A Weekend in Burgundy

In Paris, The Art of Travel Spring 2015, Authenticity by Kathryn Sutton

People who refuse to do anything touristy tend to bother me. I agree that doing only things set up for tourists means missing out on elements of the local culture, but the constant search for authenticity seems equally as misguided at times. I had another student visiting Paris for the weekend not long ago who refused to participate in any activities, sightseeing, museums, and otherwise, since they weren’t authentic. But what is authentic? And if you remove all things potentially designed for tourists, what’s left? And how do you entertain someone who will only do “authentic” things as someone who is already inauthentic as an American? Ironically, I led a “haphazard” walk about the area in between Notre Dame and the Place du Châtelet, during which we “stumbled upon” a whole variety of monuments, and this pleased my guest a lot. In my own way, I was providing the perceived back end of the Paris experience.

I tend to gauge authenticity of things to do in Paris based on the recommendations of my relatives here; they’re French(er than me) and they live here, so they should be able to tell me what the locals like to do. There are some less touristic that I probably wouldn’t have found without them, like a nice bus route to take back and forth to classes. But they also like the bakery that was recommended to NYU students, and are pleased that I went to Versailles. They recognize that there are “pilgrimages” to make to various sites of cultural and historical significance that are still valuable even if they are curated for tourists.

The discussion of authenticity itself in Paris is hard to have all together because it’s a city with such a high concentration of monuments, many of which are strategically linked together. It’s a straight line from the Arc de Triomphe, down the Champs-Élysées, past Place de la Concorde, through the Jardin des Tuileries, and to the Louvre. And it is very international, as many modern cities are. And nearly a quarter of the residents of Paris and its surrounding region weren’t born in France. So is there really a Parisian experience completely separated and hidden from outsiders? And is it what someone looking for authenticity would be satisfied with as their trip to Paris?

The most authentic French experience I’ve had so far is probably my trip to Burgundy, a province to the south and east of Paris that’s a noted wine region. I was staying in the home of my high school exchange-student friend, and through personal connections we were able to get a tour and dinner in the house of one of the local wine producers. It’s a family run business, small-scale, with everything done in-house. I got to sample the wines in the cellar, and then have a meal with the family with more wine, escargot, “fondue bourguignonne”, époisses cheese, and apple tart. In terms of authenticity, it sounds as good as you could get. But at the same time, the family that runs the vineyards is used to giving tours and staging dinners; it’s part of their business model to sell wine. I wasn’t targeted as a potential customer, but I imagine they put on a similar show when they’re hosting a wide variety of guests, and not just friends of friends. But for me, knowing that my experience was somewhat staged doesn’t detract from my enjoyment, and I can’t think of a way to have gotten as close to local life as I did otherwise.

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