Why I shun the crass, expensive, naff Champs Elysees
- 13 October 2013
- From the section Magazine
I think I'm getting a reputation as the local eccentric. Down the end of the street where the BBC office is situated, on the corner with the Champs Elysees, someone recently got authorisation to run an on-street business venture that has my blood boiling.
Every morning there are three or four ultra-expensive brightly-coloured open-top sports cars - Lamborettis or Maserghinis or something - with the words "Drive Me" painted on the side.
Some rapper-style individuals lounge around in garments bearing the logo "Dream on Board". (Can you think of a more clunking, ugly slogan than "Dream on Board?" That's the new globalised English for you.)
Anyway, it obviously works, because there's a constant small crowd of tourists gathered round, taking pictures of themselves and their friends in front of these garish totems of abject ostentation, and occasionally one of them will shell out the 90 euros (£76, $121) and go for a closely-supervised spin round the block.
So why am I becoming the local eccentric? Because every morning when I cycle past I cannot help grinding my teeth and snarling - a bit like the elderly Clint Eastwood in the film Gran Torino - and muttering, not-so-sotto voce, pathetic interjections such as "It's only a car!" in the direction of the gawking tourists and the preening minders, who when they hear me stare back in total bewilderment. What planet is he on? is the general drift.
But you see, Dream on Board - to me - is the modern Champs Elysees. Crass, style-less: expensive but naff.
A year or two ago, I spotted a long line of people outside an elegant early 19th Century building down the bottom end near Avenue Montaigne. Aha, I thought. Maybe a new gallery. Or some rich philanthropist has opened his mansion for the elevation of the masses.
But no, this particular hotel particulier had been acquired by a well-known American clothing company, and to this day the queues of shoppers (some of them, oddly, Americans) still stretch round the block, while the narcissistic boy greeters, turning vanity into an art-form, pose with swooning young females from Colombia or Taiwan.
Lest you take this as the cantankerous rambling of a xenophobic sourpuss, let me assure you that most Parisians feel exactly the same way. Most Parisians don't go to the Champs Elysees (except maybe at Christmas to see the lights). They know it's crowded, stressful, overpriced - essentially a place for people not from the city to get a glimpse of an imaginary Paris that doesn't actually exist.
Indeed it's a standing joke at the BBC, that if you want to go through that essential journalistic ritual known as the "vox pop" (interviewing passers-by) what the French call micro-trottoir what you don't do is go to Paris's most famous street. Why? Because you'll find it hard to identify anyone on the Champs-Elysees who's actually French.
One person who I know agrees with me is Florian Anselme, author of a recent book called the Hidden Life of the Champs-Elysees. He bemoaned to me the loss of the old Champs, where Parisians would come and flaner - stroll beneath the plane trees, take a coffee, meet friends, go window shopping outside the luxury stores. All rather charming and French.
Thirty years ago, he said, when Jacques Chirac was mayor, it all started changing. The big brands came in. Gulf Arabs began buying up the property. The flaneurs "flanned" away.
And what they left behind is also, in parts, increasingly insalubrious. The Rue de Ponthieu for example, a side-street of the Champs-Elysees, though taking its romantic-sounding name from a northern French dukedom that was once the appanage of mediaeval kings of England, now has a line of nightclubs favoured by footballers, the banlieue drug-rich and escort girls.
Transplanted to modern-day Paris, the caricaturist William Hogarth could have done a wonderful drawing there on the evils of cocaine, violence and electronic music played at very loud volumes. The young woman I saw urinating in the gutter at 7am last Sunday would probably have featured.
It's all a great shame, because the Champs Elysees - the Elysian Fields - is in its conception a majestic piece of town planning. The long vista is still breathtaking, and in the lower part where the gardens are it remains pretty much unchanged. But too long has it rested on its laurels, like some corrupt late Roman emperor.
Today if I'm asked by first-time visitors where they should go in Paris, my advice is clear. Love the Louvre. Marvel at the Marais. Elate at the Ile de la Cite. Get an eyeful of the Eiffel. But as Lewis Carroll said of the frumious bandersnatch: shun the Champs Elysees.
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