The New Paris: the People, Places & Ideas Fueling a Movement by Lindsey Tramuta
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“You can’t escape the past in Paris, and yet what’s so wonderful about it is that the past and present intermingle so intangibly that it doesn’t seem to burden.”
Cities are complex creatures and getting to know one well takes time and countless meanderings. Paris is one such city, primarily because for centuries, it has been a victim of its own success: visitors arrive with fantasies that are already well rooted, reluctant to cast a wider, more discerning eye on the capital. From the turn of the 20th century when authors and artists made Paris their home, until today, the city has always made people dream. Take, for example, Sabrina, a 1954 romantic comedy directed by Billy Wilder: Audrey Hepburn’s character moves briefly to Paris from the US and returns, a chic and sophisticated woman. What Sabrina didn’t show, was a city still recovering from the Second World War, with grimy buildings and toilets on the landings. Gourmet magazine had already been founded ten years earlier on the principle that French food was the greatest national cuisine the world had ever known. This unshakeable image remained in people’s minds, and occasionally, writes Philadelphia-native, Paris-transplant Lindsey Tramuta, in the minds of Parisians themselves.
Tramuta’s The New Paris: the People, Places & Ideas Fueling a Movement has just been published in the US. It is a handsome, photography-filled travel book cum social study of trends in Paris today: coffee, cuisine, craft beer, shopping and artefacts, new places to have fun and a handy list of addresses at the end.
Like countless others before her, writes Tramuta in her introduction, “I wanted to experience the quality of life, itself a thing of legends, and the stories I hoped (no, knew!) would unfurl before me with each street, quartier, and Parisian encountered.”
Tramuta chose to study French in school because her older sister was studying Spanish. She became enamored of the language and mesmerized by the country after a class trip. She returned again during college: “I came abroad 11 years ago, it was supposed to be six weeks, but then I met a guy…” said Tramuta, grinning.
The guy is now her husband, and after a Masters in global communication, various jobs in branding, digital and social media, Tramuta started a blog and began freelance writing about Paris. She put together her book proposal in 2015. The New Paris is the fruit of a decade of observations and investigations as a professional Paris-watcher, one might say, and the celebration of changes Tramuta noted in the gastronomic and cultural sector. Once she began to pull “back the veneer” of the city and look beyond the "fairy tales", Tramuta writes that she saw that Paris and Parisians had lapsed into complacency. “Mediocrity (or a bad case of resting on their laurels) in many areas of life, from gastronomy to business and tourism, had become the accepted norm—why mess with something that works?”
Compared to other historic European cities, Paris’ emergence into the 21st century “was slower,” said Tramuta. “London went from sketchville to hipsterville in not that long. In Paris, though, with respect to other capitals it’s been slow. It’s uniquely Parisian; you have to understand their historic resistance to change to understand that. They’ve been battered over the head by their own greatness. They’re never content and they’re very proud at the same time…”
But then, something began to happen, a steady eruption of innovation that had been percolating for a while. Although the city had always preserved its past and consistently renovated its infrastructures, it began to look towards the future too.
Paris has been in the hands of socialist mayors since 2001, first with Bertrand Delanoë, and now, with his protégée, the dynamic Anne Hidalgo. Under their stewardship the city has moved forward with a flurry of activity in urban planning and environmental initiatives. One of the first was the Vélib bike-sharing program, then came the Autolib car-sharing program, as well as Hidalgo’s push for more pedestrian areas, and her plan to open the borders between city limits and the areas on the fringe of the capital. Financed by Xavier Niel, France’s enfant terrible of tech, the Halle Freyssinet, the world’s largest digital business incubator, recently opened its doors. Tramuta describes these changes and mostly—and here is what visitors to the city will much appreciate—the welcome additions in the gastronomic and shopping domain, whether restaurants, cafés, coffee roasters, sweets, and other areas of pleasurable consumption.
“Finally!” enthuses the food blogger and author Clotilde Dusoulier in her endorsement of Tramuta’s book. The New Paris “successfully captures the complexity and richness of contemporary Paris, debunking the tired clichés and celebrating the exciting diversity of the city.”
Dusoulier, who is French but spent years in Silicon Valley before moving back to Paris and launching her highly successful food blog, Chocolate and Zucchini, was, along with other fellow foodies, a number of them American, at the vanguard of this movement. Tramuta writes about Daniel Rose, who opened his “slightly radical” French restaurant, Spring, in 2006. Rose tells Tramuta, in her chapter on food and dining, about what made Spring unique at the time:
“I was leaving space for improvisation, which I thought was missing from all of the other experiences I had had in France, but using all the very French techniques to do it.”
Tramuta covers the rise of artisan bakeries, gourmet greengrocers, juice bars, vegan food, and the story of the American, Kristen Beddard, who could be embraced or cursed for having brought kale to France. When Beddard went on a crusade to bring kale to the French, she initially wanted to promote its qualities as a superfood, but, as Tramuta tells us, she quickly changed tack because she learned the concept of superfood meant nothing to the French, but she did manage to successfully integrate kale into the market, promoting it as a légume oublié, or a forgotten vegetable.
In Tramuta’s chapter on coffee, she explains that in Parisian cafés it can often be unpalatable because France has traditionally imported the less expensive Robusta beans as opposed to Arabica beans, known for more complex and subtle flavors. The passion for specialty coffee is beginning to take root in Paris, but it must be said that many of the new café owners and their patrons are more often than not, transplanted Parisians. This particularity does not apply, however, to the resurgence of sweets (Chapter 3), an area in which French pastry chefs and chocolatiers have been outdoing themselves, often gaining inspiration from exotic flavors. Already back in 2011 a new generation of chef patissiers had broken ranks with an age-old traditional system in which pastry chefs jealously guarded their recipes and kept apprentices within a strict, hierarchical system. Thirty-something pastry chefs, such as Christophe Michalak, created a group, le Club des Sucrés (the Sweet Club) to celebrate their profession but also to share and discuss everything involving the world of pastry and chocolate. The club was open to pastry chefs whether from luxury hotels such as the Crillon, to smaller, independent "chocolatiers". It was symbolic of the new generation's wish to do away with tradition and use a more personal, innovative approach to creations.
Emmanuel Ryon, co-owner of Une Glace à Paris tells Tramuta about his experience today: “There was a long period of weak products—no balance, no texture, and experimentation only for the sake of experimenting. In addition to having access to better products, pastry chefs are traveling more themselves and pulling inspiration from varieties of flavors in places like Asia and Latin America.”
In another chapter, fashion, design, and skincare products follow the same line of thinking, finding inspiration abroad, yet at the same time producing local, high quality creations sometimes made in collaborative spaces, with an eye for environmentally friendly materials. Lest one might think these new Parisian enterprises are uniquely western, particular mention goes to Maison Chateau Rouge, a collection of urban
streetwear made from fabrics sourced from traditional African wax prints from
the nearby market, created by Youssouf and Mamadou Fofana, who grew up in a
Senegalese household in a Paris suburb.
Tramuta closes The New Paris with a chapter on contemporary cultural, artistic and entertainment spaces, often public works, which are growing every day. “Readers don’t need to have the most updated information, they need to have the context,” said Tramuta. “The book lays a foundation; it’s to show people the scope and the energy this city has. It didn’t feel this way 10 years ago, and I’m hoping that it will serve to capture this moment that is on an upswing even if politically and in terms of political identity things are on a troubled path.”
With the final round of French presidential elections just around the corner, the tension is palpable, but no matter what happens, it would be difficult to halt the momentum that this dynamic, open-minded and forward-thinking city is experiencing—a new incarnation of Paris that Lindsey Tramuta has investigated for us.
*top photograph Charissa Fay