WHEN you watch a city, and country, long enough you begin to recognise its idiosyncrasies; its swings and its roundabouts.
And it is these traits that the writing and observations of Matthew Fraser reveal, as he offers up views of life in Paris but also an insight into what lies beneath the French people.
His latest book, Home Again in Paris: Oscar, Leo and Me, tells of his return to the French capital, much changed from when he left it 25 years earlier, with two bichon dogs in tow.
Here he answers questions about Paris, writing and the difficulties France currently faces.
Over the years you have lived in Paris, how has the city changed in both good and bad ways?
I first moved to Paris in the 1980s when François Mitterrand was president. It was an exciting time to be living in Paris, there was an idealism in the air that was almost palpable.
Those were the days just before the Latin Quarter was transformed into today's 'Saint-Germain-des-prets-a-porter' cluttered with clothing boutiques selling expensive labels to rich tourists from China, Russia and the Middle East.
It was the end of an era, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The French were still living with the self-assurance of their own cultural superiority and the grandeur of their nation. It was a myth, but an inspiring one.
Today the French are confronted with the grim realities of the world around them. I could already sense a growing malaise just before I left in 1994. The mood was changing.
When I returned a decade later the French were gloomy. On the positive side, the triumph of realism over idealism, despite French denial, has opened up French society. The younger generation are much more open to the English language and American culture than the French were thirty years ago.
In those days it was fashionable in the Parisian chattering classes to denounce everything American as a pernicious influence on French culture. Being an Anglo-Saxon in Paris didn't make your popular, quite the contrary. Today it's trendy.
Young Parisians pepper their language with English words and expressions. They live in the world of the iPhone and Facebook like everyone else on the planet. They want access to the outer world. That's a big change.
What is it abut Paris that inspires your writing? And do you have any particular writing 'habits'?
My latest book, which is a personal memoir, is essentially about my life in Paris and how I view the city differently today than I did three decades ago when I first moved here. It's paradoxical. In those days, like most romantic youths who come to Paris, I was infatuated and unquestioning.
Francophiles tend to see only the mythic qualities of France the 'museum' aspects of French culture like history, architecture, cuisine, wine, fashion and so on. This infatuation is understandable because France indeed has a rich history and stunning architecture.
But at the same time it's disconnected from the realities of of French society. Parisians themselves are tired of their status as the world's museum overrun with tourists, they are getting on with their daily lives all the time. Like me, I've become an anglo-Parisian and I often feel the same way Parisians do.
When I was a young student here, I was indulging in the myth. Today I have a greater understanding of how French society actually works, virtues and vices, and consequently I am much more critical.
And yet at the same time my understanding of French society has brought me closer to this country as my home. That in essence is what the book is about and it's made explicit in the title.
What inspires me most is walking around Paris. I take a long walk every day. Paris is the world's greatest city for flaneurs. Which is why I despise those ghastly Segway machines that are meant to allow tourists to motor through the city in a hurry.
The best way to discover Paris is to walk slowly and look up. I'm always looking up and closely at details in buildings. I am lucky to live in the 7th arrondissement because it combines a number of architectural styles, old aristocracy, grande bourgeoisie Haussmannian, Art Nouveau and Art Deco.
The reason is that parts of the neighbourhood were razed entirely to make way for several Paris world fairs in the 19th century, culminating with the Exposition Universelle of 1900, which was a triumph of the Art Nouveau style which we still see every day at Metro station entrances and street lamps.
My writing habits have changed over time. This is my fifth book. Most of my previous books were written late in the evening, sometimes into the early hours of the morning. This book was written during the day, starting in the morning.
My bichon Oscar gets me up very early every day, sometimes at six o'clock, and after my coffee I start to write. I stop at about noon and we go out for a walk. Then I usually teach my courses in the afternoon, at American University of Paris and Sciences Po.
This book was different because I wrote the first draft last summer, one year ago, then just left it sitting there for months before returning to it at Christmas. I reworked the chapters and then, in March, took it up again and rewrote a third draft. So it took a year to write, which is much longer than I usually take.
My previous books were written in four to six months, intensely. I took more time over this book, probably because it's more personal.
Calling on your experience lecturing in French universities, why do you think there is a problem over teaching some courses in English?
In France these postures can usually be explained by the economic interests of professions, in this case, university professors.
France is an exceedingly closed society in which the elites benefit from extraordinary privileges and protection from competition. You see symptoms of this all the time in Paris with the constant spectacle of strikes and demonstrations.
Foreigners are perplexed and frustrated when they encounter it. Those who move here to live and work are also startled to discover how closed French society is. You can't just show up and join French society. Most doors are shut. Any American without a work visa knows that.
The French institutional system is closed and self-protecting. Take your example of universities. The overwhelmingly majority of university professors in France, more than 98%, are French.
Professors in France are hired not by individual universities, as they are in America or Britain, they are hired centrally by the French ministry of higher education. They are in effect, and in law, civil servants.
It's not an open professional environment, it's a closed bureaucracy. True, it's starting to open up, mainly due to outside pressures from competition for international students.
And needless to say one of those pressures favours classes in English. It makes sense, of course, because English is the international language, the Latin of the modern era.
But in a university system long used to cloistered privileges and a culture of intellectual hostility towards Anglo-Saxon dominance, it's controversial in France. These are old-guard convulsions.
The young generation in France are on the side of change. The changes are not happening quickly enough, however, which explains why so many young people in France are leaving the country. The talent exodus is a real problem.
What impact does the énarque system have on the country that gave us liberté, égalité, fraternité?
The énarques are emblematic of the closed system that I was just describing. France is what I call a winner-take-all society that gives tremendous privilege and power to a tiny elite who attend a very small number of so-called grandes écoles in Paris, ENA, Sciences Po, Polytechnique and HEC.
The graduates of these prestigious schools have a virtual monopoly on all the levers of power in France's ruling class. Almost every politician in France over the past half century, including all the presidents except Charles de Gaulle, has been a graduate of Sciences Po and/or ENA.
If you have the misfortune of attending an ordinary regional university in Toulouse or Rennes, you have no access to the political and economic elites. You are stuck, all doors are closed to you, because recruitment is restricted to a tiny elite of grande école graduates.
That's another reason why so many young people, especially business-minded entrepreneurs, are leaving France for England or America.
They understand that the bias of the entire French system is creating a ruling class of bureaucrats and politicians and is largely indifferent to innovation and economic success.
All rewards go to a single caste whose careers are mainly attached to the French state. It's an astonishingly elitist system that produces highly negative long-term consequences. France produced the Minitel, America produced the Internet.
It is true however that things are changing, slowly to be sure, but the French are beginning to embrace a more open and pragmatic approach to how they manage their society.
The 'museum' will always be there, and the tourists will keep coming, the challenge is how to reform French society to bring attitudes and institutions into the 21st century.
The French are a nation that has long turned to their glorious past, looking toward the future is not a natural reflex. But as noted, things are changing.
The coffee is much better in Paris than it was thirty years ago -- thanks mainly to an influx of American barristas. There is a new restaurant scene of cafés and neo-bistrots sprouting up all over Paris.
I've been here long enough to see that change is slow, but I can see the changes happening. After three decades living here on and off, Paris is now home to me, so much so I wrote an entire book about it.
Website: Matthew Fraser
If you found this useful...
+ Stay up-to-date: Get your free This French Life newsletter