Paris has a reputation for luxury. Luxembourg Palace, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Napoleon’s ornate grave, and the Arc de’ Triomphe overlooking the Champs-Elysees, are only a few of the extravagant scenes that meet city visitors. In the Louvre, I was captivated by an exhibit recreating Marie Antoinette’s palace with intricate patterns, vivid colors, and gold-adorned furniture. The Eiffel Tower was the tallest structure in the world for a time, and its twinkling evening lights still mesmerize spectators. Napoleon’s grave is in a massive domed building, complete with frescos on high ceilings that frame his large marble coffin. On the Champs Elysses, swanky designer brands with high price tags and security guards don’t dissuade lines of shoppers. In a city where luxury is plentiful, I was surprised to find the word, “petit” before so many restaurant names. As a non-French speaker, I picked out the word as I eavesdropped. Parisians seem to indulge only mildly in desserts, drinks, or fancy meals. Making things seem small felt like a contradiction to Paris’ extravagance. As I listened to an interview on the Rick Steves Audio Europe app (I’m a sucker for his audio guides and downloadable walking tours. Check it out, future comrades!) entitled, “Stuff Parisians Like,” he talked about this same phenomenon. As Rick interviewed a Parisian wine expert, Oliver Magny, they discussed how Parisians often downplay luxury in their own lives. Instead of saying they’re going away for the weekend, Parisians say they’re going away for a petit weekend. When paying with a credit card, clerks ask for a petit signature, not just a signature. Anything big is bad, which was surprising to me in a city of palaces.
On our last day in Paris, I visited the Conciergerie. This old prison witnessed thousands of executions, including Marie Antoinette’s beheading during the French Revolution. Her tiny concrete prison cell was definitely petite, unlike her rooms in her palace. Her arrest and execution were products of overindulgence, and I think this created a culture of modesty in Paris. Other events throughout Paris’s history, especially the World Wars, forced Parisians to live in scarcity. A few days in Paris taught me that although Paris abounds in luxury, Parisians are aware of their history—times when luxury has led to one’s demise and times when Nazi occupation made life there far from luxurious. Thus, Parisians naturally understate everyday joys in order to maintain their petite humility and class.