Did you know Paris originally had only 12 arrondissements? Yep. At one time Montmartre, which feels like a village, and the 16ème, as tony as New York’s Upper East Side, were in the sticks! Today there are 20 districts that curl around the Seine like a snail, each with its own mayor and unique personality.
Parisians tend to be fiercely loyal to their own neighborhood. Not surprising, the city is built upon relationships. When the owner of the boulangerie at the end of my street started reaching instinctively for un fromage blanc nature whenever I walked in, I knew I had achieved resident status! This kind of familiarity feels welcoming, comfortable. It’s one of Paris’s many charms.
Which brings me to make a blasphemous statement: There are some quartiers that are not charming, that are, um…boring! Take the 8ème, where you’re deep in Haussmann territory. Building after creamy-stone building of symmetrical iron balconies, elaborately carved masonry, strictly regulated window heights, and mansard roofs, each more beautiful than the next, line the broad boulevards. Gorgeous. And yet.
One 70-degree-perfect Sunday, I hopped on the metro to meet longtime friends at a hôtel particulier, or mansion, in the 8ème.Thanks to the generosity of its former owners, who bequeathed their home to l’Etat, the mansion has been a museum since the early 20th century. I arrived early to wander the neighborhood and see what I could see. The Marais, where my apartment is, had been a-buzz with people enjoying the good weather, strolling in the streets, and lolling in the parks. But here, a few blocks from the museum, there wasn’t a soul in sight. I searched for a café, thinking it would be fun to have a cold drink, watch the passers-by, maybe strike up a conversation. But, no cafés—in Paris!—and nobody passing by, a striking and bizarre contrast.
In the 1860s, working with orders from his emperor, Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann rebuilt Paris. Razing what one historian has called “the festering tenements,” Haussmann opened up the medieval city, creating wide, linear boulevards and erecting uniformly beautiful buildings. Many of the meandering cobblestone streets that make up parts of the Latin Quarter and almost all of the Marais and Montmartre fortunately escaped Haussmann’s demolition. Why fortunately? Because hidden in those tiny, imperfect streets of irregular buildings and ancient narrow passages remain vestiges that tell fascinating stories and hold delicious secrets.
Over dinner a few days later, I floated the irreverent idea of boring neighborhoods past my museum-going friends—both French, one a native Parisian. What did they think? Was I missing something? Now Parisians, like New Yorkers, are direct. They say what’s on their minds without fear of disagreement. I counted on their honesty. Tu as raison, tout à fait!—you’re absolutely right! they said, with an air of French certainty that makes you wonder why you’d ever doubted.