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Paris Is ...Fact and Fantasy
Paris is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Not only that: it is perhaps the capital most talked about, most written about, most hyped, most dreamed about. A vacation spent there leaves indelible memories — whether of the clear spring light on the Seine, a gastronomic fantasy, an exhausting string of masterpieces at the Louvre, or an irascible waiter serving a tray of delectable oysters. Full of contrasts, thick with history, it is also a city on the move, looking to the future.
Parisians themselves remain a mystery. Their general love of the good things in life — food, sex, and fashion (not necessarily in that order) — is accompanied by a strong intellectual streak. TV programs regularly feature groups of writers chatting about their books, ideas, and projects, while newspapers contain long columns written by philosophers. This interest in abstraction spins off into conversations in which heated arguments are commonplace and a necessary part of any friendship. For some, such a strong emphasis on abstract thought stops action, or at least postpones it, and the business world suffers directly.
Defining a typical Parisian means taking into account not only the many provincials who flock to the city but also a traditional foreign influx, whether from Central Africa, North Africa, Vietnam, or Europe. Communities form rapidly, from the African, Arab, and Asian quarters in Belleville to the Chinese and Vietnamese in the 13th arrondissement. Racism is disturbingly well entrenched, particularly in some soulless suburbs bereft of social life and structure. In contrast, the prosperous andsacrosanct 16th arrondissement remains intact, with its breed of bourgeoisie sprinkled with the odd princess, sheikh, or retired Hollywood diva. In between the extremes lies the heart of the French business and social trends.
Paris Is ...Architecture
"Frenetic" is the only word to describe architectural activity in Paris over the last 20 years. Cranes groan on the horizon, while other machinery burrows away underground. Little remains untouched and, as a result, Paris has undergone a major facelift, with entire quartiers like Le Marais restored to their former gleaming glory and countless sheets of glass lovingly installed into the façades of Paris' new landmarks.
The key building is the Centre Pompidou, more commonly known as Beaubourg, completed in 1977 and already being renovated, which now attracts more visitors than the Eiffel Tower. Controversially high-tech, in marked contrast to the surrounding 18th- and 19th-century town houses, it set the tone for a new generation of architects and a new attitude toward public building.
Paris Is ...Fashion
Despite repeated offensives from Milan, New York, London, and Tokyo, Paris remains the uncontested center of fashion. With an arrogant, relentless hold on women's wardrobes worldwide, its high fashion dictates are unashamedly copied in countless sweatshops from Hong Kong to Taiwan to Paris itself. Haute couture may be having a hard time, but the new generation of prêt-à-porter designers is flourishing and keeping the tricolor flag flying. Fashion and its accessories are France's best ambassadors.
Paris quite simply breathes fashion. No central street is complete without its chic boutique and no woman rightfully self-assured without her designer accessory. Non-French designers, models, and photographers flock to Paris for essential training and, more than anything else, sensitizing to a general spirit of fashion awareness. It may be a cutthroat, backbiting business, but it is also glamorous andor outrageous: no self-respecting fashion professional can ignore it.
Paris Is ...Gourmets
Of all the countries in the world, France is the most closely associated with food, with gourmets and gourmandize. Food is a subject taken seriously, and has at least 15 national magazines devoted to it. Fortunes are spent on ingredients, let alone on restaurants. But food combines both science and pleasure, and so corresponds perfectly to the dual French psyche.
Although this "science" has been the nation's prerogative since the days of Rabelais, most French choose to forget that it was the dreaded Catherine de Médicis who brought chefs from Italy to introduce new dishes in the 16th century. But the advent and spread of public restaurants and cafés in Paris did not happen until the Revolutionary period. Before the Revolution, Paris boasted less than 2,000 cafés by the early 1800s, they had more than doubled in number. Ancien Régime cuisine was known for being elaborate, rich, and heavy, with diners often struggling through 20 courses. In 1783, the first grandiose dîner philosophique was launched, creating the link between literature and gastronomy that is so much a part of France.