Friday, May 11, 2007

Main Street, France

Yesterday I took a trip over an ocean and a continent and suddenly found myself, or so I thought, in the Northgate Mall in a Seattle suburb. Nothing had changed since I'd last been there ten years ago: the same food court, the same potted plants, the same background music. Or close enough for my addled brain not to distinguish the difference, at any rate. For a moment, I could forget I was only a twenty minute drive from the Eiffel Tower, and ten minutes from the château of Versailles.

Welcome to Parly 2, a little piece of Americana stranded outside Paris and suburbia at its best or worst, depending on your point of view.

Start with the mall: it looks exactly like any mall in the United States built in the 1970s, with four or five anchor department stores in giant gray, windowless boxes connected by a two-level corridor lined with small chain stores. There's a food court with plenty of tables scattered on an indoor patio. There are handcarts with informal boutiques selling anything and everything you might impulse buy, from costume jewelry to personalized picture frames. There's a play area for small children. It's enough to induce a sort of geographic vertigo, and for a moment I felt I could actually forget where I was. It's a familiarity utterly unassociated with any specific, real place.

I, of all people, shouldn't be fazed by this, right? I mean, France is a civilized country, surely they must have shopping malls as one of the necessary trappings of modern life? Actually, Parly 2 is somewhat of an exception. There are other shopping malls, of course, although the idea of doing one's shopping while strolling down a synthetic, indoor main street doesn't seem to have caught on as much here as back in the US. However, the other malls I know have all failed to recreate that particularly American sense of nowhereness. You could never mistake the Forum des Halls, a poorly-aging and somewhat sordid mall in the center of Paris, for someplace in Iowa. Ditto for the Quatre Temps at La Défense: the illusion just doesn't work, and you can't forget that if you step outside you'll be in the middle of Paris' financial district. Only Parly 2 feels like the real thing.

Parly 2 is only half shopping mall, with the other half an urban planning experiment. This is where the American ideal became something quintessentially French. All around the mall is a giant park of condominiums built in the late 1960s as the new middle-class residential paradise. The buildings are small and reasonably attractive given their age, and none are more than a few stories high. They're scattered about a nicely landscaped park that manages to disguise their uniformity.

They represent the best of what was mostly an unfortunate epoch in French residential construction. All through the 60s and 70s, ugly, cookie-cutter apartment buildings sprang up along the periphery of French cities. The ugliest are often housing projects or HLMs, and the worst of them are usually long, ten- to fifteen-story rectangular blocks of concrete. In what seems to have been a half-hearted attempt at originality, they're sometimes painted in bright, 1970s colors, and the paint is now peeling and in disrepair.

I have trouble believing that all this once seemed like a good idea. I can't picture the France of the 1950s, but I've been told that much of the available urban housing was decrepit and unsanitary. The fanciest Parisian apartments had only rudimentary comforts, and toilets were usually one-or-fewer per floor and shared among neighbors. Even the worst apartments were in short supply, and immigrants to cities from rural areas and former colonies needing somewhere to live increasingly gathered in shanty towns.

Next to this, the HLM was progress and Parly 2 a veritable paradise. A colleague of mine who recently retired has lived in Parly 2 since her children were small, and she loves it. When I told her we dreamt of a quaint, Haussmanian apartment, she declared that she wouldn't trade her modern condominium for anything. "I know what it's like to live in l'ancien," she told me. "Hot in the summer, cold in the winter, the endless flights of stairs, the shared toilet sur le palier. I've lived that already, and there's nothing charming about it." My mother-in-law, a member of the same generation, feels exactly the same way.

I guess I feel the same way about Parly 2 but in the other direction: the suburban dream, the one-size-fits-all way of life, I've been there and I've done that. If I'd wanted that for good, I would have stayed in the US where I'd have a fancier mall and an enormous house instead of a condo.

All that said, what was I doing at Parly 2 on Thursday night, you ask, if it clearly wasn't a bout of nostalgia? Well, it is great one-stop shopping, and conveniently open until 9 o'clock on weeknights, and I was on a quest for maternity clothes. I may be an expat snob, but I can be pragmatic when I need to be.


Parisienne Mais Presque said...

Parly 2, by the way, was originally to be named Paris 2: a second Paris, better than the original. I've been told that the mayor of Paris at the time somehow prevented the real estate developers from going with this name, arguing that there can be only one Paris (luckily, he hasn't much pull in Las Vegas). They changed Paris to Parly but kept the 2. Many of the newer malls in France having a 2 as well, I assume to associate themselves somehow with Parly 2.

Reena said...

Em - Sounds like an adventure!