Monday, September 8, 2008

Paris Smarts and Standards

Walking down a few streets today, I counted the number of Smart cars that I saw. It looks like up to 20% of the cars parked on the streets are Smarts—an amazing figure. It's as if the Smart has become the Standard Parisian Car. It just suits the city extremely well. I don't know if it enjoys the same success in other large, densely populated cities, but these little Smart cars sell like hot croissants in the City of Light.

Come to think of it, like any big city, Paris has a lot of "standards" associated with it.

The surprisingly simple, standard Parisian sandwich contains Swiss cheese (Emmenthal) and slices of ham, with butter. It is (predictably) called a Parisien. It's tasty but nothing that would thrill a gourmet. And hot onion soup is (or was) a Parisian standard in cold weather; it doesn't do much for your breath but it's delicious and (very) hot on cold days.

Parisian buildings are often distinctive, with an architectural style that one doesn't see elsewhere in France. Perhaps the most recognizable feature of many Parisian buildings dating from the nineteenth century (and there are lots of those) is the Mansard roof, named after François Mansart. The design predates the buildings by hundreds of years, but it was so extensively used in the mid-nineteenth century that it has become very closely associated with Paris.

Parisian women have a traditionally standard shoe, a flat or low-heeled black shoe (often glossy black patent leather) with a simple bow or other ornament on the instep, very much like a dressy slipper. The standard color for garments is black, although that's not specific to Paris. And, unfortunately, many Parisian women smoke like chimneys, something I've mentioned before (but it really disappoints me, so I'm mentioning it again).

There used to be distinctive Parisian accents in French, but those have faded a great deal. Parisians still have a distinctive sound, but it's a much more standard pronunciation than it used to be. People who still speak with strong, distinctive accents are rare today, and often quite old, and the accent itself makes a person sound a bit archaic. There are some styles of speaking that are often associated with Parisian stereotypes, such as the haute bourgeoisie, that are parodied regularly by comedians, but real people with these accents are relatively rare.

I find it interesting that when I speak French in Paris, people ask "Where are you from?" but when I speak French in the provinces, people say "oh, you're from Paris." (By the way, for relentlessly urban residents of Paris like myself, the "provinces" includes just about anything outside the boulevard périphérique, the oval beltway that encircles the city.)

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