We look forward to welcoming David Downie to the Library on Wednesday 16 November at 19h30 as a part of our discussion of Paris on the Page. David is an American author and journalist who divides his time between France and Italy. He has been writing about the City of Light for two decades. His books include Food Wine Burgundy, Quiet Corners of Rome, Paris City of Night, and Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light. Here, he writes about being an accidental Parisian.
People often ask why the second “Paris” in the title of Paris, Paris is italicized. For one thing the italics reflect the French pronunciation of the city’s name, as perceived by an English speaker. They also signal my underlying quest: a voyage of discovery into the other Paris, the Paris of Parisians dead or alive, the Paris of dreams, the Paris of the past, the Paris lying beneath our feet, often unseen and unsung.
“Underfoot” in Paris, Paris might mean not only the subterranean city of catacombs, sewers, and other celebrated sights. It could mean the sidewalks and street-paving we and most Parisians take for granted, and what those trodden pieces of infrastructure contribute to making Paris uniquely Paris.
Paris, italicized again, happens to be the plural of pari, a wager or bet, as in pari-mutuel. Paris, the city of light became my personal pari a quarter century ago.
As to the nuts and bolts of building Paris, Paris the book is the unexpected offspring of two decades’ worth of exploring and reporting.
Rewind to the fall of 1985. That’s when I rented a maid’s room in the 17th arrondissement, determined to write the great Italo-Franco-American novel before returning to Italy, where I’d been living, or San Francisco, my home town.
In spring 1986 I shoe-horned myself into my unheated, un-gentrified garret, giving myself a year to improve my French and finish the job I’d started. Somehow 25 springs have come and gone. I still haven’t finished that novel, in theory a literary work of fiction. But I have written many humble articles and several books, including two crime novels, about this unendingly surprising city.
So, what’s the book about? Each chapter distills something that seemed to me essential about the cityscape, the people and the phenomena associated—by me—with Paris. Each also says something about a given period in the life of the author. More than one reader has remarked that Paris, Paris is a reflected, refracted self-portrait. Paris is in the foreground; I’m there for scale, a figure in the landscape.
Just as I’m an “accidental Parisian” this is an “accidental book.” Try confining a young (at the time) athletic man for days at a time in a cupboard-sized maid’s room with no window, no heat, no shower, no nothing. I was authentically broke back then. My chambre de bonne came equipped with a little skylight called a vas-is-das, way up at the top of a shaft. Raising the vas-is-das and looking out involved moving a 12-foot ladder from the lightless hallway, propping it in the shaft and climbing into the sky. Precariously perched there I would stare at the tin or tile roofs, watch the pigeons and the night-lighting on the Eiffel Tower or Arc de Triomphe, and plot out the path of my next foray. Then I’d go out and walk. And walk. For hours at a time.
Happily my wife of 24 years did not judge me by my digs and was also a walkaholic. Alison Harris and I met in Paris about a year after I’d arrived. She’s the main reason I stayed. Born here to American parents, Alison is a professional photographer; she took the enigmatic, sometimes puzzling black-and-white photos that accompany—they aren’t intended to “illustrate”—each chapter.
The photos entice and challenge readers, evoking unexpected elements of the city, or echoing something in the pages of the book. The image that accompanies “Going Underground,” about underground Paris, shows a rounded object and tool. Read the chapter and take a close look. You’ll probably figure out the tool is for lifting manhole covers; the rounded object is the cover’s edge.
For both of us roaming the city was and still is a necessity. Initially it seemed like a good way of getting to know the Great Unknown—the physical, topographical and practical Paris. Where did the subways take you? Where were the best markets, the leafiest parks, the quietest streets, the most striking views, the thickest, crispest baguette sandwiches? How could I transform a trip to the library—the American Library, for instance—into an adventure?
Later on, walking and exploring Paris developed into a kind of meditation. About 15 years ago I decided to paint a word-portrait of the city, singling out key neighborhoods and places. But that wasn’t going to work without the people who had shaped those places. To staple the pieces of this rough-cut puzzle together I needed to illustrate and fold in the phenomena—the soul of the city—that make Paris unique, as unique as any great city or human being.
Over the years I interviewed hundreds of people as I wrote what eventually came together in book form. It’s not an exaggeration to say I walked a couple of thousand miles visiting most of the churches, monuments, museums and parks in town. I also read: history, literature, travel books, old guide books, whatever I could find about Paris. I spent days at the Paris Historical Library doing archival research. Many of the novels, newspapers and reference works I consulted were written by French authors, some were by Italians (Casanova, for instance) yet others by Americans or Englishmen.
Happily, none of the above was anything like a chore. It seemed like a lark. I hope my delight—and my occasional horror—at what I discovered comes through in the pages of what Mavis Gallant describes as a “quirky” book. One day I might even finish that literary novel, or write the sequel to Paris, Paris. It’s titled Paris, Paris Encore! A few chapters are ready, including one about my early days as “The Accidental Parisian.”
With the publishing industry upside down and the “new paradigm” transforming print media relics into collectibles it’s unclear where my path lies. But I’ve been here before and am less scared than I should be. Maybe I’ll climb back up that rickety old ladder, stare out over the roofs, and head into the unknown again. Paris is infinitely explore-able and ultimately unknowable. Like the people you love most.