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Readers sometimes ask authors what inspires them. With “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” my collection of thirty-one evergreen essays about Paris, the answer is straightforward—and convoluted.
Passion for the City of Light inspired me. I moved here fulltime 25 years ago and realized Paris was going to take over my life. I’d expected to write fiction. But I wound up earning a living translating, and broke into the magazine racket. My subject: Paris. There was so much to see, learn, taste, uncover. I spent my days walking the city’s streets, reading French history and literature, thinking about why Paris was so special, what made it the world’s favorite city, and how I could make it my own.
The essays in “Paris, Paris” took me a decade to write. Early versions appeared in magazines and newspapers. I chose the places, people and phenomena that captured the essence of the City of Light. The title tells all: Paris, Paris: because Paris is universal, yet it’s quintessentially French, the Paris in italics. The word pari (paris is the plural) also means wager, bet, challenge. Paris was my life’s challenge, a vocation.
Novelist and Paris resident Diane Johnson seems to me to get what the book is all about. In her foreword she writes, “… to walk out with [Paris, Paris] as [Downie] did and follow his path, is to have adventures, and to see a side of Paris anyone could see, but hardly anyone does.” That was my goal: to take a public city, discover its secrets, and share them with my readers. I was thrilled when Michael Ondaatje dubbed me “the master of educated curiosity,” and when travel-writing legend Jan Morris called the collection, “perhaps the most evocative American book about Paris since A Movable Feast.”
Had I been able to publish “Paris, Paris” a year after I arrived the book would have been different. In the 1980s my French wasn’t great: my background was in Italian. I struggled, and had few French friends. Parisians seemed disdainful. My take was that of an outsider looking into closed windows. Now I’m a dual national. I joust in French. The windows opened years ago. I see Paris from the inside. But I still enjoy stepping out and peering in.
Before Internet and globalized everything, many Parisians were unapologetically nationalistic. They’ve changed, sometimes for the better, forced to open up by mass immigration and the technological revolution. Paris, the city, has evolved, for better, and for worse. Much of the 20th and 11th arrondissements have been bulldozed since I arrived, and many lively, working-class neighborhoods have been denatured by gentrification. The food in Paris restaurants often seems tasteless or silly, yuppie food. But the air is less polluted, the sidewalks are cleaner, public transportation is better, and the natives may even be learning to smile and laugh at themselves. Maybe.
David Downie has lived in Paris since the 1980s and his features have appeared in magazines and newspapers worldwide. He’s the author of two thrillers and a dozen nonfiction books, including Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light. Please click on his name to read his profile or see his website for information about tours, signings and other projects.
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