'There Are No Fat People in Paris'

The Atlantic in Paris: Dispatch #9
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Two Saturdays ago, I visited the venerable bookstore Shakespeare and Company. It was a hot day. The store was small and stifling. A woman walked around handing out watermelon. I picked up a copy of Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Revolution and Primo Levi's If This Is A Man. I went upstairs, sat in a room with view of the street and I think even the river. Two things happened while I sat there. First, I fell in love with Primo Levi, an unoriginal event which nevertheless deserves (and shall receive) elaboration. Second, I decided that this room was perfect. 

Paris requires effort. There are stairs everywhere and the stairs are all but mandatory. In America the stairs are off to the side, and the elevator is prominent. Often, it's the reverse here -- the stairs are out front and often beautifully wrought. It almost feels sinful to take an elevator. There's a strong culture of pedestrianism. The streets belong to the people, and that encourages walking. On a normal day, I can end up walking for an hour or more. There's so much to see. And those who don't walk use the public bike share.

There is almost no air conditioning -- not in the homes, not in the offices, not on 99 percent of the subway trains. The windows are actually open on the subways. There's no ice in the water or in any of the drinks and I don't ask for any. Travel isn't colonization. I think that discomfort is life unbound. But because of that discomfort, that constant sheen of sweat, finding a naturally cool place is a divine experience. That day when I stumbled into Shakespeare and Company's reading room, it was like stumbling into an undiscovered oasis, like finding lost treasure.

Despite all the extra effort, I find that I consume less energy. I don't know that I eat any "healthier" in the sense of what "health" tends to mean back home. There are fat and carbs all around me. There's butter in most of the dishes. It's nothing see a Parisian walking the street while inhaling a long baguette. Bread is served with every meal, but oddly enough, without butter, which leads me to believe that they think of butter as something to be put in things, not on them. 

I eat my fries with mayonnaise. I now find ketchup to be too sweet. Without exception I eat dessert -- preferably something with chocolate. I eat a panini or a sandwich every day, but I don't eat any chips. You can find junk-food here, but you have to be looking for it. I don't really order out. I've stopped drinking Diet Coke. In general I eat a lot less, and I drink a lot more -- a half a bottle of wine every night. But I don't think I've been drunk once since I've been here. I feel a lot better--more energy, lighter on my feet, a clearer head.

Before I came here, so many people told me, "There are no fat people in Paris." But I think this misses something more telling. There are "no" stunningly athletic people either. There just doesn't seem to be much gusto for spending two hours in the gym here. The people don't seem very prone to our extremes. And they are not, to my eyes, particularly thin. They look like how I remember people looking in 1983. I suspect they look this way because of some things that strike me -- the constant movement, the diet, the natural discomfort -- are part of their culture.

I don't know how much of this I can take back home with me. My sense is that I am reacting to my context. I am conflicted about all of this. In many ways, America feels like a much "freer" place. There's more choice, and a strong desire to deliver that choice at the lowest cost possible. There's no sense in France that "the customer is always right." This city is very old -- Pont Neuf is older than America itself. The Merovingian Clovis who reigned 1500 years ago is buried just outside the city. My home of New York is one of the oldest cities in America, but by the ancient standards of Paris, it is still a baby.

With that age comes a great dose of tradition, and a sense of the conservative. Things are done at a certain way. You don't just roll up on someone and say "Excusez-moi..." and then proceed into your query. You had better start with a "Bonjour" or a "Bonsoir."  The specifics of their language means much more to them then it means to us. I think actually all of this suits me better. I love old things, and I loved old Europe before I ever bore witness. I wanted to study Charlemagne in high school. I didn't really know how. And I am terrorized by choice back home--by the take-out menus, the calorie counts, the organic, the local, the low-fat. By the end of the day, my brain is mush. I can't regulate.

We talk about culture as a way of establishing hierarchies -- as though a hammer could, somehow, be innately better than a hacksaw. I believe that cultures take shape for actual reasons, responding to real environments. If Americans love choice, if we love our air-conditioning, and our ice, if we love our comforts, and our elevators, the question should not be, "How do we change?" for that too is a kind of colonization. Better to ask "Why do we love those things? How do they profit us? What we do we stand to lose should we abandon them?" 

I love the tradition of low architecture here. But I also wonder how that tradition affects the cost of living for actual people. And so this is the other thing about culture. It tends to be an interlocking network, a machine of related gears, pulleys and levers. The thing you find so valuable may well be related to something else which you find utterly objectionable. I suspect that the instinct toward ensuring an abundance of fresh, high-quality food is not so distant from the instinct to ban the hijab burka.

There is surely some knowledge to be taken back home. But in thinking about myself and my country, and "cultural" change, I find that I am more reformist than revolutionary. We are who we are. Our unchanging acre is forever our own.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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