No, this list isn’t about irritating socialites. We’re talking about the City of Love! Imagine Paris, and you might picture Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Elysees. The capital of France is full of joie de vivre, but it also has plenty of strange traditions, quirky characters and crazy stories. So put on your beret, turn on your Maurice Chevalier CD and check out these ten amazing things you didn’t know about Paris (assuming you’re not a Parisian).
10. The Anti-Nazi Jazz Clubs
In addition to being genocidal maniacs, the Nazis were also major party poopers. Not only did they hate Jews, they also hated jazz. Why? Well, it was created by African-Americans, two things the Germans didn’t care for. That was bad news for Parisians. In the 1930s and ‘40s, the city was in love with jazz. There were clubs everywhere, and Paris was home to famous musicians a la Django Reinhardt. Unfortunately, the Nazis didn’t care for scat singing or saxophones and started shutting down the clubs. But Parisians weren’t going to give up their music without a fight.
Underground jazz clubs started popping up throughout the city. Since there was a shortage of musicians (most were fighting Nazis or fleeing to America), these joints played records which were spun by disquaires (disc jockeys). The clubs constantly changed locations to keep the Nazis guessing, and jazz fans had to know the secret password to get inside. And in a move that would’ve shocked Hitler, blacks and homosexuals were allowed to party with everybody else. These clubs were essentially a big “screw you” to the Fuhrer, and they also sowed the seeds of what would become disco. So not only did Paris give us Django, it also gave us Travolta.
9. The Hidden Portrait
Every town has its secrets, but Paris’s are artsy and beautiful like the city itself. Take for instance the story of Madame de Florian’s mysterious apartment. Right before World War II, de Florian fled to southern France, locking her apartment and leaving behind everything she owned. De Florian never returned, and for over seventy years, the room collected dust as Mrs. de Florian grew older and older. Finally, the aging socialite died at ninety-one, and a team of experts was sent to explore her abandoned apar tment.
Stepping into her flat was like walking through a wormhole. While men went to the moon, and the internet was invented, and the Twin Towers fell, her room remained untouched. The experts found a lot of strange things like a taxidermied ostrich and a Mickey Mouse doll that was older than most Disney movies. But the most exciting discovery was a painting of a beautiful woman in a pink dress. The experts recognized the brush strokes immediately. The portrait was done by Giovanni Boldini, one of the most famous artists of the 19th century. The woman was Marte de Florian—Boldini’s muse and Mrs. de Florian’s grandmother—a gorgeous actress who attracted painters and politicians alike. The experts even found her collection of love letters, some from Boldini himself. In 2010, the portrait was auctioned and sold for the staggering sum of €2.1 million.
8. An American Library in Paris
Even though Parisians primarily speak French (it is France after all), the city is associated with American authors. After World War I, writers like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and e. e. cummings made Paris their home. However, before the Lost Generation showed up, the French capital was already home to thousands of American novels.
During World War I, folks in the States mailed nearly 1.5 million books to Doughboys on the Western Front, hoping to keep their spirits up and their minds occupied. All these books ended up in the American Library, a building near the Eiffel Tower. With its motto of, “After the darkness, the light of books,” the library hoped to inspire and educate as well as entertain.
After the war, Hemingway and Gertrude Stein wrote for the library’s newsletter. When the Nazis invaded in 1940, the institution stayed open because the director was married to the daughter of the pro-Nazi prime minister. And despite persecution from the Gestapo, the library loaned books to Jews when other libraries refused to let them inside.
In the 1950s, the American Library stood up to another fascist. Senator Joseph McCarthy wasn’t content kicking commies out of America. He wanted them out of France too! McCarthy sent a squad of censors to American libraries across Europe. Their job was to purge bookshelves of Karl Marx’s influence. But when they showed up in Paris, the librarians refused to let them so much as look at the card catalogue.
If you ever visit Paris, drop by the American Library to check out their DVDs, biographies and magazines. You might even bump into famous authors researching their latest ideas. After all, if it was good enough for Hemingway, it’s good enough for anybody.
7. The Pont des Arts Love Locks
In a city famous for its amorous atmosphere, the Pont des Arts might be the most romantic spot in all of Paris. (Sara Jessica Parker thinks so anyway.) This pedestrian bridge spans the Seine River and is the perfect spot for lovers to lock lips…and padlocks for that matter. For the past several years, couples have visited the Pont des Arts to hang locks on the bridge’s chain link railing. Lovers scratch their initials on the padlock before tossing the key into the river below, symbolizing a relationship that will last forever.
Today, the Pont des Arts is covered in hundreds of locks, and Parisian officials are a little concerned. Some claim the bridge is an eyesore, but more important, some say it’s become a hazard. All those locks are actually causing damage, and several parts of the bridge are giving way under all that weight. Officials are worried parts of the bridge might tumble into the Seine, crashing into barges below.
In May 2010, someone mysteriously removed all the locks in the middle of the night, but you can’t stop true love. Starry-eyed tourists kept placing more padlocks on the railing. In 2013, Jean-Pierre Lecoq, mayor of Paris’s 6th district, suggested removing the locks every so often to make things easier on the bridge and provide room for new locks. It’d be a win-win situation for everyone involved. Of course, it doesn’t say much for eternal love when your symbolic lock is clipped off and tossed into the garbage.
6. The 213-Year-Old Ban on Women’s Pants
Chanel, Laurent, Dior, Fashion Week…Paris is the fashion capital of the world. However, just last year, any woman walking down the street could be arrested for a literal fashion crime. Until January 31, 2013, it was illegal for women to wear pants in Paris.
The bizarre law was created in 1800, right after the French Revolution. Evidently, it was all the rage for fashionable rebels to wear trousers instead of knee-breeches. After all, knee-breeches were for snobby aristocrats, the very guys French rebels had just overthrown. So to differentiate themselves from their previous overlords, the men wore pants that went all the way down to the ankles.
But there was a lot more “fraternite” than “liberte” in post-Revolutionary France. Women asked if they could wear long pants too, and the enlightened thinkers said, “Not unless you get permission from a police officer.” If ladies wore pants without asking a cop, they could be jailed. Even as France modernized, the law persisted. Two changes were made in 1892 and 1909, allowing women to wear pants while riding bikes and horses, but that was it. Even in 1942, when the French constitution was rewritten to say women were equal to men, the law still stood.
In fact, the anti-pants rule lasted for 213 years. Of course, women have been wearing pants in Paris for a very long time without any incidents with authorities. The law was largely ignored in the 20th century…but it was still on the books. Government officials didn’t feel it was important to repeal a law nobody followed anyway. Not until January 2013 that is, when Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, France’s minister of women’s rights, struck down the law. It was about time.
5. Do You Speak Touriste?
Many foreigners think Parisians are a bit impolite. In a 2012 poll, France was voted the rudest country in the world. However, the Paris tourist board and the Paris Chamber of Commerce are getting a little tired of this stereotype, especially since it’s bad for business. To combat the world’s negative perceptions, in 2013, they printed a pamphlet called “Do You Speak Touriste?” Subtitled “The Guide for Getting to Know Foreign Tourists Better,” the booklet encourages courtesy and consideration and is passed out to waiters, hotel workers and taxi cab drivers.
However, in hoping to dispel the idea of the rude Frenchman, the guidebook has spread a few stereotypes of its own. “Do You Speak Touriste?” is divided into eleven sections, each one focusing on a different nationality. Every chapter has tips on how to interact with these visitors, and there are more than a few generalizations. For example, the guide says Italians aren’t very patient, and Brazilians are night owls. Germans want everything to be spick and span, the Chinese love shopping, and Americans expect everyone to speak fluent English. Of course, the pamphlet is just trying to be helpful, but you’ve got to admit, it’s a bit of a backhanded compliment to tourists everywhere.
4. The Wolves of Paris
In 1450, the City of Light was plunged into icy darkness. A terrible winter ravaged France, wreaking havoc with the food chain. As plants withered, the wildlife dwindled, and that posted a serious problem for France’s predators.
If you’ve ever seen The Grey, you know wolves can get pretty vicious. Wolves aren’t usually maneaters, but this particular park was desperate for food. Famished, they headed for the biggest smorgasbord in the neighborhood…Paris.
Unfortunately for 15th century Parisians, their city walls had fallen into disrepair. The fortifications built in the 1200s were now full of huge gaps. Officials were too broke or too lazy to make repairs, or perhaps they didn’t expect an invasion…especially an invasion of killer dogs. But Les Loups de Paris found the breach and made themselves at home, dining on anyone who got in their way. By the time they were done feasting, they’d eaten forty Parisians.
Needless to say, people were terrified. You couldn’t even step outside without fear of being devoured. The leader of the pack had even taken on legendary status and was given his own name: Courtaud (“Bobtail”). Eventually, Parisians decided to fight back. When the wolves returned, the city dwellers lured the animals onto the Ile de La Cite, an island in the Seine River, and they suddenly turned the tables. The citizens grabbed their weapons and attacked, stabbing the wolves with spears and hurling stones at the animals, until every last dog was dead. The reign of furry terror was over.
3. The Underground Cataphile Societies
Beneath Paris is a real-life labyrinth (minus David Bowie). It stretches for hundreds of miles and is made up of canals, sewers, bank vaults, catacombs and limestone quarries. Many of these quarries were dug during the Roman Empire. Later on, farmers grew mushrooms in these dark tunnels, and during World War II, both the French and the Nazis set up bases below the city.
Most shocking are the catacombs, forgotten tombs that house six million skeletons, all dumped into the tunnels during the 18th and 19th century. If these tunnels sound like something out of a fantasy novel, well, they are. There’s an underground lake beneath the Palais Garnier (an opera house) which features in Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera.
These caves attract underground adventurers who call themselves cataphiles, explorers who love hiking through Paris Below. The cataphile movement started in the ‘70s, and even though it was illegal to wander through the tunnels, the cataphiles didn’t care. They entered through drains, vents and doorways and crawled through Paris’s intestines. The cataphiles had parties, experimented with drugs, painted on the walls, mapped out the underground and even built special rooms for sleeping overnight. While the city tried to block the entrances in the ‘80s, the cataphiles are pretty sneaky, and young people still venture down there today.
However, some cataphiles are more extreme than others. In 2004, underground police officers were patrolling the tunnels when they found a tarpaulin that read, “Building site, No access.” Curious, they pushed it back and found a CCTV camera and a device that played dog sounds to frighten away intruders. Further down the tunnel, they stumbled into a cavernous room over 4,000 square feet wide. There were seats cut into the stone, and the walls were covered with Stars of David, Celtic crosses and swastikas. Cops also found a movie screen, a projector and lots of films, mostly old detective flicks. There was even a restaurant and fully stocked bar, complete with three working phone lines. Things got even weirder three days later when officers returned to find a mysterious note that said, “Do not try to find us.” Police were never sure who was watching film noir movies beneath Paris, and it makes you wonder what else is hidden down there.
2. The Man Who Was Stuck In a Paris Airport
In The Terminal, Tom Hanks plays a man trapped in New York’s JFK International Airport. Thanks to a complicated bureaucracy, Hanks can’t enter America or return to his homeland. The plot sounds preposterous, but shockingly, it’s based on a true story.
In 1977, Mehran Nasseri was kicked out of Iran (without a passport) for protesting against the Shah. For four years, Nasseri went from country to country, asking for help, but everyone turned him down. It wasn’t until he reached Belgium in 1981 that he was given refugee status and the appropriate documents.
Nasseri left Belgium in 1986, hoping to move to England. As he traveled through France, someone stole his briefcase…which contained his refugee credentials. He flew to London anyway, but when officials found he didn’t have his paperwork, they sent him back to Charles de Gaulle airport where was arrested by Paris police.
However, they couldn’t do anything with him. Since he didn’t have paperwork, they couldn’t deport him, but they wouldn’t let him onto French soil either. When he asked Belgium for an extra set of documents, the government refused, claiming he might not be the real Mehran Nasseri. The poor guy was stuck in limbo, trapped in the Charles de Gaulle airport indefinitely.
Terminal One became Nasseri’s new home, and he lived there for eighteen years. He slept on benches and kept his belongings in boxes. He washed his clothes in the bathroom sink and lived off meals in the food court. Since he didn’t have money, he relied on the kindness of friends. And if he wanted a whiff of fresh air, he could only stand at the door and inhale. He couldn’t actually go outside.
However, Nasseri had several chances to leave the airport. In 1995, Belgium said he could return, and in 1999, France said he could become a resident. Both times he came up with excuses to stay in the airport. After so many years of living in Terminal One, Nasseri was afraid to leave. Eventually, he was hospitalized in 2006, and he was cared for by the French Red Cross. In 2007, he was moved to a homeless shelter in Paris, and that’s the last anyone has heard of him.
1. Paris Syndrome
Tourists visiting Paris have pretty high expectation. They’ve seen movies like Amelie, Sabrina and Ratatouille, and they’ve heard about Paris in the spring. However, when they actually get there, many of them are in for a culture shock, especially if they’re Japanese. In the Land of the Rising Sun, the media depicts Paris is the most stereotypical ways possible. TV shows and films portray a magical city where beautiful people sip wine, visit cafes and visit the Louvre on a regular basis. Of course, real life is a lot harsher, and when Japanese tourists show up expecting paradise, they’re often disappointed…with weird results.
Approximately twelve Japanese tourists per year suffer from an affliction known as “Paris Syndrome.” It occurs when their idealized concept of Paris clashes with reality. Like any other city, Paris has grumpy locals, crafty criminals and garbage woes. After realizing Paris isn’t heaven on Earth, many first-time Japanese visitors freak out. They started sweating and feel dizzy. They even suffer from hallucinations and paranoia. One woman was sure that someone was trying to kill her with microwaves, and two others were convinced their room had been bugged. For some reason, the syndrome mainly affects women in their thirties, but men aren’t immune. One guy started telling everyone he was Louis XIV.
Fortunately, the Japanese embassy in Paris is used to this kind of thing and has a hotline for anyone needing assistance. On occasion, they even fly distressed tourists back to Japan. While a few suffer complete mental breakdowns, most victims are okay after a few days of rest. Having said that, they might develop a fear of traveling, and they’re definitely going to toss their Edith Piaf albums into the nearest trashcan.