La fontaine Médicis in the Jardin du Luxembourg
You don’t need me to tell you how beautiful Paris is. I might do that some other time.
This one word keeps coming up time and time again since moving to Paris. Literally. Because I keep repeating it. As I immerse myself in the thick of the streets, the people, and their sights and sounds, the concept of perspective constantly reemerges.
In the past weeks, I’ve been exploring this French world for the first time that I’ve spent years learning about, understanding of course that Paris is Paris and that France is, well, in many ways something else entirely, and that therefore “French” doesn’t work as an all-purpose adjective. I’ve found myself coming face to face with views of things, accepted norms, which have been hard for me to understand. I don’t know if it’s because I’m comparing what I know to what others say, but I’ve found myself leaning towards and enjoying things that seem to be considered quite “uncool” for lack of a better word. Uncool I can deal with. I’ve been uncool my whole life. But “unrefined” is something that begins to feel more personally offensive no matter how self-assured you are. And the fact is that it would appear that not liking a certain world of desserts, a certain culinary world, and a certain world of social activities makes one markedly unrefined among a certain demographic in a way that I can only relate to having the wrong kind of running shoes when I was in grade school. Because it’s not just about having the other shoes, it’s about the lowly status you have by choosing the other shoes on purpose. Perspective: I don’t need my shoes to be expensive or popular, I just need them to work.
Footwear aside, this is ultimately about opportunity. I have no problem whatsoever saying that I simply don’t have the opportunity to indulge frequently in restaurants that serve dishes for 20-25 euro or more. Living life the way my wife and I choose to live it means we don’t use our money for expensive restaurants. So, that opportunity is also a choice. There are other things I prefer to spend money on: good ingredients for cooking at home which we do often, we have a cat we like to care for as best as we can, having a nice evening in a café with a little dessert, live music, and other such comforts and material things I choose to place more priority on than eating in the newest restaurant. Not to mention an aversion to any chef that feels that their original creation is something that deserves to be expensive just by virtue of being different. In my book, to ask someone to try something that original, you should be making it cheaper in case they don’t like it. Don’t think that would work? Just imagine an unknown independent musician saying, “Well, you’ve never heard my music before and it’s really different so my album is $50. Hey, I have to pay for my studio time!” Food is worth what you want to pay for it, fine. But must we look down on those who choose to eat for less and must we imply indirectly that not eating in expensive restaurants is tantamount to not eating well? The reason I’ve never felt the need to pay a lot for restaurants is because I’ve always felt that paying more money hardly ever seems to be directly proportionate to the quality of the food you get. Perspective: it’s just not what I like.
As you read sites online and study the social dynamic of how the “coolest” places are talked about and how the more authentic, old-fashioned places are talked about or not talked about at all for that matter, you will see a clearly established norm revealing itself that dictates that only the new, the challenging, and the different are of any value and worth discussing. And to not like those new places, somehow makes you the kind of uncool that borders on making you and your opinion irrelevant. There is, I believe, an unspoken philosophy that to enjoy traditional French food in traditional French restaurants means that you’re clearly not just missing out on something, but missing out on something better. To prefer it, essentially makes you profoundly boring and decidedly uncouth.
Why is a regular sandwich from a boulangerie so frowned upon? Why don’t people write about traditional food with the same fervour they reserve for molecular gastronomy? Why are there so many pictures of foamed food online and hardly any of croque monsieur and pot au feu? Why does more expenisive equal “better”. A noted blogger in Paris recently ridiculed “Tati” on Twitter, a local discount clothing store chain equating it with basically being trash. Coming from a home where my immigrant Masters-student parents got us whatever clothes they could afford and often mended them to fit, I wondered what this blogger would think of my childhood photos, where a discount clothing store would have been a treat. With respect to food in particular, are we so bored with the past that an expensive dish in a fancy new restaurant trumps a traditional well-prepared dish just because of how much it costs? Or are the traditional dishes simply too vulgar for our contemporary refined tastes? In an episode of his series on Paris, Anthony Bourdain suggested that it seems that nowadays, to be new and relevant you have to come out against the establishment. I think he’s right, but why does that have to be the case? He uses the example that to be a new rock band and be relevant you have to attack U2 and posits the idea that to be a new restaurant you have to do the same: attack the croque monsieur, the cassoulet, and the poulet roti. Perspective: I don’t eat food because it’s in a new, interesting place. I eat it because I enjoy it and my body can digest it. If it’s native to my surroundings, all the better. (That’s the psychological element I choose to include in my dining choices).
Of course anyone can like whatever they like, and all of this is admittedly a bit “first-world-problems” to even be talking about. It just seems to me that so much of this phenomenon is about enjoying a certain kind of experience, certain restaurants, and certain neighbourhoods, which can be had in most any cosmopolitan city in the world. And I just wouldn’t ever move to a country to not partake in how that country eats and lives. I know this isn’t only happening here, and it is of course just my opinion, just my perspective. I just think it’s a perspective that isn’t often heard because it’s perceived as less glamorous. In any event, it’s what has come up repeatedly since moving here: the idea that how you take this place, and any other place I suppose, depends on your perspective. And my only thermometer for measuring the relevance of mine is that the Parisians I’ve met have been either completely unaware of this phenomenon or have laughed in the face of it with a wave of the hand and a “pfff…whatever” when I ask them about it. I will simply ignore it as well and just continue to do my own thing regardless of how uncool it may seem to others.