Guide2Paris recently caught up with David Downie, a San Franciscan and now Paris resident, and the author of a number of books about France and Italy including Paris, Paris: Journey Into the City of Light. We asked David about the latest version of the book, his passion for Paris and his love of writing.
When did you come to Paris for the first time? And why?
My first trip to Paris was way back in 1976 when I was a young man. A friend had moved here to study music and I dropped by to visit him on the way to exploring Europe—meaning, for me, exploring life, starting with Paris. I’d read about Paris, heard about Paris, wondered about Paris and was naturally very curious to see whether the actual city corresponded to the reputation, the myth. In ways it did, in others it seemed to fall short of expectations. I’d known Italy as a child—my mother is Italian and we lived in Rome and elsewhere in the mid-1960s. Paris seemed fairly tame and toneless after gutsy, chaotic, odoriferous Rome. The 1970s were not kind to Paris. It has improved immeasurably since then.
What do you miss about living in San Francisco?
San Francisco has clean air, a climate which is close to perfect—eternal spring—lots of real hills and sweeping views, a beautiful position on the SF Bay and Pacific… and San Franciscans are often charming, lively and optimistic—a change from most Parisians, who have edge and character to spare. The food is amazingly good in SF. Most of all, I suppose, it’s the sense that if you have a good idea you can run with it easily, find partners, make things happen. I still contribute to the city’s main newspaper, and I’m working with an e-book publisher and app developer from the area too. Things are straightforward in California compared to Paris.
What inspired you to write Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light?
After poking around the city for many years and reporting on many aspects of life here I felt there was no book available like the one I wanted to write. It seemed a good idea to take what I’d discovered and share it as widely as possible with a like-minded audience: intrepid explorers. I didn’t want to write a paean to Paris—a million of those exist already. Something personal yet informative, useful yet entertaining, is what I was angling for. The city itself was my inspiration, the city and its people and history.
What has changed in the April 2011 version?
The new edition is fully updated, edited (and improved), with 3 new chapters. It’s a bigger, better version of the book I began writing in the 1990s and finally published in 2005. All the essays are perennials: what’s amazing to me is how little the fundamentals change in Paris.
Whilst writing the book, what is the most intriguing story you learnt about Paris?
Egad, I learned so many… this could take years and many screens to answer. I suppose what really fascinated me most, perhaps because I had never thought of it before, was just how devastating an influence Georges Pompidou had on the city. He was president in the late 1960s and early ‘70s and (luckily) died young while still in the saddle. Pompidou was bent on “modernizing” Paris in the style of Baron Haussmann (who rebuilt the city in the mid-1800s). Unlike Haussmann Pompidou did not have the expertise, the passion for urbanism or architecture, and the times were very different in the ‘60s and ‘70s of the last century compared to the Second Empire. We wound up with millions of tons of cement: freeways and motorways, low-income housing projects (council housing), hideous skyscrapers, Europe’s biggest (and most unappealing) shopping mall (the Forum des Halles)… Most of the major problems Paris has today when it comes to urbanism, architecture, air pollution and architectural eyesores originate in the Pompidou era.
Have you always had aspirations of being a writer?
Since the age of about 16, yes. Luckily they’re not aspirations: I’ve lived by my pen (typewriter, laptop, whatever) for the last 25 years or so, writing articles, essays, and books, and translating books, poetry, etc.
Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction?
Both, either: I loved writing my crime novels (La tour de l’Immonde, in French, and Paris City of Night, in English), but my mainstay is nonfiction. Reality really is stranger than fiction, especially in the countries I’ve lived in: America, Italy and France. The convoluted craziness of it all—politics, the environment, culture, you name it—is extraordinary.
Which is your favourite book you have not written and why?
Do you mean one I would’ve like to write but haven’t, or do you simply mean someone else’s book? War and Peace may be the greatest book written by a human (let’s keep away from theology), short of that, and in the travel category I certainly would have been delighted to have written Jan Morris’s magical book about Venice. Perhaps I’ll attempt to do something in that vein on Paris.
What is your next writing project? Will it be Paris related?
My next book is titled THE OTHER WAY: SKEPTICS WALK THE WAY OF SAINT JAMES FROM PARIS TO THE PYRENEES. It starts in Paris, with the Saint-Jacques Tower and Rue Saint-Jacques, but it’s really about an atheist (me) trekking across rural France on pilgrimage routes with tongue firmly in cheek. It’s not just entertainment, however, because it arose from a series of personal crises and it’s the most thoughtful, reflective book I’ve written to date. I still can’t believe my wife and I walked 1,100 km and survived.
Have you ever had writer’s block and if so how, long did it last?
Luckily no—I can’t afford to have it and hope it never strikes. I’d wind up on the sidewalk. Earning a living as a writer can be beneficial—it keeps you active, with feet on the ground. It’s probably a form of depression and I find that work and exercise drive away the dark clouds in short order—activity and hunger.
What piece of advice would you give a tourist travelling to Paris?
Pick up a copy of “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light” of course, and take one of my private walking tours (www.parisparistours.com). Jokes aside, I would say, try your best to forget what you know about Paris or have heard or read about Paris and take it as it comes. Discover the places, people and odd phenomenon of the city with an open heart and mind—and wear comfortable walking shoes! Paris must be discovered on foot.
Name one place in Paris that inspires you.
The Place des Vosges: it’s an early example of inspired real-estate speculation (1605-1612), and it happens to be gorgeous, conveniently sited in the heart of the Marais district, and eminently walkable in wet weather (it is arcaded).
Name one thing you don't like about Paris.
Foul air and deafening noise from traffic and from the smoke-factory cafés inevitably sprawled below your bedroom windows.
Which museum or art gallery do you frequent the most?
The Musée Carnavalet—Paris’s municipal history museum. It is a labyrinth of rooms stuffed with treasures great and small, all soaked in pungent history.
As a big fan of Italy as well as France, do you prefer Italian or French food?
Both, thanks very much. Actually, I eat more Italian food than French: it must be my genetic make-up. I am happier and healthier eating Mediterranean fare. Freshness and simplicity are all—the complications and silliness of much French food is irritating.
How would you describe David Downie the Parisian?
An accidental Parisian with bad vision but very clear-eyed nonetheless. I love this baffling city but have no illusions about its rough side or the diamond-point nature of the Parisians, who are extremely fastidious in the most shocking ways. In any case, though I am a dual national and speak fluent French, the French will never accept me as one of their own, and that’s fine. Paris belongs to the world.
And finally, why should Paris fans buy Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light?
Salesmanship is not my forte. It was hard enough to write the book—it took 10 years—and I’m ill equipped to hawk it. I would say that it provides an original, fresh, different and admittedly quirky view of the city, and also offers many avenues for exploring Paris that you would not find in another book, any book.
Twitter : @davidddownie
Facebook : David-Downie
David Downie's book, Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light is available on Amazon in paperback and kindle versions. Click on the link below for further details.
We have teamed up with David and his publishers to give away three copies of his book Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light. Look out for further details in the next couple of days on Guide2Paris.com.
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