THE BLOG
11/24/2014 01:02 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

Secrets of a True Parisian: Part I

Paris is a snail -- no, literally, a snail. The shape of the city is clearly defined by its 20 districts (arrondissements). Numbered from one to 20, the metropolis unfolds from its center, with le premier arrondissement (1st), to its last tail bit, le 20 ième arrondissement (20th). The heart of the city is in the first one, and each of the 20 holds secret places and favorites of mine. You can look at a map of the city from above and draw a snail shape in the real sense.

When I say the heart of the city, I mean the geometrical center, not necessarily the most vibrant or intense area of Paris. For that, practically each district has its own heart, and one can find points of interests in every section. Some are intellectual hearts, some are fashion hearts, some food zones, others shopping meccas.

No matter where you find yourself, there will always be a boulangerie (bakery) at every corner. And this is the primary survival tool of any voyageur: bread, drinks, sandwiches, pastries, candies, salads, small plates -- one can survive entire months with eating at the numerous boulangeries exclusively. Although you might not sit down at any of them, the American way of take-out food as clearly grown on the Parisians.

I was born in the 18th, lived in the 8th, 14th, 17th, 19th and 20th. And just like in New York and other cities, certain zip codes are trendier than others, with the real estate value going bonkers from one district to the next. The essence of being a true Parisian is to live within those 20 arrondissements. No suburb is ever included in the elite map. Of course a lot of Parisians were not born in the city, but after a few years of integration, they can feel and even sound like if they had been born here.

Paris was formerly called Lutèce (don't omit that accent, it defines the sound of the word), then known as Lutetia, its Latin name. The city had been there before the Romans arrived, and may have derived its original name from a third century BC Parisii Gallic tribe. In 52 B.C., the city, then led by Vercingetorix' lieutenant Camulogenus, fell to the Romans in a military battle ordered by Titus Labienus, one of Julius Caesars' commanding lieutenants, crushing the Gauls settlers and renamed it Lutetia.

Under the Romans, Lutetia had a population of about 8,000, and was re-baptized Paris in 360 A.D. A few Roman ruins still exist in Paris, such as the public baths called the Thermes de Cluny, open to visitors. Other Roman bathhouses and arenas can be found in the city among the surrounding buildings, looking somewhat odd in their present locations. You can turn a corner and face semi-circle remnants of an amphitheater now serving as a playground for neighborhood kids to play ball.

Paris is today home to 2, 3 million residents (2009 census), a number strangely lower than in 1921, when it was 2, 9 million. Paris does not have any residential housing skyscrapers, a fact that may explain why the real estate prices chased away people to the suburbs. After witnessing the ugly-looking disaster of the tall Montparnasse Tower (offices only), built in 1973, the city took a step back and cancelled all high buildings projects.

The eyesore of the tower is still to this day a reminder of what Paris could have looked like if tall constructions had been allowed. Just last week a plan for a glass tower named the Tour Triangle, in the 15th arrondissement, was scrapped by city officials -- at 42 floors high, it would have marred the low-rising image of the city of lights.

To this day, the highest residential building of Paris has 37 floors, hardly a skyscraper. The 13th southern arrondissement is the culprit for breaking the views, with a dozen or so residential towers, mostly around 30 stories high. And that's the way Parisians wants to keep their skyline, low and classic, with a few peaks and hills created by its famous monuments and some hills: the Eiffel Tower, the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, the Arc of Triomphe and sorely the Tour Montparnasse. The hyper modern business area of La Défense has the most spectacular high towers skyline of various interesting designs, but those are not in Paris proper, but in the suburb.

In the 18th arrondissement where I was born, the shining beacon for tourists is of course the Montmartre attraction with its funicular, its basilica, its vineyards, and the magnificent view of the city below. But to me growing up as a child, the attraction of the North African street markets was my idea of fun. Okay, Montmartre was nice, but I hated the crowds, the fake artists creating the most lame-looking paintings I had ever seen and the uncomfortable mimes in white costumes silently tricking the viewers by moving in slow motion. To this day, I hate clowns.

My mother used to shop for the most unusual and beautiful fabric, rare fruits and vegetables, cheap shoes and unique trinkets at the loud sidewalks vendors from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, where spices, couscous and other exotic food were haggled for, just like at any market around the Mediterranean countries. This was so colorful and different that my weekends were made happier just by going there. Named La Goutte d'Or (the gold teardrop), the quartier (neighborhood) has been classified as working class since the beginning of the 19th century. Famed French writer Emile Zola (1840-1902) set the plot of his tragic novel "L'Assomoir" in those streets.

In the 1920s, many Algerian settlers came over the big blue sea to make a new life in France -- after all Algeria was then a part of France. Life conditions and opportunities looked better in the capital for some of them than back in their desertic land. As of the last count in 2012, at least 35 percent of the residents of the Goutte d'Or were of immigrant origin, for most parts West African and Algerian. Mom always stressed that it was a bit of a dangerous part of the city, but I never witnessed anything remotely unsafe in that area. I think the top of the Montmartre hill where tourists flock might be more risky.

One of the most frequented parts of the Goutte d'Or is the Marché Dejean, where the African community (and my mother) comes to buy colorful foods, spices, barracuda fish, manioc, peppers and root vegetables you can hardly find in a typical French supermarket. Rain or shine, the sidewalks and streets are beaming with shoppers, many wearing the traditional North African garbs -- with men in colorful robes and women in veils. A real trip in itself. Métro stop: Chateau Rouge.

Next week, I will talk about some of the other arrondissements and their covert places.