Parisians' Sordid Love Affair with Brooklyn
Aug 14 2013
Photo by Flickr user angeloangelo
Before I moved to Paris three years ago, although I’d already been to the city and was lucky enough to call French my second language, I still held more than a few romantic preconceived notions. Every metropolis has a set of stereotypes linked to it, and Paris exists in many people's minds as a charming, luxurious, timeless hub of style and sophistication—in fact, so many people expect the City of Light to be what they want it to be that the reality has rendered some tourists physically sick with disappointment. But just as Paris is idealized by foreigners, Parisians hold oversimplified version of American cities in their heads as well. While we may look at Paris as a sparkling labyrinth of cigarettes and pastel macarons, Parisians look at us with the same Vaseline on the lens—especially when it comes to New York.
Manhattan has always been an object of desire and intimidation for the French, but more recently Brooklyn has been added to the list of boroughs worth idolizing. While what it "means" to be a young Brooklynite may have been discussed and re-discussed in the States until it has lost all meaning (at this point, if you live in north Brooklyn you're lucky if the New York Times hasn't done a trend piece focused on your block) it’s easy to forget that there are many places where this kudzu of nebulous social indicators has only just begun to lay its delicate roots.
For many Parisians, “trendy” is synonymous with New York, especially Brooklyn, especially Williamsburg, which they treat as both a geographical area (which it is) and a Wes-Anderson-meets-Woody-Allen fever dream (which ignores the long history of the borough as a home to working-class people and minorities, but hey, whatever). Brooklyn, for them, can be reduced to a specific style that's little more that a string of signifiers—just like how in Americans' heads, "Paris" means a guy in a beret and a striped shirt riding a bicycle with a basket of baguettes in the front.
To get a portrait of what that mental image might be, I met up with Alexandre, a Parisian house DJ for the group Les Radis Sanglants (the Bloody Radishes), in a Seventh Arrondissement cafe which boasts a be-mohawked man behind the counter flipping shakers à la Tom Cruise in Cocktail, and an inexplicable display of boiled eggs on every vintage table. When asked what the Brooklyn-in-Paris style would be to him, he confidently replied, “Definitely tattoos. Tattoos, and hair that’s a little too styled, and a pea coat or jacket. There’s a little bit of British influence there, with the New York style.”
I asked him if he had dressed differently for the occasion when he went to New York. Diving into his precariously-stacked burger with a fork and knife, his blue striped shirt nicely offset by the other, slightly different, blue striped shirt that poked through his deep V-neck, he laughed at the question. "You know the Hamptons?" he replied. "When we go to the Hamptons, French people like to go all out: polo shirt and boat [shoes] and khakis. When we're in Williamsburg, we wear the cut-off jeans and basketball hats. We like to play it up, because every part of New York has its own uniform. Paris is much more homogenous, and so it's fun to go to a place where you can play a role a little bit."
I admit that the idea of a ragtag gaggle of French DJs coming to New York with three suitcases, one for each distinct "look," was charming, in a so-first-world-you-get-a-nosebleed kind of way. But it was hard to imagine that anyone would actually put that much effort into playing some fanciful character in a city of strangers.
But the Paris version of New York is less a city full of flesh-and-blood people who occasionally actually wear "uniforms" like "basketball hats," than it is a source of references, memes, and pop culture staples. Here you are so surrounded by American cultural exports you can start to view the States as some kind of dystopian amusement park where everyone lives in a major city, everyone is either morbidly obese or gorgeous, and everyone has some kind of ethnic-minority sidekick. Who wouldn't want to play it up a little bit when you actually go there?
It struck me that Alexandre wasn't embarrassed about adopting the stereotypes of Brooklyn the way many Americans are. When he told me that “lots of people have called [him] a hipster,” it was with a gentle laugh, perhaps even a twinge of pride. It was clear that, though one would have to be blind not to see the negative connotations that can often be associated with that nebulous subculture, it was almost something you would want to find yourself called.
A few days later, he invited me to one of his group's shows, which was on a rather impressive boat/party venue luxuriously anchored on the edge of the Seine, right across from the Musée D’Orsay. The snapbacks, vintage dresses, and American catchphrases peppered throughout conversations in French formed a kind of cultural blur. It was neither Parisian nor Williamsburgian, but somewhere in between, like the Facebook posts from my cultured French friends, which invariably feature some misspelled American idiom and a curse word or two.
“You have to speak English now,” explained Claire, a stunning woman in her mid-20s who wore a delicate white dress and elaborate sneakers. “If you don’t, people will look at you like you’re stupid. And plus, it’s cool. I love speaking English—there are so many things I don’t even know how to say in French that work so well in English.” I asked her if she’d been to New York, the hometown of the team whose hat was jauntily perched atop her boyfriend's shaved head. “Yes, three times! I can’t wait to go back. I love Brooklyn, I would love to live there. Paris feels like such a small town when you go to New York for the first time.”
Photo via Cliche Paris
Despite speaking in French, she added a heavy dusting of American expressions. There is often a flourish of pride when a French person slips into English. The way “small town” rolled off of her tongue, it felt almost like an invitation to an elite club. You know what I mean? it seemed to say. Of course you do, you get it.
I asked her if this party was a hipster party.
“Yeah, probably,” she laughed. “But I don’t care if someone calls me a hipster. Honestly, I think it just means that they think you’re cool.”
As she floated away from the bar, back into a crowd of people so ethnically and sartorially diverse you would think they’d been assembled for a yogurt commercial, I felt charmed by her appreciation of Brooklyn. A constant among the people I’d talked to was how reverently they regarded New York, how impressed they were by its scope and its ambition. While Paris is undeniably a world city, it still largely possesses a neighborhood feel that inhibits the frenetic, up-all-night thrill that so many of these young adults were clearly looking for. All of them told me, without fail, that the best and brightest in France are currently leaving, whether to California or New York or Asia. Their desire to speak perfect English undoubtedly helped draw them to New York, but it was based in a much bigger dream—becoming world citizens in a country that is in many ways defined by its cultural elitism.
Between the cultural itch to move onto bigger and better career prospects and the lightness with which everyone seemed to be taking the H-word, it became clear that the Williamsburg aesthetic was something of a status symbol. In order to be labeled a hipster, or to be called out for your Brooklyn style, you needed to speak good English and have an intimate knowledge of American culture. You needed to be on the cutting edge of many cultural trends at once. You needed some disposable income to throw around. And most significantly, you needed to have ambitions that would be impossible to realize if you were limited to France alone. As Alexandre told me, “If you want your project to be successful right now, you have to work in English. You have to know English, you have to share your work in English, you have to read English-language media. You can’t just work in French anymore.”
Many French people, of course, don’t have the ability to tap into the English-speaking world like the people at the party. Despite the growing imperative for bilingualism, only about half of the people I know in France have a professional working command of the language—in order to be thought of as a Brooklyn-style hipster, you have to have a certain amount of access to Brooklyn itself, which isn't an option for many poorer people. While the Williamsburg idolizers might not count as a new aristocracy, it is certainly a social caste.
Photo by Flickr user dicktay2000
There's a place in my neighborhood I've frequented for a long time, a Manhattan-esque cocktail bar with an ironic name. With its dark, luxurious red interior, blackout curtains, and scruffily good-looking male bartenders who take immense pride in making you the perfect old fashioned, it seemed the ideal place to sip a well-made drink and ask some more questions about the cultural relationship between New York and Paris. And though I have always gotten at least a little gentle ribbing when I order my dirty martini made with vodka instead of gin—it should be noted that the only vodka they carry is an imported quinoa vodka—I knew I would be in for some good answers.
Unfortunately, a bartender I’d never encountered before was making drinks in the empty pre-dinner hours that Saturday, and was in no mood to discuss the subject. In between bemoaning the subpar drink that he had to make for the German tourists in the booth to his colleague and imitating my hand motions with an affected girly flourish, he flipped his long hair away from his face and brusquely asked me what kind of article I was writing. After handing me the business card of the press representative for their group of bars, he made an offhand comment about how many people are interested in talking about hipster culture in Paris lately. His colleagues flashed me an apologetic look, as if to say, “Don’t listen to this guy, he does not speak for us.”
This Parisian bartender was decidedly French, but his command of English and intimate knowledge of New York gastronomy marked him as one of those world citizens who made regular trips to Brooklyn. He probably knew Bushwick almost as well as he knew the Sixth Arrondissement. He also made me uncomfortable. I asked another bartender—a much nicer one, who asked to remain nameless—if he thought the other guy was a hipster. “Yeah,” he said. “But he’s really just an asshole.”
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