Sunday, June 28, 2009

Ten Things I Won't Miss About Paris and Ten Things I Will

WON'T MISS . . .

1. DOGSHIT. I know dogs have to take a crap, but I also know Parisians dog owners are supposed to pick it up. I have seen three people do it. The rest of the city's walkers are, tragically, struck blind the instant their pet's merde plops onto the pavement. Miraculously they get their vision back after they have walked out of smelling distance. If we can find a cure for Dog Walker's Blindness we will have solved the problem.

2. SCAFFOLDING. There are 2,300,000 vertical meters of construction scaffolding blocking the already narrow sidewalks of the city. I don't know if this number is accurate. In fact I know it isn't because I just pulled it out of my ear, but that's what it seems like. Few experiences are more unnerving than walking under creaky, swaying scaffolding that looks like it was made of recycled Red Bull cans and assembled by drunken children.

3. THE SCOLDS. It sounds sexist but some days it seems like there are a whole army of grim faced, post-menopausal harridans who have taken upon themselves the civic responsibility of telling the rest of the world how to behave. I was once yelled at in the Luxembourg Gardens for sitting too close to one of their public installations of art. (For the record I was about 5 meters away.) “Monsieur,” snapped a woman bypasser with, I noticed, a hint of a moustache, “not so close to the art!” My wife was once reprimanded by a woman in the market for touching fruit. Again, for the record everyone else was manhandling the bananas with the vendor's approval. The only thing that cancels out the Scolds is watching them take each other on. (See LINE CUTTERS below)

4. THE SHANTY TOWN AROUND ST. SULPICE. Yes it is sad but necessary to enshroud the church of St. Sulpice with that ugly scaffolding to refurbish it. But it is sadder and totally unnecessary to double uglify the lovely plaza with those crap shacks display booths they set up for their inane fairs showcasing: bad art, bad photography, overpriced antiques, mathematical games, travel booths promoting doomed leisure destinations like Kazakhstan. The one exception: the charming Christmas fair that’s set up there. I know I'm not alone on this. I overheard a woman talking to an older French couple and excitedly pointing out the current foire for I don't know what -- doorknobs or something -- as they strolled by Saint Sulpice. The older woman moaned, “But it blocks everything. Everything.”

THE BUREAUCRACY. Too bad Kafka is dead, he'd have a field day here. Everyone has a story about the French bureaucracy. Mine is that last summer I received an email from someone in the Visa section saying they could not do the final processing of my application because my ears were cut off. I touched the sides of my head to make sure. Nope still there. I re-read. OK my ears were cut off in the photos I had given them. But the pictures I sent were the government specified size – I measured -- and my ears were intact and visible in them.

So I re-re-read the email. Apparently because of a spazzy inability to use scissors someone in the Visa office had inadvertently cut off my ears in my photos and now they couldn’t use them. That meant I had to make good on their incompetence and bring in more pictures. It’s a tribute to the French sense of humor that when I showed my copy of the email to the receptionist at the visa office she smirked then showed it to her fellow clerk who laughed and shook her head. Once I got to the right desk I discovered, sadly, that the pompous doofus who sent me the scolding email was on vacation and would not be back for weeks. Fortunately, I got a very nice woman who took care of it.

6. BACKWARDS DRIVERS. Yes the streets of Paris are confusing. Yes, it is a very old city with all the ambling, rambling streets and alleys that come with its history. But maps have been around at least since Magellan. And there are GPS's. Even so, at any given moment probably 30 percent of all the drivers on Paris streets are going backwards because they: A) went down the wrong street B) went down a street where garbage is being picked up and traffic is going nowhere C) passed a parking space half a block back and want it D) found themselves on a street whose appearance for some vague reason displeased them. So they put it in reverse and occasionally even look over a shoulder as they shoot backwards. Because of this I long ago learned to look both ways when crossing even one-way streets. I used to marvel at how deftly Parisians drive in reverse. Now know why. They spend half their time in that gear.

7. MOTO RIDERS WHO USE THE SIDEWALK AS THEIR PRIVATE ROAD. Hey, I own a motorcycle too, but I drive like a grown-up, out on the road, with the traffic, not on the sidewalk like a child on a tricycle. Try it sometime. What's that? You have to go around the block to go the right way on a street?
Tant pis, mon ami.

8. LINE CUTTING. Actually I'm a little ambivalent about this. Certainly it can be annoying to lose your space in line to some twit. But as one cute young Parisianne told my brother-in-law as she cut in front of him, "This is Paris. You have to assert yourself or you will lose out." Plus it can sometimes be a source of entertainment.

One memorable day I had an Olympic caliber Scold, a real vinegar puss, standing in front of me in the ten item or less line at Monoprix when another Scold attempted to slip in front of her. I cannot translate the French dialogue precisely but it was something like, “Madame, [as in “Hey, Bitch”] I was here first.” And the reply was a supercilious, “But I have fewer items than you and I am in a hurry." And they were off and running. It was great, like watching two scorpions in a bottle.

9. THE COFFEE. When I first started coming to Paris decades ago, part of its charm and its specialness was the smell of coffee wafting out of the cafes in the morning. But in the years since, coffee has gotten better in the U.S. and the rest of the world for that matter. So I was horrified when came back to discover the coffee, quite frankly, stinks. When I had my first cup this past year I was thinking, “This tastes like a fart. When did they add tripe to their beans?”

10. THE STREET BEGGARS. Not all of them. I give selectively. The ones I find the most offensive are those who slink up to you, whispering and hissing their plea for
monnaie centimeters from your face. And they have no beggar logic. I remember a quite plump guy sitting on a sidewalk with his pet rabbit in a box and a “J'ai faim” sign. I wanted to go up to him and say, “Here's an idea: Eat the rabbit.”


1. THE SKY. Even in the coal dark depths of winter or on a gloomy overcast Fall afternoon there comes an instant when the clouds part and the light shifts in a special way. Everything pops in bright relief against a crystalline sky. Buildings change hues. You can feel the mood of everyone lift. It’s a moment.

2. THE PEOPLE. They are better looking here, at least the female half of the population I notice. They are also more courteous, albeit in a pro forma way, and they have style. OK, maybe they are a tad obsessive about their appearance, but I know I will miss it when I'm in a mall in the U.S. surrounded by fellow citizens who, according to Bill Bryson, look like "elephants dressed in children's clothing" in T-shirts, baggy shorts and flip flops. And I know Parisians are supposedly famous, or infamous, for their rudeness. I've run into my share, but no more than in Manhattan where I lived or any other big city I’ve visited. (For the record: The weirdest/rudest people I ever encountered were in Minneapolis.)

2. THE BREAD. “You will find decent bread when you get home,” an American living in Paris said in consolation when I said we were leaving. No we’re not. No. Not going to happen. Ever. Period.

3. THE WINE. Yes there is plonk here, which I discovered you can find if you pay less than 90 centimes a bottle. But there is lots and lots and lots of good, and of course, great wine here. It is easier to find good wine than bad, often for less than what it costs for a bottle of milk or water.
4. SUNDAYS. I'm old enough to remember when Sundays in the United States were authentic days of rest. Stores were closed. Most restaurants were as well. There was little to do but hang out, visit relatives or friends, go for a drive, do nothing. Those days are long gone. But not in France. There is still a mellow, relaxed old-fashioned Sunday feel I looked forward to.

Sunday afternoon in Paris.

5. THE MURMUR IN A RESTAURANT. Soon we’ll be back in a country where practically every restaurant has an agenda of enforced liveliness: LOUD MUSIC, crammed tables, hard surfaces bouncing shrill conversation all over the room, all engineered to make your dining experience more festive. Of course the reality is diners end up shreiking across their entrees to each other in futile attempt to make themselves heard. Gone will be the gentle murmur of a room full of people enjoying their meals and each other's company and being able to hear themselves think.

6. THE WAITSTAFFS. It's a small thing, perhaps, but there is a level of professionalism in restaurants that I will miss. I don't need to know the name of my waiter or, as happened at once fancy place in the U.S., to be told how to eat. (We were instructed that everyone had to order the exact same number of courses because the chef did not want the ritual of his food being served upset by someone eating their entrees out of synch with a fellow diner.) The waiters and waitresses here know their wine, know their specials. They know the job and do it well.

And they leave you alone. They don’t share their curriculum vitae with you. They don't pop up as you are about to fork the first bite into your mouth and ask how was everything. [Mother of Mercy, is my meal over already? I used to wonder.] They don't push overpriced bottled water. They work hard and act like adults.

7. LUXEMBOURG GARDENS. I used to find it annoying to arrive at the gate of Luxembourg Gardens at four o'clock and be told they were closing soon, or to have to listen to the officious shriek of police whistles as they shut down the park for the evening. But that established a rhythm and bestows a sense of propriety for the place which I have now come to appreciate. The first time I was aware of the Luxembourg Gardens was back in the 80s when we took our daughter there for donkey rides. In the hundreds of visits I’ve made there since it has only gotten more complex.

8. ISLE OF SWANS. This odd little pencil of a man made island just a few minutes walk from the Eiffel Tower gives the double bonus of privacy and being immersed totally in the Seine.

THE STREETS. ANY STREET. On a typical Sunday I would give myself a destination to walk to. Sometimes I would make it. Sometimes I would not. It never mattered. Three to four hours later I would be back home my head full of discoveries and images, knowing I hadn’t even come close to scratching the surface of this complex city.

10. THE TWINKLING EIFFEL TOWER. It’s corny, it’s flashy, it’s schmaltzy, and irresistable. A friend who has been coming to France for over 30 years made me run to the other side of the Seine one night so she could catch the lights display on the stroke of the hour. Our landlady, who was born in Paris, stressed that we must see it. She was right.

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