Paris, Paris: Journey Into the City of Light


Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light by David Downie, Photographs by Alison Harris. Transatlantic Press.2005. 248 Pages. www.transatlanticpress.com
Paris is a miraculous city. Of all the words that have been written about this French capital, you’d think that, like oil, the supply would simply dry up, but it never does.

When I first came to Paris, I left after two days, realizing that if I didn’t speak French, I’d never have the slightest inkling of this city’s secrets. The second time, when I was barely an adult, I returned to Paris. I was too wrapped up in my romantic illusions of Paris as the backdrop for finding the ‘man of my dreams’ so I was certain to fail in becoming acquainted with this city which demands one’s total and undivided attention.
Fast forward to 2005. I’ve just finished reading David Downie’s Paris: Journey Into the City of Light, a collection of thirty essays which delve into specific neighborhoods, lifestyles, history and highlights several illustrious Parisian residents, some universally famous like Coco Chanel, and artists like Gustave Moreau who may not have their entire life’s work imprinted on t-shirts and coffee mugs.
Downie’s detective-like exploration of everything from lamplights and street posts to his own Parisian apartment house basement reminds us lazy residents of this city of infinite inspiration – that the best way to understand Paris is CONSTANT VIGILANCE coupled with SOLID RESEARCH and INSATIABLE CURIOSITY.
Every moment and every locale is rife with unfolding history and drama. Only the persistent reporter/detective/scientist/philosopher/romantic can begin to mine Paris’s treasures.
Here, David Dwonie proves his metal. He doesn’t just browse the bookstands along the Seine. He takes time, days, weeks, probably years to acquaint himself with the booksellers, their quirks and their specialties. Ever relentless, he proceeds to the Seine and rather than paint a pretty picture with words, he finagles his way into the seemingly closed world of the Seine’s boat people.
Even if you fancy yourself something of an old hand around Paris. Paris, Paris may humble you. Downie shares with Sarah Turnbull (‘Almost French’) the talent for deciphering the neighborhood. And Paris is all about neighborhood. Because Downie’s ‘hood’ is the Marais within bridge-hopping distance from Ile de la Cite, these are two arrondissements with which he lavishes his deft brushwork.
But Downie offers an added dimension. He has a facility for bridging not only arrondissements but also gingerly shifting backwards and forwards along Paris’s historical timeline like a fearless time traveler. From chapter to chapter you never know into which era he may catapult you. You could find yourself alongside Beaumarchais zipping rhough the Marais in his gilded carriage or you could be a horrified observer at the jousting tournament at Place des Vosges (before it was even called Place Royale or Place des Vosges )when an unfortunate Scottish guardsmen accidentally thrust the fatal blow to Henry II, the French king and Catherine de Medici’s husband. You’d soon discover that Paris’s medieval streets had no walkways for pedestrians and that the Seine didn’t smell so great.
“I didn’t want to write a ‘dumbed-down’ description of Paris,” says David during a recent chat.
David, you ‘ve simply reminded some of us ‘resident tourists’ how deaf, dumb and blind to our surroundings we can be when we let ourselves get lazy – so GET SMART! Get the book.

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