In case you’re new here, I’m an American who once upon a decade ago, lived in Paris for a year whilst I completed a master’s degree. That year was one of the best and simultaneously most challenging years of my life. I loved the endless charm of the architecture, the smell of the flowers, the humor and good-naturedness of the people and of course, the amazing patisserie, but I also felt frequent pangs of loneliness and discontentment of being a young, small poisson in a major world capital.
After graduation, I returned home to the Midwest for what I assumed was to be a short amount of time before heading to my next international adventure. Life of course had other plans and I did very little traveling abroad over the following nine years, and none in the past five.
This past November, my family and I planned a somewhat spontaneous holiday trip back to Paris, which made my heart so very happy, but also brought an enormous amount of stress to my life. Absence had just made me fonder of the City of Lights and I spent the 5.5 weeks leading up to the trip being prematurely heartbroken that the pandemic might foil our plans at any moment. But against all COVID-19 odds, we landed in my favorite place on my birthday and checked into our AirBnb (supposedly the one-time home of one of Voltaire’s female relatives) for a nine-day touristic affair of visiting old favorites and checking new destinations off of our collective lists.
A few days into the trip, I picked up Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris, by Graham Robb in the gift shop of Les Catacombs, having emerged from the depths of the ancient mass grave of artistically stacked femurs and skulls. I was slightly winded from the 112-step climb, but definitely filled with a sense of adventure and the pulse of adrenaline.
The book stood out from the rest of the bone-covered paraphernalia, and a brief glance inside sealed the deal for me. I actually started reading Parisians that night and was a solid third of the way through its 436 pages by the time we landed back in the States. Of course, time got away from me once back in the “real world” and I didn’t pick the book back up until a week ago.
Each of the 20 chapters focuses on a different significant person, building, social movement or singular event spanning about 250 years of the city’s history. I found the book to be an easy and very interesting read. The stories felt like hidden gems, outlining backstories and providing character development for figures and movements that are often made to be one-dimensional in spark note histories. My small critique was that one chapter was written loosely as a screen play, which wasn’t terrible, but felt like an unnecessary anomaly and felt uncomfortable to read in comparison to the rest of Robb’s engaging writing style.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Parisians and will probably recommend it to everyone I ever meet who is minutely interested in Paris. However, I do recognize that my preexisting knowledge of the city, the language, and French authors, history and culture gave me a firm foundation for better appreciating the content. At one point in reading, I had the sense that Robb’s style was referential to both Hugo and Balzac (two of my favorite authors). A quick Google search indicating that the author wrote biographies on both contemporaries confirmed my suspicions. This book is not short on references to many other historical happenings that can be easily passed over as uninteresting footnotes, but really enhance the stories being told if understood.
This book may be for you if you also like: Paris, France; parisiens/parisiennes; historical anecdotes; Marie Antoinette; maps; Honoré de Balzac; Le Père Goriot; Victor Hugo; Les Misèrables; architecture; catacombs; le métro; Marcel Proust; Miles Davis; Juliette Gréco; Notre Dame; alchemy; Napoléon Bonaparte; city planning; Baron Haussmann; cycling; le marais; Charles de Gaulle (the aéroport or the person); politics; revoltions; Hôtel de Ville; urban legends… honestly I think there’s something for everyone in this book!