Nathalie Marie Camerlynck pokes some holes in the apparent haute couture trappings that define a city’s culture – Sydney can take on Paris any ole day of the week…
Every once in a while some latte-sipping liberal, ristretto-gulping radical or flat white intellectual will lament Australia’s lack of culture. Melbourne is passable, they say, but Sydney? In recent years, as Sydney’s bar and restaurant scene has transformed into something unique and truly world-class, the cries have only gotten louder. As pretension is democratised, our culture complex is only becoming worse. I’m a dual citizen who has been living in Paris for the last four years, but I’m still a Sydney girl at heart. I grew up smoking in the pokey rooms of old-man pubs at a time when tempura-battered barramundi was just plain old fish and chips. Those days are gone.
When it comes to the culinary arts, I’d say Sydney-siders now know much more than your average Parisian. Thanks to the change in liquor licensing laws, you can now find cashed-up bogans waxing lyrical on wine and wagyu. There is no doubt that Paris has some of the best restaurants in the world, but your standard fare isn’t exactly top-notch and most people still drink espressos we would sneer at. So what does it mean when the “City of Light” can’t offer a decent cup of coffee? If it disappoints in so many ways, what exactly does it have that we don’t? Is it the “culture” we long for?
Culture can be institutionalised, but an institution can never make it generalised. It has to be something people choose to do on a regular basis – people have to be buying books, going to see plays, buying concert tickets or slugging through a modern art museum on a Sunday. People have to feel like they need an opinion on things. People have to have a taste for things. That does not, however, mean that they all must have good taste.
As tourist guides will often remind you, Paris boasts the largest number of small theatres and art-house cinemas per square metre in the world, but look more closely and you’ll find that the majority of these quaint theatres host the most atrocious, cringe-worthy stand-up known to man. Walk past the more famous art-house cinemas on a Sunday morning and you’ll see swarms of bleary-eyed adolescent cinéphiles, high on coffee and hash, pouring out of movie theatres. Now that’s dedication to an art form, right? Sure. If by “art” you mean the Coen brothers.
The pressure to be cultivé, to keep abreast of current affairs and actually have a bookshelf in your home doesn’t stop Parisians from indulging, quite earnestly, in questionable “cultural” choices. In fact it’s possibly this very earnestness which allows young people to fully appreciate what an Anglo-Saxon ironist would deem “lame”. Parisians approach all cultural artefacts like they do social occasions: with a seriousness, formality and sincerity rarely seen in somewhere like Sydney.
What’s important isn’t trudging through a Kandinsky exhibit because you feel like you must. Rather it’s understanding, from a very young age, that going out is an event. The French “art of living” is simply making an event of everything – seeking out meaning and specificity in your leisure. Parisians have been encouraged since childhood to codify their social life. They’ve also been told it’s important not to be thought of as ignorant or uninteresting.
This isn’t just a good thing for the shrinks – Paris also has more of those per square metre than any other city in the world. Significantly, it’s the perfect incubus for the growth and proliferation of music, theatre, film and art. It doesn’t all have to be in good taste – people aren’t only concerned with what they put in their mouths. In fact when in Paris, most foreigners are usually disappointed. As any Australian who has gone to Paris will love to tell you, it’s incredibly difficult to find good coffee. And they call themselves cultured!