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Paris Modern

Looking east from the Pont de Tolbiac in the 13th Arrondissement you wouldn't know you were in Paris. As far as the eye can see, there are cranes and glass towers punctuating the rabbit warrens of old working-class neighborhoods. Below, a soundless METEOR train glides by as a girl in high-tech headphones speed-walks past the four glass towers of the Bibliothèque Nationale, towardthe Rue Louise-Weiss, Paris's new arts center. Dressed in gladiator sandals, black wraparound sunglasses, and pleated micromini, she looks like a replicant out of Blade Runner. This is not the familiar tableau of old Paris, perfectly preserved in snapshots by Robert Doisneau. That view, of the luminous white dome of Sacré Coeur, the iconic Eiffel Tower, and the grand spires of Notre Dame, is 180 degrees to the west. This is the picture of new Paris.

Everyone has his or her own private set of Paris postcards. Mine is a series of snapshots of the city I saw in my twenties. I lived there for five years and started my professional life as a fashion reporter, chronicling the movements of the couturiers housed along the Faubourg-St.-Honoré. I had a room with a French family in St.-Germain. I got to know a bunch of precocious French girls who came from very good families but spoke like truck drivers and chain-smoked Philip Morris Lights. Domitille, Bibiane, Priscille: each exuded that irresistible nonchalance that is the essence of French style. They were effortlessly brilliant chefs, buying their organic vegetables at the market on the Boulevard Raspail. Every year they fled the city for the month of August, holing up in whitewashed houses on the Île de Ré. They wore creased dark denim jeans from A.P.C. On Saturdays they would throw rumpled trench coats over fishnet stockings and dance the night away at a boîte called Castel's. When they got married and became mothers, they put their babies in tiny Shetland sweaters from a funny little shop on Rue Madame, and stashed away their beat-up Hermès Birkin bags the minute American women began carrying them in a garish shade of orange ostrich. Opting, instead, for some soft canvas cargo bag they found at an army-navy store.

Later, as a New York-based fashion editor, I made quarterly pilgrimages to the collections every year for a decade, and Paris became my home away from home. As a writer and editor for Vogue and then editor in chief of Harper's Bazaar, I depended on Paris as a muse, for inspiration. It was an almost Pavlovian reflex: I would catch a whiff of black tobacco and briny Camembert cheese and suddenly I would have ideas for magazine articles. An emerald Christian Lacroix couture dress could inspire a whole page of green products. Two rangy girls sauntering down the Faubourg-St.-Honoré in long bell-bottoms and Françoise Hardy fringes would transform a spring fashion report. But things change—people more than cities, certainly. I dropped out of the fashion business. Instead of bistro menus and supermodels, I trained my eye on preschool applications and model airplanes. The history I shared with Paris began to fade like an old photograph.

When I went back last May, with my husband and son in tow, it had been a few years since I'd seen Paris. Staring out the window on a bleary, sleep-deprived cab ride in from the airport, I suddenly felt a rush of anticipation and dread as we crossed the Périphérique into central Paris. Would I have the same Pavlovian reaction? Would the prospect of a totally changed city still inspire me? I wanted to discover a Paris I had never seen before and yet I hoped, at the same time, to find everything as I'd left it.

We dumped our bags at Hôtel Le Ste.-Beuve, a charming place we chose for its proximity to the Luxembourg Gardens. My husband and son set off for the puppet shows, excited to discover the Sunday spectacle I'd religiously attended with my goddaughter years before when I would visit. I ventured south in the direction of St.-Germain, retracing my favorite walk down Rue Madame and across the Place St.-Sulpice, to meet my old friend Bibiane. Save for a sleek new Yves Saint Laurent boutique, not much had changed physically in the neighborhood. The same waiters at the Café Croix Rouge, where I used to steal away from the fashion fray for a Poilâne sandwich, were still rushing around pouring ballons of Beaujolais for a crowd that would soon decamp to St.-Tropez and other points south. Students from the Sciences Po still loitered outside Le Basil smoking putrid Gauloises cigarettes. And Bibiane still had her gorgeous 18th-century apartment with double-height ceilings and a wrought-iron balcony overlooking Rue de Grenelle. On the surface, she had not changed much: she still wore that chic indifference like a favorite old couture jacket and she still knew how to make a delicious meal out of three eggs, some leftover cheese, and a piece of bread. There were subtle differences, though. She'd quit smoking and now had to tolerate the nasty habit in her two eldest kids. She wore sneakers instead of high heels. She talked about America in less reverent tones.

That French-American divide was one I knew too well. During my years in Paris, I'd made every effort to be accepted by the French. I learned the slang, using words like bringue and choper instead of fête or prendre. I followed the rigid manners of keeping your hands on the table during meals, and adopted the correct dress code of black tights and high heels. I took weekly invitations to Sunday lunch—the tabernacle of French family life—as signs of success. Yet no matter how I tried, I would always be the American who worked too hard, spoke too loudly, and spent too freely.

So nothing about the tension arising between Americans and the French surprised me on our visit to Paris. Friends had told me of newscasters surreptitiously smirking when they announced the capture ofnew American POW's. Americans had taken to calling the French "Chiraqis." A few days prior to our arrival, our hotel sent a poignant letter of apology by e-mail. "Dear American Friends," it read, "the truth is we, the French people, like American folks. Beyond our pride of being French, we greatly admire American people."

In a taxi on my way back to the hotel from Bibiane's place, I encountered my first brush with anti-Americanism. "Fashion has not been the same in this city since that guy came around with his 1970's look and his bell-bottom pants," the unusually affable driver said when I told him I had worked in the fashion business. Which impostor could he mean? Karl Lagerfeld, who had certainly generated years of Gallic vitriol when, as a German, he took over the house of Chanel? Could he mean Alexander McQueen, the trash-talking son of a Cockney taxi driver who was practically chased out of the hidebound house of Givenchy? As we full-throttled it down the ancient cow path known as Rue des Saints-Pères, the subject of the driver's ire came to me: Was it Tom Ford, who took over YSL? "Ah, yes!" he said, punching his fist in the air as if I'd just scored the winning goal of the World Cup finals. Ah, yes! An American had ruined French fashion.

Things got worse at McDonald's the next day. (For the record, my son had refused countless offers of haricots verts and Camembert and so we were desperate.) I was minding my own business, ordering Chicken McNuggets and reaching for a napkin next to the register when the serveuse behind the counter suddenly slapped my hand. "You have to ask," she hissed. My husband was shocked. I calmly explained that without this kind of behavior, without the caustic undercurrent of hostility and indifference, Paris would not be Paris. It would be Disneyland.

When I told the Israeli-born Lanvin designer Alber Elbaz my story the next day over lunch, he laughed. "Of course, it's Paris, and it took me two years of living here to accept that," he said. "If it weren't that way, it wouldn't be France and we wouldn't want to be here, would we?" Elbaz described how he had fought French customs at every turn, determined to live as he had in New York—in a loft in a trendy, ungentrified neighborhood, dinners at a different restaurant every night. Eventually he gave up and found himself a bourgeois apartment off the Place des Victoires and ordered steak for lunch every other day at the stuffy bar in the Hôtel de Crillon, around the corner from his office.


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