Interview With David Downie About His Book


KHS: David, you are originally from San Francisco, you have lived here in Paris for more than twenty years and you recently wrote a book entitled 'Paris, Paris : Journey into the City of Light'. It includes thirty chapters about 'Paris places', 'people', 'phenomena' and features some extraordinarily beautiful black-and-white photographs taken by your wife Alison Harris.
What makes you so enthusiastic about the 'City of Light'?

DAVID DOWNIE: The list would be long: beyond the physical beauty of the city, its setting, the Seine that curves through it in a gentle arc, I enjoy the layered aspect. It's a great layer-cake of art, archeology, history and culture, an endlessly rich cake by the way.
I've lived here forever but every time I step out I discover something. Then there are the practicalities, like the fact that I can live happily without a car-I'm very much anti-car in old European cities. The public transit system is great, it's a safe city that's wonderful to walk through at night.
As a French citizen-I'm a dual national-I'm covered by health care and social security. Paris has plenty of drawbacks, of course, and I describe some in the book, but by and large it's a fantastic city, a real city, a place where the urban edge and seductive beauty go hand in hand.

KHS : 'David Downie has a delightful sensibility and the most delighted eye, the most perseverance, and the perfect French, bien sÃ?r, and these allow him to uncover secrets', writes Diane Johnson in her foreword to your book. What are the most exciting mysteries you unveil?

DAVID DOWNIE: Well, if I told you I'd be giving them away. I'd rather think people will enjoy them more by reading the book and discovering them for themselves, or on one of my tours. Put it this way, when I go out for a walk through Paris I look for things, I look at everything from the gutter to the sky, and I'm not afraid to push through street doors, go up staircases, poke around places that seem off limits but often aren't-at least not during daylight hours. I guess I really enjoy revealing the mysteries accessible to all that are somehow overlooked. And I like to put them in a historical context, so that people can wrap their minds around them and appreciate the reasons for their existence and continued popularity. You find the most amazing things hidden away in courtyards, cemeteries, parks-even train stations!

KHS : When you first arrived in Paris, what impressed you most?

DAVID DOWNIE: The first time I visited Paris was in fall 1976 and frankly I wasn't impressed, I was shocked by the air pollution, the traffic, the unwashed people, the filth of the Seine-all the nasty things in terms of urbanism that the Pompidou era had created, from the hideous shopping mall at 'Les Halles' to the tower and mall at Montparnasse. Luckily I returned several times in the late 1970s and early 1980s and began to see things differently.
By 1986 when I moved here fulltime I'd decided that Paris was probably the only really cosmopolitan European city where I could both enjoy life and make a living. I was impressed by the efficiency of everything from the telephone company on up-I got a phone in a matter of days, whereas in Italy, where I'd been living for several years, it had taken me 6 months!
I also felt that the sheer number of things to see and do-150 museums, scores of monuments, 20 big arrondissements to explore-would keep me busy for a very long time. I was impressed by the challenges that young French people faced when they arrived here. Paris was and is the New York City of France, and I decided I liked it better than the real New York, where I'd lived in 1983-84. I decided to make my stand.

KHS : When you were looking for a place to settle, how did you choose 'your district' and for what reasons did you like it?

DAVID DOWNIE: I think I've answered some of this above. I lived in various parts of Paris, including the 17 th arrondissment near 'Place des Ternes'. I wound up in the Marais because the woman who later became my wife already lived there. And I also happened to love the Marais' old buildings, the patchwork of streets and squares, and all the history. The hole-in-the-wall shops, too. The liveliness. But Paris has so many great neighborhoods. It's hard to go wrong. I'd say the major issue is, do you want quiet above all, or liveliness? Do you prefer the old or the new? Once you've answered those two questions the search becomes a lot easier.

KHS : Do you still remember your first apartment visits here in Paris and what was different here in comparison to America?

DAVID DOWNIE: Paris apartments are often small and the plumbing is a challenge. For Americans used to big houses or apartments it can be a shock. Also, the lack of insulation between apartments and floors of a building. Sometimes you can hear everything from neighboring properties. Of course the grander and more modern apartments in Paris are often fabulous and there's no trouble with them, as long as you can get used to having a separate toilet room. What apartments have here is atmosphere, and that compensates for other shortcomings.

KHS : There is a particularly interesting chapter in your book which you entitled 'Past Masters: Keepers of the Craft' and where you describe the city's long history of craftsmanship, its traditions and some of its principal locations. If you were to decorate or to furnish a beautiful apartment, what are your favourite addresses and places?

DAVID DOWNIE: Well, believe it or not, I would start at the BHV-the Bazar de l'Hotel de Ville department store. The basement is a treasure trove with everything you need in terms of hardware. Upstairs you'll find many useful and pretty high-quality furnishings and housewares.
When it comes to artisans-the highly specialized crafts workers who make Paris one of the great crafts cities in Europe-everything depends on what you're looking for and how much you want to spend. And your time. If you need to have visiting cards printed before you do anything else, and you demand the best quality, go to an engraver named Gerard Desquand. His workshop is in the 11 th arrondissement.
To find a dozen furniture makers, restorers, sellers of custom floor tiles, chandelier makers and more, go to the 'Viaduc des Arts'-a series of arcaded workshops on Avenue Daumesnil. It's a municipally funded project and opened about 10 years ago. Michel Fey is one. He comes from a clan of tooled-leatherworkers whose great grandfather Andre created Maison Fey in 1900. But you'll also find Yamamoto contemporary Japanese furniture, and Cherif, the trendy Algerian-French designer, and more-everything from blown glass to hand-painted armoirs.
The best way to go about finding them is, put together a wish-list and consult with me. I can set up a tour of artisans' workshops. You really have to see most of them by appointment. They rarely speak anything but French. And some can be prickly. But it's worth the effort. Or get my wife Alison to take you around to the flea markets and antique dealers. She's an expert.

KHS : Do you have architectural preferences?

DAVID DOWNIE: I like old buildings, the older the better. I also love those big, overloaded turn-of-the-century piles, with bay windows and faux turrets and silly cupolas. Haussmann-era buildings from the mid-19th century are wonderful, too. They're spacious, with parquet floors, balconies, and wide doors, and sometimes big kitchens.

KHS : David, you are also a tour guide. Do you have a tip for KHS customers once they have moved in their new Parisian homes?

DAVID DOWNIE: Yes, I would encourage them to get to know their neighborhoods and the rest of the city as soon as possible, and of course I would encourage them to take one of my tours. Don't just read guidebooks. Go out and meet people, talk to merchants, get to know as many locals as you can. I enjoy creating custom tours precisely because each new Parisian is different, and will be interested in different aspects of the city-art, architecture, history, food, dining, parks and gardens... Paris has so much to offer, but you can also spend a lot of time finding your bearings. I hesitate to say 'wasting your time' but, if you don't know how to navigate the city, and if you have language difficulties, that can be a real problem. The more you know, and the more you see, the more you'll enjoy your new home. I was fortunate in that I married a woman who'd grown up in Paris. Having an insider and a friend to take you around really transforms the whole experience, and that's what my tours are all about.

KHS: David, thank you very much!
The book:
David Downie, 'Paris, Paris - Journey into the City of Light'
Foreword by Diane Johnson
Photographs by Alison Harris
published in the US by Transatlantic Press
ISBN 0-9769251-0-9