Understanding Paris - Fodor's Paris - Fodor's

Fodor's Paris - Fodor's (2016)

Understanding Paris

Books and Movies

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Fiction. Think of writers in Paris, and the romanticized expat figures of the interwar “lost generation” often come to mind: Ernest Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises), F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein just to name a few. Further back in time are classics like Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, set during the Revolution, and Henry James’s novels The American and The Ambassadors, both tales of Americans in Europe. The expats of World War II set the scene for future Americans in Paris: James Baldwin’s life in the city in the 1950s informed novels such as Giovanni’s Room, and the denizens of the so-called Beat Hotel (Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Henry Miller) squeezed in some writing among their less salubrious activities. The Canadian writer Mavis Gallant, who published many stories in The New Yorker, also began her tenure in Paris in the ’50s; her collection Paris Stories is a delight.

Recent best sellers with a Paris setting include, of course, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, as well as Diane Johnson’s Le Divorce and Le Mariage, Anita Brookner’s Incidents in the Rue Laugier, and Patrick Suskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Paul LaFarge’s Haussmann, or the Distinction spins historical detail about the ambitious city planner into a fascinating period novel. Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife imagines Hemingway’s Paris from the perspective of his first wife, Hadley. For literary snacking, Paris in Mind pulls together excerpts from books by American authors.

For Children. Who doesn’t remember Miss Clavel and her 12 young students in two straight lines? Ludwig Bemelmans’ beloved Madeleine series about the namesake heroine is also illustrated with the author’s drawings of Paris landmarks such as the Opéra and the Jardins du Luxembourg. Eloise in Paris, by Kay Thompson, also has illustrations, these by Hilary Knight (look for his take on Christian Dior). The Anatole books by Eve Titus are classics, starring a Gallic mouse. Playful, bright illustrations drive Maira Kalman’s Ooh-la-la (Max in Love); the singsong language, smattered with French, is perfect for reading aloud. Joan MacPhail Knight wrote a pair of books about an American girl visiting France in the late 1800s: Charlotte in Giverny and Charlotte in Paris.

History. Recent studies devoted to the capital include Philip Mansel’s Paris Between Empires: Monarchy and Revolution; Jill Harsin’s Barricades: War on the Streets in Revolutionary Paris; and Johannes Willms’s Paris: Capital of Europe, which runs from the Revolution to the Belle Époque. Simon Schama’s Citizens is a good introduction to the French Revolution. Alistair Horne’s Seven Ages of Paris skips away from standard historical approaches, breaking the city’s past into seven eras and putting a colorful spin on the Renaissance, the Revolution, Napoléon’s Empire, and other periods.

Biographies and autobiographies of French luminaries and Paris residents can double as satisfying portraits of the capital during their subjects’ lifetimes. Works on Baron Haussmann are especially rich, as the 19th-century prefect so utterly changed the face of the city. For a look at American expatriates in Paris between the wars, pick up Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation, by Noel R. Fitch. Tyler Stovall’s Paris Noir: African-Americans in the City of Light examines black American artists’ affection for Paris during the 20th century; Harlem in Montmartre, by William A. Shack, homes in on expat jazz culture. Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project uses the 19th century as a point of intersection for studies on advertising, Baudelaire, the Paris Commune, and other subjects.

Memoirs, Essays, and Observations. Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, the tale of his 1920s expat life in Paris as a struggling writer, grips from its opening lines. Gertrude Stein, one of Hemingway’s friends, gave her own version of the era in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. In The Secret Paris of the ‘30s, Brassaï put into words the scenes he captured in photographs. Joseph Roth gave an exile’s point of view in Report from a Parisian Paradise. Art Buchwald’s funny yet poignant I’ll Always Have Paris moves from the postwar GI Bill days through his years as a journalist and adventurer. Stanley Karnow also drew on a reporter’s past in Paris in the Fifties. Henry Miller’s visceral autobiographical works such as The Tropic of Cancer reveal a grittier kind of expat life. Janet Flanner’s incomparable Paris Journals chronicle the city from the 1940s through 1970, and no one has yet matched A.J. Liebling at table, as described in Between Meals.

More recent accounts by Americans living in Paris include Edmund White’s Our Paris: Sketches with Memory (White is also the author of a brief but captivating wander through the city in The Flâneur), Alex Karmel’s A Corner in the Marais: Memoir of a Paris Neighborhood, Thad Carhart’s The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, and the very funny Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris. Adam Gopnik, a New Yorker writer who lived in Paris in the 1990s, intersperses articles on larger French issues with descriptions of daily life with his wife and son in Paris to the Moon. Gopnik also edited the anthology Americans in Paris, a collection of observations by everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Cole Porter.

Works in Translation. Many landmarks of French literature have long been claimed as classics in English as well—Victor Hugo’s great 19th-century novels, including The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Misérables, spin elaborate descriptions of Paris. Other 19th-century masterpieces include Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, set against the capital’s 1848 uprisings, and Honoré de Balzac’s Human Comedy, a series of dozens of novels, many set in Paris.

Marcel Proust’s masterpiece À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time) describes fin-de-siècle Paris’s parks, glittering aristocratic salons, and dread during the Great War. Colette was another great chronicler of the Belle Époque; her short works include Chéri and the Claudine stories.

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Prime of Life, the second book in her autobiographical trilogy, details her relationship with the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in the context of 1930s and ’40s Paris, when the Rive Gauche cemented its modern bohemian reputation in its cafés and jazz clubs.


In English. In 2012, Woody Allen made what many consider to be his best recent film with his playful tribute to the city of love in Midnight in Paris. Before that in 2007, French actress Julie Delphy did a sweet cinamatique tale of culture clash in Two Days in Paris, and Pixar Studios highlighted Paris’ love of fine food in Ratatouille. Back in 2006, Sofia Coppola’s lavish Marie Antoinette focused on the isolation and posh life of France’s famous queen; it might not have been a box office hit, but it’s an interesting take on life at Versailles. Previous to that, the film version of The Da Vinci Code (2006), starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou, was talked about for months preceding its release, although some were disappointed. The heist film Ronin (1998) pairs Robert De Niro and Jean Reno with a hyperkinetic chase through the streets of Paris; and in Frantic (1987) Harrison Ford plays an American doctor visiting Paris when his wife disappears, and director Roman Polanski shoots the city to build suspense and dread. The Palais-Royal gets an equally tense treatment in the Audrey Hepburn-Cary Grant thriller Charade (1963); the 2002 remake, The Truth About Charlie, doesn’t hold a candle to the original. In Before Sunset (2004), Ethan Hawke meets Julie Delpy in Paris in the sequel to Before Sunrise.

French Films. One of the biggest hits out of France was Amélie (2001), which follows a young woman determined to change people’s lives. There’s a love angle, bien sûr, and the neighborhood of Montmartre is practically a third hero, although Parisians sniffed that it was a sterilized version of the raffish quartier.

More recently, Marion Cotillard took home the Oscar for her portrayal of singer Édith Piaf in La Vie en Rose (2007), a performance all the more stunning by Cotillard’s ability to bring Piaf to the screen in all stages of life.

Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) and François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (slang for “raising hell”; 1959) kicked off the New Wave cinema movement. Godard eschewed traditional movie narrative techniques, employing a loose style—including improvised dialogue and handheld camera shots—for his story about a low-level crook (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and his girlfriend (Jean Seberg). Truffaut’s film is a masterwork of innocence lost, a semiautobiographical story of a young boy banished to juvenile detention.

Catherine Deneuve is practically a film industry in and of herself. Her movies span the globe; those shot in Paris range from Belle de Jour (1967)—Luis Buñuel’s study of erotic repression—to Le Dernier Métro (1980), a World War II drama.

Classic film noir and contemporary crime dramas are also highlights of French cinema: for a taste, rent Rififi (1955), with its excruciatingly tense 33-minute heist scene; Le Samouraï (1967), in which Alain Delon plays the ultimate cool assassin; or Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959). La Casque d’Or (1952) looks back to the underworld of the early 1900s, with Simone Signoret as the title irresistible blond. French director Luc Besson introduced a sly female action hero with La Femme Nikita (1990), in which Jean Reno chills as the creepy “cleaner” you don’t want making house calls.

Filmed during the Occupation, The Children of Paradise (1945) became an allegory for the French spirit of resistance: the love story was set in 1840s Paris, thereby getting past the German censors. Other romantic films with memorable takes on Paris include Cyrano de Bergerac (1990), with Gérard Depardieu as the large-schnozzed hero; the comedy When the Cat’s Away (1996); the talk-heavy films of Eric Rohmer; Camille Claudel (1988), about the affair between Rodin and fellow sculptor Claudel; and the gritty The Lovers on the Bridge (1999), the flaws balanced by the bravado of Juliette Binoche waterskiing on the Seine surrounded by fireworks. The Red Balloon (1956) is also a love story of a sort: a children’s film of a boy and his faithful balloon.

Musicals. Love in the time of Toulouse-Lautrec? Elton John songs? Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001) whirls them together and wins through conviction rather than verisimilitude. John Huston’s 1952 film of the same name is also well worth watching. Gene Kelly pursues Leslie Caron through postwar Paris in An American in Paris (1951); the Gershwin-fueled film includes a stunning 17-minute dance sequence. Caron reappears as the love interest—this time as a young girl in training to be a courtesan—in Gigi (1958). Funny Face (1957) stars Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, and there’s an unforgettable scene of Hepburn descending the staircase below the Winged Victory in the Louvre.

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Menu Guide

One of the trickiest French sounds to pronounce is the nasal final n sound (whether or not the n is actually the last letter of the word). You should try to pronounce it as a sort of nasal grunt—as in “huh.” The vowel that precedes the n will govern the vowel sound of the word, and in this list we precede the final n with an h to remind you to be nasal.

Another problem sound is the ubiquitous but untransliterable eu, as in bleu (blue) or deux (two), and the very similar sound in je (I), ce (this), and de (of). The closest equivalent might be the vowel sound in “put,” but rounded. The famous rolled r is a glottal sound. Consonants at the ends of words are usually silent; when the following word begins with a vowel, however, the two are run together by sounding the consonant. There are two forms of “you” in French: vous (formal and plural) and tu (a singular, personal form). When addressing an adult you don’t know, vous is always best.

English French Pronunciation


Yes/no → Oui/non → wee/nohn

Please → S’il vous plaît → seel voo play

Thank you → Merci → mair-see

You’re welcome → De rien → deh ree-ehn

Excuse me, sorry → Pardon → pahr-don

Good morning/afternoon → Bonjour → bohn-zhoor

Good evening → Bonsoir → bohn-swahr

Good-bye → Au revoir → o ruh-vwahr

Mr. (Sir) → Monsieur → muh-syuh

Mrs. (Ma’am) → Madame → ma-dam

Miss → Mademoiselle → mad-mwa-zel

Pleased to meet you → Enchanté(e) → ohn-shahn-tay

How are you? → Comment allez-vous? → kuh-mahn-tahl-ay voo

Very well, thanks → Très bien, merci → tray bee-ehn, mair-see

And you? → Et vous? → ay voo?


one → un → uhn

two → deux → deuh

three → trois → twah

four → quatre → kaht-ruh

five → cinq → sank

six → six → seess

seven → sept → set

eight → huit → wheat

nine → neuf → nuf

ten → dix → deess

eleven → onze → ohnz

twelve → douze → dooz

thirteen → treize → trehz

fourteen → quatorze → kah-torz

fifteen → quinze → kanz

sixteen → seize → sez

seventeen → dix-sept → deez-set

eighteen → dix-huit → deez-wheat

nineteen → dix-neuf → deez-nuf

twenty → vingt → vehn

twenty-one → vingt-et-un → vehnt-ay-uhn

thirty → trente → trahnt

forty → quarante → ka-rahnt

fifty → cinquante → sang-kahnt

sixty → soixante → swa-sahnt

seventy → soixante-dix → swa-sahnt-deess

eighty → quatre-vingts → kaht-ruh-vehn

ninety → quatre-vingt-dix → kaht-ruh-vehn-deess

one hundred → cent → sahn

one thousand → mille → meel


black → noir → nwahr

blue → bleu → bleuh

brown → brun/marron → bruhn/mar-rohn

green → vert → vair

orange → orange → o-rahnj

pink → rose → rose

red → rouge → rouge

violet → violette → vee-o-let

white → blanc → blahnk

yellow → jaune → zhone


Sunday → dimanche → dee-mahnsh

Monday → lundi → luhn-dee

Tuesday → mardi → mahr-dee

Wednesday → mercredi → mair-kruh-dee

Thursday → jeudi → zhuh-dee

Friday → vendredi → vawn-druh-dee

Saturday → samedi → sahm-dee


January → janvier → zhahn-vee-ay

February → février → feh-vree-ay

March → mars → marce

April → avril → a-vreel

May → mai → meh

June → juin → zhwehn

July → juillet → zhwee-ay

August → août → ah-oo

September → septembre → sep-tahm-bruh

October → octobre → awk-to-bruh

November → novembre → no-vahm-bruh

December → décembre → day-sahm-bruh


Do you speak English? → Parlez-vous anglais? → par-lay voo ahn-glay

I don’t speak … → Je ne parle pas … → zhuh nuh parl pah …

French → français → frahn-say

I don’t understand → Je ne comprends pas → zhuh nuh kohm-prahn pah

I understand → Je comprends → zhuh kohm-prahn

I don’t know → Je ne sais pas → zhuh nuh say pah

I’m American/ British → Je suis américain/ anglais → zhuh sweez a-may-ree-kehn/ahn-glay

What’s your name? → Comment vous appelez-vous? → ko-mahn vooz a-pell-ay-voo

My name is … → Je m’appelle … → zhuh ma-pell

What time is it? → Quelle heure est-il? → kel air eh-teel

How? → Comment? → ko-mahn

When? → Quand? → kahn

Yesterday → Hier → yair

Today → Aujourd’hui → o-zhoor-dwee

Tomorrow → Demain → duh-mehn

Tonight → Ce soir → suh swahr

What? → Quoi? → kwah

What is it? → Qu’est-ce que c’est? → kess-kuh-say

Why? → Pourquoi? → poor-kwa

Who? → Qui? → kee

Where is … → Où est … → oo ay

the train station? → la gare? → la gar

the subway station? → la station de métro? → la sta-syon duh may-tro

the bus stop? → l’arrêt de bus? → la-ray duh booss

the post office? → la poste? → la post

the bank? → la banque? → la bahnk

the … hotel? → l’hôtel …? → lo-tel

the store? → le magasin? → luh ma-ga-zehn

the cashier? → la caisse? → la kess

the … museum? → le musée …? → luh mew-zay

the hospital? → l’hôpital? → lo-pee-tahl

the elevator? → l’ascenseur? → la-sahn-seuhr

the telephone? → le téléphone? → luh tay-lay-phone

Where are the → Où sont les → oo sohn lay

restrooms? → toilettes? → twah-let

(men/women) → (hommes/femmes) → (oh-mm/fah-mm)

Here/there → Ici/là → ee-see/la

Left/right → A gauche/à droite → a goash/a draht

Straight ahead → Tout droit → too drwah

Is it near/far? → C’est près/loin? → say pray/lwehn

I’d like … → Je voudrais … → zhuh voo-dray

a room → une chambre → ewn shahm-bruh

the key → la clé → la clay

a newspaper → un journal → uhn zhoor-nahl

a stamp → un timbre → uhn tam-bruh

I’d like to buy … → Je voudrais acheter . . → zhuh voo-dray ahsh-tay

cigarettes → des cigarettes → day see-ga-ret

matches → des allumettes → days a-loo-met

soap → du savon → dew sah-vohn

city map → un plan de ville → uhn plahn de veel