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Graham Robb's Paris Adventures

Historian-adventurer Graham Robb takes us to the back stories, back streets, and the people of Paris.

The Avenue Champs Elysees in Paris on Easter Sunday, March 24, 1940. (AP)

Think Paris and you may think Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysees, little cafés, the Seine.

Graham Robb thinks people. Parisians.

Robb has written award-winning biographies of Balzac, Victor Hugo, Rimbaud. Now, he’s plumbing Paris through the lives of greats and denizens.

The young Napoleon on his first fling in the city. Proust on the Metro. Hitler at dawn at the Arc de Triomphe. Miles Davis in love. Marie Antoinette, lost on the Left Bank.

This Hour, On Point: Graham Robb on getting to know Paris, through Parisians.


Graham Robb, historian and author. His new book is “Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris.” You can read an excerpt. His biographies of Balzac, Victor Hugo and Rimbaud were selected as the New York Times’ Editors’ Choice for best books of the year. His previous book was “The Discovery of France.”

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  • Sasha

    Could you discuss Paris’ official line on France’s role in the Holocaust and how that has changed over the years, as the French grappled with their collaborationist past?

  • Mr. Trees

    One of the things that I loved about Paris is that it lived up to the hype. It’s the only place that I have traveled that really overwhelmed my expectations.

  • Drowsy

    I just wanted to thank Mr. Robb for his “The Discovery of France.” It is so deeply satisfying to read a great generalist at work.

    That book said a lot about the Parisian invention of France, and what we know of French regional identities, similar to our Madison Avenue and Hollywood.

  • http://ModernParis Catherine Neal Wilson

    Whenever I visit Paris, I feel like a modern, global citizen. Parisians seem very forward thinking concerning the environment and ways to make a greener, better city life. The biking movement, the metro and tramways, the trains that connect everything so that cars become unnessessary, especially for the tourist. The green, living plants growing up walls of buildings, the open spaces of the parks, the large avenues lift the spirit. I think this is why most people love Paris. It is approachable and easy to navigate while being fascinating in it’s energy and creativity.

  • Sarah Roche-Mahdi

    I spend several weeks and often months in a tiny apartment behind the Pantheon on one of the loveliest squares in Paris. I speak fluent French and love the verbal interaction with the “natives.” from newspaper merchant, baker, fishmonger, market people, pharmacist…. I love walking for hours, I love the Luxemburg Garden, I love the public transportation system, medical care,the hargware dept in BHV (department store next to City Hall). Cliche, but I feel more at home there than anywhere else. Also very romantic times spent there with my late husband.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Paris, early May 1987. Walking all over, city designed like a bicycle wheel, or more aptly, a sun with radiating rays. Found a butcher shop opening on the street, with a big pig’s head for sale, like a centerpiece, impaled, Marie Antoinette-style. I posed beside it, also grinning, and let someone photograph me.
    As for the Parisian “attitude,” I wanted to go to the opera. Went to the box office. Was told I was not stylish enough. I said I could go off and purchase the proper outfit. The ticket seller told me, no, madame, it is not possible for you to be tres chic.
    So there.

  • John

    Perhaps the ticket seller saw you posing with the pig’s head. :)

  • Nathalie

    I lived in Paris after college and worked for a famous architect for a few years. Architecture in this country is not at all perceived the same way – it is a serious way of life over there!

  • Ellen Dibble

    I think the tickets were all sold out. It was Luciano Pavorati (sp?) that night. But why not insult me. IBF-YBG — I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone; no price to pay for being like that to me.
    But they seem to lose no opportunity to display that savoir faire. There was a bus strike, and I was heading to Brussels. The woman at the bus station, when I called for the schedule, had only one rate-of-speed, TRES GRAND VITESSE, for her speech. I know some French. But she had no idea it would be quicker to tell me once slowly.

  • http://onpointradio.org D.Grant P

    WW2 and Parisians view of military force. Why would General Eisenhower allow General DeGaulle to enter Paris and not the working armies. Certainly the French resistance worked hard for victory, but the allies were seemingly given second rate status to DeGaulle who had not led a force since 1940. To that end after the war what was the reason for Parisian hate for american serviceman. When we have such a good history with them dating to our revolution and we had so honorably won back France for the French?

  • Ellen Dibble

    To be fair, though the Parisian at the bus station seemed intent on leaving me in the dust, letting me know that if I were “tres chic,” I wouldn’t need to be told twice, there is a Parisian embrace. Take the lady sitting in front of me on the plane on the way over. She was a grande dame, coming from a winter spent in Miami, and she had major carry-on luggage, to wit, a very large hatbox. I’m sure it contained a hat. Did I help her put that in the overhead? I don’t know, but she did invite me to stay with her at her place in Paris. Apparently a very posh place. I can tell you that when a Turkish gentleman on a plane invited me to his place on the Turkish coast I had one sort of reaction. But to the Parisian lady, I was speechless.

  • catherine

    Unforgetable memories from two separate trips to Paris. The first, between George W Bush administrations, viewing the movie “W” in a Paris theater: the total political awareness of the mostly 25-35 yr old viewers, their grasp of the satirical humor, disbelief at some of the antics portrayed, yet a respect for the office of President. A respect I would like to see more of in our own Country.
    Another memory, in July of 2004, when the streets along the Seine were covered with sand and the city celebrated Paris Plage, a beach celebration complete with picnics, beach balls, bathing suits and, of course, being Paris, music and singing and dancing.

  • jeffe

    D.Grant P you ask why did Eisenhower allow General DeGaulle to enter Paris first. Answer: Politics and picking the right fights. That’s why Eisenhower was a great general and why the allies won the war.

    We Americans forget, it was not us alone.

  • Robert William Wolff

    Great program! Having visited Paris many times between 1989 and 2001, as I worked on the design of Auditorium Dijon, hearing about the author’s book this morning has me anticipating answers to many questions as I walked the streets of this fantastic city. Many thanks for featuring this author and book!!


    Never been to Europe and might not ever visit that place. I keep wondering why all the Fertile land and the Blooming Flowers of Europe.

    I come to imagine if the land is fertile probably from the centuries of people being killed in France and across Europe. Just imagine the violent culture that Europeans did for the past thousands of years.

    Millions or should I say Billions of lives lost in A small continent of Europe and Why the land is fertile from human fertilizer.

    As for me I have more to explore the land and the ethnically diverse culture of the 7,000 islands of the Philippines.

    The Pearl of the Orient

  • Ellen Dibble

    Akilez, up till about 20 years ago, there were not so many Spanish-speaking Americans. Students learned Latin, French, Spanish in about that order. And post-World War II, the idea was that Europe was decimated, until a phoenix-like rebirth about the time jet travel became fairly easy. Education here featured not only the history of Europe, more or less from the Greek and Roman empire forward, but the literature of Europe. To me, Europe was a little like anti-matter, an alternative universe; it seemed like fiction. I landed there at about age 40, in Brussels, waited on a train platform, and a Spanish-speaking woman came up to me to ask directions. Go figure. Anyway, once I had gone by train across Europe a few times, spent time in several cities, I had objective correlatives for most of what I had read about, and a sense of distance, and of the way the cultures melded, so then I felt grounded. I can imagine the rest.
    I would have no idea how to go about doing this kind of grounding of myself in Asia, India, Africa, South America. I don’t know the languages, don’t know the literature, history, politics.
    Hopefully, education (and cultural broadening here in the US) enables 21st century Americans (like you) to be able to look for their roots around the globe and report back.

  • http://www.filipinoboston.blogspot.com AKILEZ

    A tourist describe the Philippines as a mixture of Malay,Madrid and Madison Avenue.

    Actually that comment I posted was from a 90 year old Filipina comfort woman of WW2. I was reading the National Geographic magazine edition of Amsterdam in a bus in Manila and she was beside me and saw the beautiful Tulips pics. she commented about Human Fertilizer and ever since then I kept wondering why she said that.

    Well, from the beginning of time and until end of WW2 Europe indeed is full of violent history. the Philippine history books only started recording violence when Ferdinand Magellan discovered the islands in 1521 since then the culture and peaceful life of the native Filipinos changed for good.

    Don’t get me wrong Europe is pretty but their are more to explore in North America or in the Philippines.

    Before I explore Europe I want to explore the vast land of this melting pot of a country the USA.

  • Ellen Dibble

    There is a famous poem schoolchildren learn about one of the cemeteries for I think World War I dead in I think France, which may be what the Filipina comfort woman was thinking of. It starts: “In Flanders fields the poppies grow, between the crosses row on row.” Poppies are not tulips, but if Spanish is her primary language, fields of flowers in Europe may connote to her — especially if viewing a National Geographic about Amsterdam, about Holland — tulips. And the Flanders field poem more or less has the fallen from the wars, the blood, fertilizing the flowers that come up. So that may be what she’s thinking of. Certain parts of Belgium, that fought-over swath, have seen blood-baths lasting years; there were trenches where you could die of flu or untreated athlete’s foot etc even if you never put your head “over the top” to get it blown off.

  • John Koester

    I visited Paris about twenty years ago. I started every
    conversation in French, and even if we switched to English, I don’t recall any obvious rudeness. Two things I particularly remmeber: a double decker carousel in a little city park, and the small brasss placques commemorating people killed in the liberation of Paris in 1944. One I will always remember: “Etudiant,
    14 ans. Mort por La France”. Beauty has a price.
    John Koester

  • Greg B.

    Can you tell me the name and artist of the song played at the end of this program?

  • David Cowdrill

    The background music was great! Could you provide us with CD identification please

  • Rouen_ed

    Joe Dassin. “Aux Champs Elysées”

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