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Nostalgia For Paris

Paris, France

 A city like Paris never stands still. The dollar may be down, but America is up. France prides itself on its exquisite culture--especially in comparison with ours--but American technology and American ways are spreading throughout the world, even here. People in Paris see an easier lifestyle, and the young in particular are ready for a change. Despite their severe criticism of the United States, that’s where many want to go.
McDonald’s and Starbucks are thriving and multiplying all over Paris. The first McDonald’s (pronounced McDoze) opened in 1971, the first Starbucks in 2004. The risk was even greater for Starbucks because French and American political relations at that time were not friendly. And, despite reputed French antipathy toward fast food and American lifestyle, both firms have been prospering. Starbucks was wise enough to hire the Gaston Lenotre to cater their croissants and pain au chocolat, and the price is right. With the sacred French two-hour lunch disappearing, McDonald’s offers a hearty, fast meal at any hour of the day. To top it all off, both chains rent wee-fee (our wi-fi) time in their comfortable leather chairs. Café life--the holy symbol of Paris--has a new kind of competition.

The biggest change is the ban on smoking in public places, announced by former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin in October 2006. When America led the way, France smiled condescendingly at our Puritan ways. Only the Americans. It can’t happen here. A café without smoking is not a café. Cafés will go out of business. People will stay home and watch television. The culture of France was at stake. Today, France’s public interiors are smoke-free. To be sure, cafés and restaurants were slow to respond and were given an extension until January 2008. But that was it. And the ruling has worked. Today, the French are as strict as we are. No smoking inside any building. The streets outside offices, schools, banks, stores, in all weather, are dotted with smokers seeking a haven, a quick puff. Butts are more common on sidewalks than dog droppings, and that takes doing.

Last night at a restaurant, someone lit up and the people at the next table complained loudly and immediately. I remember when the ban first started: People smoked right under the “No Smoking” signs, and the waiters felt they could not ask them to stop. Guess who’s asking them to stop now? Uncle Sam. At one café, I recently saw a poster featuring a picture of him and a summons. Not one that says, “Uncle Sam wants you to join the army.” Instead he points his finger at you and says, “I want YOU to put out that cigarette!” So how American can you get?

On one taxi ride I noted the following signs in English: Office Depot, Euro Fried Chicken, Manpower, Real Estate, Shoes, Utensils. At the beauty parlor, I got a brushing, and could also use their gym with “Coaching for the Stars” by Le Manager de Fitness. The new small car is called the Smart Car. I took a short walk today and added to the list of Americanisms: Provincetown, Revolutiontime, Vintage, Eleven, American Retro, and finally and ironically, Amnesia. One can only conclude that, given the French pride in their language, such borrowing says something about American influence and prestige, whether they admit it or not. It’s becoming chic to be American.

All cities change, which is what makes history. But the new American fetish is just one sign that the romantically conservative Parisians will not stand still. Look at the drastic change in the nature of the Jewish street, the Rue des Rosiers, in the last five years. When Philippe Auguste banned Jews in the thirteenth century, they left the area around Notre Dame and planted themselves just outside the city walls on the Rue des Rosiers. The area was covered with wild roses, which gave the street its name. It became the first stop for Jewish immigrants in the early 1900s, Jewish refugees in the ’30s, and Sephardim from Algeria and Tunisia in the ’60s. But that long Jewish presence may soon be coming to an end.

Why the change now? Rosiers is allowed to be open on Sunday because it is closed on Saturday for the Jewish Sabbath. The merchants on the parallel street, Francs-Bourgeois, then requested permission of the city to do the same, since it was so close nearby. It also has historical monuments, which brings special privileges. Permission granted. Then that chic, mobbed street, especially on Sunday, spilled over to Rosiers, where the new high-end boutiques are even more elegant. The street is still special enough. One or two tour groups or bicycle groups go through every hour. Where else do Orthodox Jews jostle with high fashion?

But I would figure that 75 percent of the Jewish shops are now gone. The kosher butcher’s wife told me that she gets requests for sale of the premises almost daily. Most Jewish storekeepers have sold out and retired. After a recent bagel and lox breakfast, I did a count: nine Jewish food stores (one butcher, two bakers, three delis, three falafel places), two Jewish religious objects shops, and one small bookstore. The larger and more important bookstore left last month. Goldenberg, the Jewish restaurant that was on every Jewish tourist's must-see list, has been empty for more than a year. “Cest la fin,” said the butcher’s wife. In contrast, there are 32 fashion stores: clothes, shoes, bags, and jewelry. Nine stores are empty and waiting for another chic entry.

The monuments, the museums, the gourmet food, the beauty of Paris still reign supreme. But there have been changes and these are still going on, so you must go back from time to time, if only to keep up. Just bring a lot of money, because prices are very high.

Sonia Landes is the author of Pariswalks, (with Alison and Rebecca Landes). The first two editions (1975 and 1979) were published by The New Republic.

By Sonia Landes