeous parks in Paris, you have Haussmann to thank for most of that greenery, including the famous Buttes Chaumont park here in eastern Paris.
Haussmann’s goal was to help Paris breathe, both literally and figuratively. He built the most famous dwellings in Paris, appropriately called Haussmann-era buildings, with their clean white stone and central courtyards, which would get plenty of air and light into apartments to promote better health for its residents.
Some historians have claimed that the renovation was also meant to chase out of Paris the working class, those same folks who were fomenting revolution and uprisings in 1830 and 1848 (after the famous 1789 French Revolution, of course). With 18,000 houses and buildings demolished between 1852 and 1868, you can bet that a lot of those working-class folks left central Paris for the edges of the city.
And that’s still going on: Parisians like to talk about la ville musée, about how Paris is being turned into a museum, while working-class people and immigrants are being pushed out. One immigrant population that settled in Paris in the 20th century? The Serbs.
My first roommate here in Paris had a French mother and a Serbian father. In the late 1960s, nearly a million Yugoslavs left their country, now the six separate republics of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Montenegro. A lot of Serbs specifically settled in the 20th district, although one of their main cultural centers is the Saint Sava church in the Marais.
On Sundays, my roommate’s father, who lived nearby, would gather with his buddies at the local café. Just outside, in the rue Pelleport, they’d drink beer on the sidewalk and discuss the car being repaired in front of the café. Each one would take a look under the hood, make a comment, and the others would discuss – rather heatedly, if you ask me – in Serbo-Croatian. But what did I know?
But…. Back to present-day Paris, which is alive as it was when I arrived in 1995. Was it different then? Yes, definitely. Was it better? Heck no! Sonja is living proof. People have been immigrating in and out of Paris for centuries, and we are all part of the current “social fabric,” the one that urban renewal folks study when drawing up plans for any city with a past.
Carbonara for breakfast
So what does Sonja like about living in Paris in 2015? She loves the clash between cheap and expensive, poor and rich, this and that culture. Sonja is sometimes in a panic about how she’ll fit in the 7 different exhibits she wants to see, in between work and her other activities. Much of her inspiration comes from the street, her wanderings, maps, and food; you can see her illustrations on Carbonara for Breakfast. But she also gleans plenty of inspiration from those exhibits.
So even though, like Sonja, I’m in love with Paris, and that includes the past, it wasn’t better “before.” The fascinating history of Paris, including its renovations, its immigrants, and the little-known parts of the city, which you can discover on my Walking tour of Belleville in eastern Paris, make up the vibrant present.