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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Brief History of Anti-Semitism in Paris, Part 1

Before beginning this article, I would like to state that I am by no means an expert on this subject. I am addressing this issue because when I have talked with people about the subject of the treatment of the Jews in Paris throughout its history, for better or for worse, there are quite a few misconceptions on this subject. For example, I've heard from people that Jews did not have a hard time in Paris in World War II (definitely not true), and I have also heard that there is an underlying resentment for the Jews that exists in the populace today (not that I have seen). Over the next couple of blogs, I will do my best to give a brief outline of the treatment of the Jewish population in Paris, beginning with the Middle Ages and going up to the present day.

The persecution of the Jews in Paris began quite early in their history with King Phillippe Auguste in 1180. Under the pressure of his court, he arrested the Jews while in their synagogues, had them imprisoned, and left to purchase their freedom using their wealth. This was done as a political move to get on the side of the many debtors in Paris, who owed significant amounts of money to Jewish moneylenders (the Templars also worked in this field, and were persecuted for it not too far down the road). The money earned from the Jews who bought their way out of jail helped build the famous wall that surrounded the city of Paris, known as the Louvre (not the museum). Pieces of this wall are still visible today in parts of the Latin Quarter, St. Germain, and the Marais. Two years later, Phillipe Auguste expelled the Jews from France and confiscated their savings, which wiped out the country's debt. He later repealed the decree, but his original expulsion created a wave of anti-semitism that made it difficult for the Jews to be treated fairly upon their return.

The Jews made their way back into France and slowly brought themselves back into prominence, as great centers of learning were created and wealth was being restored. However, under Phillipe le Bel in 1306, the Jews were once again expelled from France, this time for supposedly charging too high of interest rates. The Lombards, also known as money lenders in France at this time, were treated in a similar fashion. The Templars were perhaps treated even more cruelly as many were forced to admit to bogus crimes and were subsequently burned at the stake.

One of the most infamous cases involving anti-Semitism in Paris occurred in 1894-1895. Alfred Dreyfus was a French artillery captain from a somewhat wealthy Jewish family from Alsace, which had been annexed from France by Germany following the disastrous Franco-Prussian war. Many Jews fled in the direction of Paris, and with the influx of Jews moving to Paris came a subsequent rise in anti-Semitism (somewhat similar to the current influx of North Africans entering France leading to an alarming rise of the French far right political parties and candidates. This subject in itself is worthy of a another article). In October 1894, Dreyfus was accused of passing on intelligence regarding a new cannon being used by the French army. A cleaner apparently found this paper in the waste basket and passed it on to the Chief of the French General Staff, who accused Dreyfus of having written it, though Dreyfus himself claimed that it was obviously a forgery since it wasn't his handwriting. Unfortunately, no one took confidence in his word and he was subjected to a sham of a trial, stripped of his decorations and rank, and sent to serve out a life sentence on Devil's Island, off the coast of French Guiana in South America.

Years later, it was found that the note on which the case was based was indeed a forgery. An intelligence officer brought this to the attention of his superiors, who refused to believe him and to cover up the discovery, sent the intelligence officer to jail as well. In 1898, Émile Zola, in perhaps one his most famous written pieces, "J'Accuse!", attacked the Parisian populace and brought to the forefront the real issue in this case: "Dreyfus symbolized either the eternal Jewish traitor or the denial of justice" (Seven Ages of Paris, Pg. 286). Though his efforts led to a retrial, Zola himself was imprisoned briefly following the article's publication, and perhaps led to his suspected murder in 1902. Dreyfus was finally cleared of the charges in 1906, after more than a decade of captivity. Leading up to his release, the Parisians became divided into "Nationalists" and "Revisionists", and provided a preview of things to come down the road.

In Part 2 of this subject, I will briefly cover events involving the Jewish populace in World War II.

Most of the historical information included in the article came from Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne. This is one of the best, if not the best, books that I have read on the history of this city. If you have interest in the history of Paris, this certainly worth checking out.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at .

If you are on facebook, click like on my facebook page here. Thanks for reading!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Rollerblading in Paris

Remember rollerblading? I certainly do. I had my first pair of rollerblades when I was maybe 6 years old. I had them so I could practice playing hockey off the ice. This further evolved into joining a street hockey team, then secretly signing with their rival. I even got into the inline phase of the mid to late 90's, wearing jnco's and senate t-shirts and trying to grind on curbs and rails (that phase only lasted a few months however). Lastly, I played roller hockey for my school while in grad school. I certainly had a connection to rollerblading growing up, but mainly as a way to play more hockey.

Rollerblading seemed to hit its peak somewhere in the 90's and has slowly tapered off from there. Whenever back in the U.S., it seems rare to see kids rollerblading to school, or playing in pick up street hockey games in the schoolyard. Aggressive inline skating has all but disappeared from the mainstream, as the X-Games, which used to be the pinnacle event for the sport, stopped paying attention to it and even cut the event in 2005. Seems that rollerblading's popularity is on the downswing.

In the U.S. perhaps. Not so in France.

I remember hanging out with a French friend on a Saturday night, and I was asking how long they would be staying at this party. He said he wouldn't stay out too late since the next day him and his friends planned on getting up to rollerblade.

On Sundays behind my apartment in the 15ème arrondissement, there is a gathering of 30-40 people skating very slowly and clumsily around tiny cones that they brought with them for the purpose of having a place to turn. They set up on a big patch of concrete which is reserved for pedestrian traffic. I was jogging yesterday and stopped what I was doing to watch for a few minutes. I was impressed that not only were there little kids out there, but the majority of the skaters were adults, and quite a few were at least in their 50's, if not older. People of all sizes (as there were a couple of bigger ones out there) and ages were parading around in circles on the pavement, having a great time. This is far from the only example of rollerblading in Paris.

On Friday nights, there is a group that gets together and rollerblades at a fairly good pace around the city of Paris. The police even get involved and block off traffic for them.

When I say a group, I don't mean a few friends. There are occasions where 15,000 people will show up for the weekly event. If you don't believe me, look at their website here.

So this is what I would like to understand: how did rollerblading become so popular here? And why now?

It can't be a result of their underlying love of ice hockey, as aside from those in the Alps, most people in France could not care less about the sport. There are a dedicated few who play roller hockey near Pont Alexandre III, as well as a few kids who play near my old office, but other than that, the motive for rollerblading seems to lie somewhere else.

A thought crossed my mind yesterday: Disco was huge here, and by many accounts, is still pretty damn popular here. I never liked disco music in the U.S., and I like it even less now as I hear it more often. Not only that, people don't necessarily cringe when they hear it, they actually seem to enjoy it. What's more is that rollerskating and disco were inextricably linked for a while, as many when to roller discos in the 1970's and 80's. Could this be a continuation on this pastime? Could it be that young people want to emulate their parents by using the modern equivalent of roller skates? Could it be that those in their 40's and 50's want to get back on to some wheels and roll as they did in the days of yesteryear? Maybe this helped the sport to take off in Paris, but it's not what is keeping it going.

The one thing that cannot be argued here is that rollerblading is extremely popular here in Paris. How it became popular, however, is still a mystery to me. If you happen to know, don't hesitate to let me know.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at .

If you are on facebook, click like on my facebook page
here. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Wearing Shorts in Paris

In the last few days I have had a couple of experiences which aid in reinforcing my reasoning for writing this article on the French perception of shorts.

Just yesterday, Julie surprised me for my birthday with a guided tour of L'Hôtel de Ville, or Paris' big city hall. It is very difficult to get access to the city hall, so I was thrilled to be along for the tour. Through a contact, Julie got us on tour with an elderly group from the Loire Valley.

About halfway through the tour, one of the ladies asked me "Where you with the group this morning?," even though I'm sure she knew that I wasn't, since we were the only ones below the age of 55. I told her no, that we got on this tour thanks to a friend, and this tour was a total surprise. She responded by saying, "Well it must have been since you are wearing shorts." She also commented to Julie to be careful when she sat down, as people might be able to see up her shorts.

In retrospect, if I had known that we would be on a tour of the city hall, I probably would have dressed a little nicer. I was wearing a collared shirt, shorts, and Birkenstock sandals. It was warm yesterday, so I wanted to be comfortable. Most of the group on tour were dressed as if going to a wedding; men were in suits and ties and ladies in elegant dresses.

If this was the only instance of being repressed for wearing shorts, I probably wouldn't be writing an article on the subject. However, this was not the only occasion.

A couple of weeks ago, I was giving a tour on another unusually warm day for April. As we were eating at one of the restaurants on tour, one of the cooks came out to say hello and see how things were going. As I got up to shake his hand, he comments, "Oh, are you being a tourist today as well?" As he said this, he looked down at my legs.

You guessed it, I was wearing shorts.

There was nothing mean in the way he said it, so I replied that it was hot and I like to be comfortable when giving a tour, and he agreed, and then we continued talking about other things.

One other example: A year or two ago, I was giving another tour with a group of anglophones when I heard a lady behind us start to comment to her daughter, "I don't get what it is with those tourists and wearing shorts." She didn't realize that someone in the group might speak French. I turned around as soon as she said this and made eye contact with her. Before I had the chance to respond, she realized that I understood, and pulled a 90 degree turn into the closest shop.

This is something that continues to baffle me. In a country where topless beaches are prevalent, and magazine kiosks next to schools are plastered with nude women in sexual acts, why do people here have fits about others who wear shorts?

When I first arrived here, I really tried my best to blend in with the French. I tried to eat like them, talk like them, and also dress like them. When it started to become warm, I tried to wear jeans when I worked outside, but alas, I gave up. It wasn't worth it for me to sacrifice my comfort for conformity.

Perhaps in a city where people still get dressed up just to go downstairs to go to the baker for 30 seconds, shorts are seen as sloppy. Rarely will one find a Parisian male whose legs are not covered by pants. Sandals, in addition, are still a rarity here, and a good way to stand out as a tourist.

Nevertheless, the amount of indignation and disgust with wearing shorts seems strangely out of proportion, especially considering how France is usually seen as more relaxed and liberal in terms of lifestyle. If anyone could provide further insight into why shorts are seen in such a poor light here in Paris, please let me know. Until then, I guess I'll just put up with the whispers and comments about baring my hairy legs to the public.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at .

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here. Thanks for reading!

Monday, April 4, 2011


Without a doubt, France is a country full of culinary tradition. UNESCO even decided to recognize it last year as "part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity." Many of their specialities are very well known, such as their wine, cheese, mustard, and bread. Many common French meals are known to and eaten by people who have never set foot in France, and perhaps have no desire to do so. However, today I am going to discuss a little known tradition which could actually lead to prosecution in modern France.

When I was studying French culinary traditions this past winter to prepare myself for my tours, I came across one that seemed almost unbelievable in terms of its cruelty and perhaps its originality as well. The Ortolan is a small bird that is native to most of Europe, France included. As is the case with almost any creature that has once been walking or flying on its own in France, it has found its way to the dinner table. In the past, eating Ortolan was fairly common in the Gascogne area of France.

There are a couple of ways to prepare the bird, but I'll give the most graphic way first. Once these birds are caught with a net, they are kept alive in a darkened room or space, such as a shoebox. These birds are constantly fed, and as they are nocturnal feeders, they continue to eat and eat as they are not exposed to sunlight, or really any light for that matter. Once they are deemed fat enough, they are drowned in Armagnac and then cooked whole in the oven. Once brought to the table, they are eaten in one bite, with everything except the head and the feathers.

An alternate way of preparing the bird is doing so on a spit, cooking it solely in its own fat. I took this from a French book on traditions, La France Retrouvée, which mentions the fattening of the birds, but not their method of slaughter. This lets the reader come to their own conclusion on how to execute the bird, though I doubt many would have thought on their own to drown the birds in liquor.

When eating an Ortolan, the tradition says to eat it in silence with a napkin placed over the head. One reason given is that the bird is quite juicy and can potentially explode when bitten. Another reason I found was that it is said that the napkin allows one to get the full aroma of these birds, as they are apparently quite flavorful. However, my favorite hypothesis that I came across was that the diners in the past felt ashamed of eating the bird, and thus were hiding from God.

In France, it is illegal to catch these birds or pay for them, but oddly enough, it is still legal to eat them. Hypothetically, if a friend cooked an ortolan for you, you could eat it without getting in trouble. However, if you happen to pay money for the meal, then both parties could potentially go to jail. Therefore, it won't be likely that one will find these on a restaurant menu in France anytime soon (nor will it be served on my tour).

Every now and again, certain culinary traditions, both in France and worldwide, give the need to try and forget what exactly you are eating, or how it was prepared (foie gras would be another great example from France. If you like foie gras, yet don't know how it was made, I probably wouldn't bother looking into it if you happen to be squeamish with food). If the rare opportunity arises and you find a roasted Ortolan on your plate, I can't tell you what to do, but no matter your choice, the outcome of the experience will no doubt be memorable.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at .

If you are on facebook, click like on my facebook page
here. Thanks for reading!