Parisians, an Adventure History of Paris

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Books about France and books about Paris in particular abound. If you are looking for a classic tourist-oriented publication that will guide you to the monuments, museums and restaurants you shouldn’t miss in the French capital then do not buy this book. On the other hand, if you appreciate exceptionally brilliant writing and little known but often fascinating historical titbits about things that happened in the “City of Light” and to its residents from the French revolution to the present day, then British author Graham Robb’s “Parisians, an Adventure History of Paris” is for you. Robb, a researcher without equal, got fascinated and hooked on Paris and Parisians when, in his youth, his parents offered him a week’s paid stay in the city as a birthday present. Returning later for more visits, then to live and work there and walk its streets constantly, he never lost his probing curiosity about the city, its history and the lives of its citizens. Some of them such as guillotined Queen Marie Antoinette, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, and French Presidents François Mitterrand and Charles de Gaulle are well known. Much less so are the stories Robb tells about them: —How Marie Antoinette might have escaped the guillotine if she had known her own city better and hadn’t gotten lost and re-captured trying to escape her revolutionary executioners. —How Bonaparte, as a young military officer, lost his virginity with a Paris prostitute but described the adventure in a long-ignored diary entry that Robb uncovered. —How Mitterrand, his sights already set on a future try for the French presidency, went along with a badly organized fake attempt on his life that he could blame on his political adversaries and boost his presidential potential. —How World War II hero General Charles de Gaulle, later a French president himself, survived so many real assassination attempts that author Robb says he sometimes seemed like the always lucky guy who “happens to move just when the chimney falls from the roof or who bends to tie his shoelace when the custard pie is launched.” —Add to that how Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, although not a Parisian resident as such, personally organized a lightning-like but propaganda-motivated tour of the city and its tourist sites immediately after its 1940 fall to his German armies during World War II. That’s just a sampling because Robb ‘s tales all are written essentially in the style of mystery short stories. Usually they start off with descriptions of a location or an atmosphere or an unidentified character engaged in what initially appears to be—but turns out not to be—some mundane activity. They easily could be taken for fiction, really good fiction. But they are not. Although they are romanticized a bit to fit the story form, they are incredibly well-researched and documented—and essentially true. Even if you know something about the events or people involved (they are not just politicians; they include famous French writers, theatre figures, architects, photographers and even criminals). It’s extremely unlikely that you will know the intricate details about them that Robb unearths from long-ignored memoirs, correspondence and in some cases police records. He is so thorough that his simple summary of key Paris historical dates plus an index of the people and city streets mentioned in his story collection take up no less than 39 pages at the end of his book. Oddly enough, one of the best indicators of the multi-faceted sweep of Paris’ past and the collection of fascinating nuggets Robb unearths from it comes from his chronology of the city’s history. It starts in 4,500 b.c. with the first Neolithic settlements on parts of what is now modern-day Paris. Then it goes on through the ascension and passing of the French monarchy, various wars won and lost, the first gas lights on Paris streets (1829,) the first Paris railway station (1937,) the first Paris department stores (1950s,) the opening of Disneyland Paris (1992,) and on to the banning of smoking in cafés and restaurants (2008). You can’t get much more varied than that. When you’re finished, you won’t really understand Paris. Even Robb, who has published a number of books about French history and biographies of French authors, admits that no one does. But you’ll have a stock of varied anecdotes, impressions, insights and cocktail conversation starters concerning the city that will be hard to beat. Parisians, An Adventure History of Paris Graham RobbW.W. Norton & CompanyNew York & Londonwww.wwnorton.com Paris Shuttle is the leading provider of pre-bookable airport transfers in Paris. Book your airport transfer with Paris-Shuttle.com and save up to 30%. Please post your comments or questions and let them flow. Register HERE to do so if you need a Bonjour Paris user name and password.
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