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.

The Last Battle

Argonne Forest 1918

The Argonne Forest is a hilly stretch of woods, a deep crease in the rolling landscape of northeastern France. It is so steep there is barely a place flat enough to set down a cup of coffee. Anyone moving through it is either walking uphill or down.

An American General, James G. Harbord who saw it in the fall of 1918, described the Argonne as a "dense forest gashed by steep ridges and deep ravines, littered by the debris of many storms, natural and man-made. It was a region forgotten when level ground was being created. No man's horizon was more than a few yards away."

That was where Tom Hogan was going in October of 1918. The American army, with the French, had taken on a 20-mile stretch of no man's land with the insane notion of walking across it and pushing the Germans back to Germany.

Topographically probably the meanest part of the battle line was through the forest, with its relentless up and down terrain and thick undergrowth. It didn't help that the Germans knew the woods intimately. After all, they had been in the area for four years, so long they turned that section of the battle line into an elaborate military city -- elegant underground bunkers with carpeting, hospitals, even a theater. They had placed concrete machine gun nests throughout the woods with criss-crossing fields of fire. An ant couldn't walk through there and not be in the sights of a German gunner.

A Long Walk to Hell
The Argonne front was about 50 miles north of St. Mihiel. There were and still are few roads that go in that direction and those few were gridlocked with supply convoys. The only one way to get there was to walk. So one day in late September Tom loaded a 50-pound pack on his back, picked up his rifle and headed north.

Try to imagine walking 50 miles, in the pouring rain, through knee deep mud, with the equivalent of a small trunk strapped to your back, after about 4 hours of fitful sleep in damp woods and nearly a week of combat, knowing you are heading into more combat and you will have grasped Tom's situation.

American troops in France on a rest break.

By the time Tom got to the Argonne in early October the fighting had already begun and it was getting meaner. The Germans were digging in and fighting back hard. His unit had to clear out the Argonne, which meant one machine gun nest at a time. It was slow, exhausting, dangerous, bloody work. The weather was miserable -- cold, rainy. The troops were freezing. Most were still wearing their summer uniforms.

The Bloodiest Battle in History
Once they got into the woods the men quickly discovered they were on their own. Supporting artillery was useless. Shells exploded against the trees before they reached their targets. The hilly terrain and dense forest forced the Americans to fragment into smaller, more vulnerable groups. There was no safe place in the rolling terrain. As the men quickly found out, to stand at the top of a ravine was to become an easy target for machine guns. To take cover at the bottom was to be a target for poison gas which was heavier than air and settled insidiously into the lower elevations.

The Germans had years of experience with gas which was in artillery shells and fired from their big guns. They devised various strategies. Sometimes they would lob just enough gas into enemy lines to scare soldiers into putting on gas masks. Since it was harder to breath with masks on, the men tired quickly. Other times Germans would mix poison gas shells in with regular explosive shells during an artillery barrage. By the time the soldiers realized they had been gassed it was too late. Finally German generals liked gas because it was cost effective. Someone calculated that three shells of poison could kill as many men as nine regular artillery shells under the right conditions. And the conditions in the Argonne Forest, with all its ravines and defiles, were ideal.

Chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas were the three killers of choice and the Germans used all three during the battle. Mustard gas was the worst. Its acidic fumes burned the skin, raised huge oozing blisters, and attacked mucous membranes, blinding any poor soul who didn't get his mask on fast enough. But all brought on choking and gasping fits and, among the survivors, permanent lung damage.

One wet and chilly October morning Tom Hogan found himself thrashing his way through the dense Argonne underbrush, possibly thinking how seven months earlier he leading a quiet, happy life, making knitting needles in a sleepy New England town, and now he was stuck in the middle of a place he never heard of, with the world blowing up around him.

Not much detail is known about what happened to him and his fellow troops, but what is certain that at one moment there was a the loud crack of explosion and in the next Tom was on the ground stunned and bleeding from shrapnel wounds. Lying nearby were other unlucky men from his unit. As they lay there, there was another explosion and a suffocating cloud of poison gently descended on them.

The battle was called the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, because the line extended from the Meuse River in the west to the Argonne Forest in the east. The Germans yielded ground slowly, making many Americans die for every yard. But by early November the Germans could see it was over and surrendered.

I knew little about World War I and nothing about this battle. So it came as a big surprise to learn that Meuse-Argonne was the bloodiest battle ever in American history. During 47 days of fighting, 26,277 American soldiers were killed and more than 95,000 were wounded. Not during World War II or not even during the Civil War had so many men been slaughtered in a single fight.

The Armistice was signed in November. The War to End All Wars was over. The troops started coming home in late 1918. Tom was not among them. The Army couldn't seem to account for him at all. No one could tell the family if he were living or dead. The year 1918 ended, 1919 began and still no word.

"You're supposed to be dead."
My mother was about five years old and still remembers the moment. She was standing in her grandfather's living room when someone walked through the front door. He was a gaunt man in a brown uniform, his legs wrapped in puttees, a Sam Brown bell crossed over his chest and around his waist. What followed was mayhem: her aunts shreiking, sobbing, laughing. He was her godfather, Thomas Francis Hogan.

She remembers saying to him, "You're supposed to be dead."

It was only after the chaos of the battle was over that the Army realized Tom was missing. Eventually someone found him and his buddies. He spent time in a field hospital in France. When he recovered, he was loaded on a troop ship for the States for the ten-day trip across the Atlantic. He had entered the Army in April of 1918 and was released in February of 1919. In a mere 11 months he had been in three major battles and was nearly killed.

Tom never talked much about what happened in the Argonne. Once he told his daughters that he and his friends were too badly injured to get up and were lying on the ground a long, long time before someone finally found them. His only piece of good luck, if one could consider it such, is that by having been so badly wounded he was too weak to move and that may have saved his life. During gas attacks men who had been wounded and were immobile suffered less than men who ran. That only made them breathe in more deadly fumes.

After the war Tom got on with his life, returned to his job at the needle factory, married and raised two daughters. He had left the war but the war did not leave him. His daughters remember him making regular visits to a VA hospital in New York for treatments, possibly for his damaged lungs, and although he talked little about his experiences, one day not long before his death he lifted his pants leg to show his older daughter one of his injury. She gasped at what she saw, saying it looked like a chunk of muscle had been scooped out of his leg. That was all he ever shared of his war experiences.

My mother remembers two things about him, his happy go lucky personality, and his distinctive gasping cough. The lung damage almost certainly shortened his life. He died in 1948 at the age of 59.

Acres of Corpses
Today part of the battlefield where he was wounded has been transformed into the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery. As the cheery young woman in the tourist office reminded me, it is the largest U.S. military cemetery outside the United States. More American soldiers are buried in its 130 acres of meticulously groomed grass -- over 14,000 -- than are even buried near Normandy beach, where over 9,000 are interred.

I drove there on a rainy June afternoon to have a look. The cemetery sits between two country roads in a vista of rolling farmland in the middle of nowhere. As I got out of the car the first thing that struck me was how ranks of white markers beyond the stand of dark trees had a translucent glow. A sudden rainstorm came over the ridge and swept down through the emptiness of the vast graveyard. The only sounds were the rustle of trees and raindrops splattering against the stone markers.

The rows of the dead men's markers converged towards the horizon. It was creepily quiet. Except for a groundskeeping crew, I was the only one here. Looking out over the acres of dead I recalled a quote from the writer Graham Greene: "There is poetry in a battlefield." Not to those slaughtered on it, I thought.

The Road
Recently I found an old Word War I photo showing a spectacular traffic jam of Army supply wagons and trucks on a road all to the Argonne. It was utter chaos, a scene out of Hieronymus Bosch.

Supply convoy headed for the Argonne Forest

As I left the cemetery I drove back to Verdun down one of these roads, possibly the one in the photo. Today there is nothing -- no villages, no traffic, no signs of anything to suggest a World War was fought in the surrounding countryside. More than 90 years ago the air was full of the explosive thunder of dueling artillery and gunfire. Today the only sound I heard was the hum of my tires on the road and the click of the windshield wipers. All around was total emptiness. And I mean total. Here's a video of my last sights of the Argonne.

Fascinating graveyard fact: France is the foreign country with the largest number of American soldiers buried in its soil.