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Paris as Few See It,
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This review is from: Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light (Paperback)
David Downie's recent memoire on Paris is a diminutive delight, a series of "thought prose" on different and unusual aspects of La Ville Lumière. There are countless books following a similar approach, but Downie's stands out due to the unusual information and presentation of somewhat obscure and arcane information that he has collected over the decades in which he has lived near the Place des Vosges in the Marais district of Paris. The result is an insider's point of view of the city that is quite unlike other tourist books, and perhaps implies that those who might most greatly enjoy the book are those who have actually visited and explored the city to some extent. Without having experienced the city itself first hand, the information presented here is a bit decontextualized and a little abstract.
For those who have visited the city and even perhaps stayed or lived there for any length of time, Downie's book opens up a world of insights that is often hidden from common view. This makes it now possible to explain why Downie has selected the name, "Paris, Paris" for the text, where the second "Paris" is written in italics. Downie explains that the meaning of this structure indicates that there are two simultaneous, yet nevertheless distinct, "Parises," the first being the "Paris" that the typical English-speaking, non-French national sees and experiences, and the second (the "Paris" in italics) is the one that native Parisians and Frenchmen know, a reality removed from the more cursory visitors of the city.
Downie chooses an interesting example drawn from the Paris metro system to illustrate the title's metaphor. For anyone who has used metro line 14, the fully automated and state-of-the-art Parisian metro line, the sound of the automatic station announcement will come to mind. As we approach Chatelet Station, for example, the system announces "Chatelet" in a springy, almost stylish manner. As the train begins braking and stops at the station, the automatic system again states "Chatelet," but in a much more terse, low-key manner. This interesting announcement technique that all riders of metro line 14 have doubtless noticed (whether consciously or unconsciously), serves as a gentle reminder that there are two Parises, and few people ever get to know them both.
The book is composed of a series of short, targeted essays on a wide variety of locations, personages, and historical events related to the city. Each section runs only six to eight pages, which is a perfect length not only to convey the topic, but also for targeted reading day after day. The writing style is clear and engaging, and as mentioned before, filled with tidbits of information about the city that anyone interested in Paris would enjoy learning. We get to read about such famous "Parisians" as Coco Chanel, the engineer who is in charge of nighttime lighting for all of Paris, and a host of others in addition to interesting historical aspects of the city itself.
An enjoyable book with a memorable set of stories, anecdotes, and "mysteries" of the city, "Paris, Paris" is a welcome addition to any Parisphile's library.