Paris, Paris and the Nostalgia Business

Yesterday was a perfect “Paris, Paris” day. We spent a cozy Tuesday afternoon with Adrian Leeds’ informal group of chummy Paris-lovers at the friendly corner café-restaurant La Pierre du Marais, talking about many things but especially Paris and what I call “the nostalgia business.”

How many of you miss Paris when you’re not here? What do you miss about it? How many of you miss the Pompidou Center, or the Cité de la Musique or the Montparnasse Tower? The hyper-contemporary fashion shows, the public art created yesterday?

When I asked a similarly phrased, playfully provocative question no hands went up. Because what people miss when they’re not in Paris is the “atmosphere”, the “mystique”, the “culture”, the “art and architecture”, the “beauty” of the city and its “ancient history” (this last one may be over-reaching, because there isn’t a whole lot of ancient anything left in Paris)…

People miss the many things that make Paris, Paris – those quintessential elements of the cityscape, its history, culture and yes, even its people, they pine for Paris, they dream of the food, the wine, the chocolate, the romantic walks in parks like the Luxembourg or along the banks of the Seine. Paris induces instant nostalgia.

Nostalgia is a big business: Paris thrives on many things – France is one of the richest, most dynamic countries in the world and that’s not news to anyone. One of those things is the past, the cultural heritage, the townhouses, monuments, churches and more that date back centuries. Most people I know enjoy baguettes especially those made à l’ancienne—in the old-fashioned way, whatever that means (since baguettes are from the 1920s).

People love turn-of-the-century restaurants with brass railings and plasterwork putti. Some people go wild for the merry-go-rounds, the accordions, the street furniture from the 1800s—or they prefer the wilder days of the 1920s, the philosophical days of the 1950s… and then what? Pompidou? Do you pine for Pompidou, Giscard d’Estaing, Mitterrand, Chirac, or Sarkozy and their recent-to-contemporary world?

My informal talk and reading from Paris, Paris covered much of the above, and more. Because, as I ask in my essay “The Janus City, or, Why the Year 1900 Lives On”:
Why were locals and visitors obsessed with 1900 and the Belle Époque? The answer was easy: because many Parisians are still living in the period.

Now I want you to know that I don’t listen to Radio Nostalgie (yes, it exists and is extremely popular).

I don’t go wild for old-fashioned baguettes, and most of the things that stimulate the nostalgia gene in other people leave me quizzical. I’m just not a nostalgic person. But here’s something for me to be nostalgic for: a time when I had a full head of hair and good vision!

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