Finally, I’m in Paris. I now live in the 2e arrondissement, quartier Montorgueil. This probably means nothing to you unless you’re French or familiar with Paris. Here’s some history by way of explanation.
Paris is divided into twenty neighborhoods called arrondissements. Their numbering starts in the middle of Paris, near the Louvre, and gets larger in concentric circles as you move away from the center. Thus, the highest numbers are on the periphery and lowest are in the city center. Arrondissements combine into sectors — the combination of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th make the sector, for example, where I now live. This was done in the mid-19th century when Paris’ old medieval city was razed and a new, rational and modern city was built on the rubble. I think you’ll find this to be a pattern in France: a hyper-rationalization and structuring of society which doesn’t seek a clear purpose. Today, Paris chugs on as if arrondissements and a rationally gridded city never mattered, which is true.
The hierarchical organization imposed on the city is as rigid and orderly — sector>arrondissement>quartier – as the city is chaotic. I love the chaos even though my mind and life have been disciplined. Streets, here, are charmingly narrow and lumpy, crammed with people jostling, shopping and walking. People walk a lot in Paris. It’s not safe on the trains (for a newbie like me) so I, too, walk. I see much as I stroll around gathering information. In my home quarter, the Montorgueil, I pass block after block of vendor tables in front of stores. It’s quite a sight.
This is not a quiet city. There’s not a lot of angry shouting but quite a bit of loud talking. Perhaps only loud speech is heard above the constant din? I’ve noticed that little contacts, touches, exchanges of glances, soft words … make Parisian culture. If these things disappeared, so will the underlying culture. Little human touches are additive — they combine into a civil society. In my wee opinion, the chaos of Paris is it’s strength. This chaos percolates up from the people who live there. How the city was once divided matters not.
The second arrondissement is very near the center of town. It seems like a working class area to me – Wikipedia says that here there are almost 63,000 jobs per Km^2. Since there are only 22,000 people in total who live in this quartier, workers must commute. Outside of retail, I have no idea what they do. I’ll let you know when I figure it out.
The second arrondissement is the home of the Bourse. This is the old name for the Paris Stock Exchange; today it’s given the very bureaucratic name, “Euronext Paris.” The EU is relentless … ever,, ever, ever closer, gobbling up one culture after the next in a frantic desire to homogenize or destroy specific European cultures such as the French. No institution from any one country is permitted to exist unless it’s tentacles reach into other European countries. Thus, today’s Euronext includes six markets in addition to France: Amsterdam, Brussels, Dublin, Lisbon, Milan, Oslo and Paris.
So, the old Bourse is defunct. Trading has gone virtual. Gone are open-outcry trades that dominated all exchanges for more than a century, including those in America.
My former brother-in-law was a trader on the CBOT (Chicago Board of Trade) during its outcry years. When I was very young and curious about what he did, he told me about the physicality of outcry, how those with the loudest and lowest voices would be heard as bigger bodies muscled out smaller ones. He was 6’6” – a huge man, which he believed advantaged him as a trader. He literally stood above his competition. This wasn’t enough to protect him, however: he told me his body was covered with bruises he received while trading on the floor.
I used to love watching the open outcry on the floor of the CBOT from a gallery – to me, it was pure theater. As with the Bourse, the CBOT and all the other exchanges have been replaced by blue, blinking lights on large screens. Brokers don’t know each other anymore. It’s anonymous. Bot-driven. Faster than the human mind.
And no one is bruised.
Although I can’t put a finger on it, something was lost when the electronic trading platform replaced open outcry, though few seem to lament outcry’s passing. I do, however. I see the end of open outcry as another example of the dissolution of common culture. When the human contact between traders was replaced by cold computers, this slice of common culture took a nick. Traders who performed on the Bourse and CBOT had crawled up a set ladder, starting as runners and moving upward to the apex which was buying a seat and trading on and for your own dime. This still happens, but in an environment of anonymity and anomie. This is never good.
The famous trading floor of the Bourse was removed in 1987.
What remains is an empty building, a huge, neoclassical, relentlessly symmetric, horizontal structure with a long colonnade along the front. It’s old, but not that old. After Napoleon ordered it’s construction, he named it after the architect that designed it: Alexandre Théodore Brongniart, so it’s mid-19th century, like most of Paris.
Things that were, but no longer are, leave their architectural footprint for the next generation to figure out. Many years ago, I wrote a few articles for Bloomberg in his Chicago office. I hated going in there because it had blue electronic ticker tape that revolved around the ceiling of the room like a wallpaper border … as fish in a huge, central tank swam in water that glowed and flickered blue with each trade. It reminded me of Monet’s painting, Waterloo Bridge, which has an inescapable, pale blue … but darker.
No one else seemed bothered by the blueness. Not even the fish.
Anyway, today’s Bourse is now just another convention centre. This is another central theme of Paris; old purposeful and useful things have been jettisoned. What remains are empty shells. Buildings once useful have been culturally marginalized and lack meaning or purpose.
I understand that all progress extracts a price; but at some point, perhaps, that price could be too high?
The quartier Montorgueil, where I live, is a food vendor mecca. Little stores spill out into the street so people walking see what’s for sale. It’s tastefully arranged. Beautifully fresh. Much is organic, too. The French really like food and seem to like to cook, too. I was talking with a woman who in mid-sentence turned to me and said, “I have to go cook for my daughter now …” and scurried off. Her daughter, she had just told me, was nineteen years of age which strikes me as plenty old to cook for herself … but whatever.
The French buy what they need to cook the big meal for the day, which takes place in the early afternoon, not the evening, buying only the ingredients they’ll use to prepare that meal.
Perhaps you’ll understand what I’m saying, here, but Americans do not share the French mentality toward food shopping … not at all. Instead of buying just what we need, we cram full our huge, double sub-zero refrigerator in the kitchen. We also stuff our garage refrigerator, our beer refrigerator and our six-foot chest freezer. All of this is done in the name of being “stocked up,” “saving for a rainy day” and “prepared” which are important virtues in traditional American culture.
Thus, Americans shop infrequently and don’t enjoy it. At one point I had the goal of shopping every other week because I detested shopping so much. I never quite reached that goal, but came close.
Furthermore, the idea of a huge food storage, cooking two meals at once, having 3000 pounds of dry red wheat in sealed, mylar bags with oxygen absorbers … would strike the french as totally nuts. I think I’ll go quiet, now, but want you to know that I’ve stored thousands of pounds of wheat, rice and other grains, honey, dried foods including butter and eggs, etc, some of which is in my garage, the majority in a storage unit. I’ll never starve. Almost all of my acquaintances do the same. We don’t trust the government to take care of us so we aim to be self-sufficient.
I confess that it makes me uncomfortable to see only butter, jam, juice and a loaf of bread in my tiny refrigerator here. Where’s the food? I like seeing a refrigerator stacked with clear plastic containers carefully categorized and labelled. I like to know there’s food ready-to-eat after being microwaved. The French would say this attitude is at least a venial sin, if not mortal.
Americans eat to live – the French live to eat. That’s the fundamental difference in a nutshell, a bit exaggerated but close..
As someone who never learned to cook and has no desire to cook, I find the French focus on food a bit disorienting. I wish they’d talk about something else. When I was standing in one of the 19th-century glazed commercial arcades waiting for rain to abate, I listened to the people around me talk only about food. It got to me.
Having said this, French food is lip-smackingly delicious …