Amuse-Bouche No. 26: L’Esprit Parisien
by Julia Frey (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Is there une mystérieuse substance that makes Parisians exceptional beings?
Reading Figaro Madame, I saw une pub (pronounced “pewb”, from publicité, advertisement, as distinct from un pub, pronounced “pub”, an English bar) selling “l’esprit parisien”. Quoi ? Depending on context, l’esprit parisien -- the essence of Paris -- can mean three different things: mentality, style or witty repartee (that’s repartie in French, by the way). But can you buy that?
Ah! The ad must mean style: “Paris Macadam, l’esprit parisien,” clothes that reflect “l’énergie des rues de Paris, sa vie culturelle, ses cafés.…” Yes, now you can hit the streets dressed in a café waiter’s vest, a street urchin’s cap and scarf, and “claquettes” (not tap shoes, but wood-soled sandals). Where did we get the idea that Parisian means fashionable?
When Louis XIV moved his court to Versailles, Paris became a hub and everything got centralized: government, money and snobbery. Courtly behavior, c’est-à-dire manière, style, tics, préciosité (affectation) and ostentatious pretentiousness, were mimicked by the merely rich. By moving to Paris one acquired l’esprit parisien—the Parisian mentality—what even the French call “la Parisian attitude”—a condescending belief in one’s superiority due to geographic location.
The pub plays on its non-Parisian readers’ sense of inferiority, suggesting they can buy status by dressing in the image of another incarnation of l’esprit parisien: streetwise ragamuffins. The gamin de Paris, famously déluré (smart-mouthed) and malicieux (mischievous), has become identified with Parisian toughness. Lively and irreverent, skeptical and humorously pessimiste, primesautier (impulsive, spontaneous) and frondeur (constantly questioning authority), the Parisian street kid emanates brio and tape-à-l’œil (flashiness) when tossing off a clin d’œil complice (knowing wink), yet is capable of tendresse and subtle émotion when the occasion demands it. Generically called un titi, the prototypical gamin is Gavroche from Les Misérables, penniless, fearless and impertinent. Another word for a Paris brat is poulbot, from the name of artist and illustrator Francisque Poulbot, whose cartoons with half-pint protagonists became classics in the 1930s. These days, most of the street-wise kids live in les banlieues sensibles (literally: “sensitive suburbs”) a euphemism for high-crime, poverty-level neighborhoods on the outskirts of cities.
Back in the 19th-century, to be fashionable you dressed like une Parisienne mondaine (a society lady) or possibly une demi-mondaine (also known as une horizontale—the kind of woman whose lover bought her a little private town-house in St-Germain-des-Prés). Magazines like La Vie Parisienne, aimed at a developing literate middle class, purported to show bourgeoises and provinciales what la capitale was wearing.
Soon, the mere fact of being Parisienne meant avoir du chien (“to have some dog”?—why this means a slightly sexy chic, no one knows). The stéréotype persists. Even a Parisienne of modest means, undistinguished background and average bone structure is believed to possess a kind of confident je ne sais quoi: ce mélange d’élégance et de vivacité that can only be learned in Paris.
L’esprit parisien in its third incarnation—conversational sparring—is largely class-bound. At court and in the Paris salons one showed superiority by using charming, brilliant, passionate skepticism and raffinement intellectuel to expound profoundly on futile matters, lightly on serious subjects. La gouaille (sarcasm, ridiculing others) became a special skill. Verbal one-upmanship is still typically Parisian. Since le mot à l’emporte pièce (the cutting remark), particularly if a little vulgar, is a sign of cleverness and subtlety, the desire to be witty can win out over human kindness. At some dîners en ville I’ve observed speakers who actually liked the victim of their quolibets (savage wit) but couldn’t resist the opportunity to amuse the crowd.
Typically, attacks are on the invasive clumsiness of those who “montent à Paris” (climb to Paris, i.e. move from the provinces). In one put-down, the now-forgotten 19th-century comic playwright Nestor Roqueplan announced the discovery of une mystérieuse substance that made Parisians exceptional beings. It could be purchased like perfume, he said, in bottles labeled “Parisine,” as a cure for provincialism. Proof that you CAN buy l’esprit parisien.
© Julia Frey 2010