Ask almost anyone, anywhere in the world, about a place they’d like to visit, and chances are “Paris” will come up sooner rather than later.
(Full disclosure: Please do not assume that the author of this piece doesn’t know or has forgotten that a big percentage of the world’s population is busily engaged each day not in deciding when and how to get to Paris but in such mondanities as trying to not starve to death; find sufficient unpolluted water; locate a place where kids can be taught to read; and, in general, avoid insult and injury from corrupt, brutal governmental agencies.)
In fact, some 80 million people designated as “tourists” visit France every year, more than actually live there (66 million). If you’re one of them, you may well think that most of the rest are trying to get into the Louvre museum at 9 a.m. on a summer weekday.
Even without tourists (which it never is, at any season, in any weather) Paris can seem crowded, noisy, expensive, puzzling. Its streets are, to a great extent, legacies of medieval, or older, demarcations . The mid-nineteeth century, infamous destruction of huge parts of the city by Baron Hausmann, under orders from restored monarchy icon Louis Napoleon to get rid of its insalubrious ghettos and perpetually rebellious citizens, and rebuild it to more bourgeois-friendly standards only partly succeeded.
Therefore it is not very difficult to take a Metro train, or a bus, (for $1.50 a ride, no matter the distance) to a neighborhood where the streets are narrow, the shops, cafes, and restaurants abundant, the car tamed to one-way lanes.
And that’s a good way to forget about the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and all of that. If you’re into art, go someplace many fewer people do (like the Musee Jacquemart-Andre or the Musee Marmotton Monet). Both are housed in splendid former private mansions, which will give you an idea of the enormous disparity in wealth and privilege that have always characterized Paris (and still do). Of course there aren’t endless rooms of painting, drawin, sculpture, and artifacts like at the Louvre, but you won’t have half the population of suburban Philadelphia and urban Peking blocking your view and bumping you along.
If you want to meditate on into the spirit of medieval architecture, try the Eglise St. Eustache or the Eglise St. Severin, and let Notre Dame shelter its daily thousands (annual estimated visitors….14 million!) without you.
As for the Eiffel Tower, wait till it rains, vow not to take any elevators, and start up the 1,700 stairs. You will soon find yourself pretty much alone, and almost certainly cured of any idea of ever going there again.
While in Paris, you may, at some point, ask yourself: I wonder what the hell is really going on in here anyway? Why is it “Paris,” and why do and have so many people wanted to live here, paint it, take pictures of it, and tell us stories about it? Hemingway? Proust? Woody Allen? James Baldwin? Mavis Gallant?
The answer, I’ve discovered, having now visited (and even lived there) since 1961 is no different than the answer would be in San Francisco. Or Madrid. Or New York. Or London. Or, I assume, numerous other places I know only by name. (But would love to get to while the getting is still possible….Tokyo being numero uno. )
In Paris, now as over the centuries, clusters, colonies of people get together for the same reasons, roughly, that bees create hives. They have, or want to have, or develop, common interests. They want to create something to show and/or to sell. They like to talk to each other, using complicated common linguistic referents. They can find people to eat wiih, drink with, be intimate with, argue with, have kids with, grow old with.
Each cluster, each sub-hive if you will, has something seemingly sometimes oddly in common. Like…well… handbags. In the neighborhood where I usually stay, there are dozens of storefronts where Korean wholesalers peddle handbags. Some have sub-specialities of shoulder bags, luggage, things like that. But most deal only handbags. A few blocks away, it’s cheap glittery jewelry; “no retail” insist the signs outside. In another direction it’s wool and cloth. Further away begin plethoras of cafes, some filled with defiant smokers, where everyone seems to have parachuted in yesterday from New York. An unbelievable aura of hours and hours of meticulously worked hair dyes and disorders. Loads of eye-shadow and face paint. A battle between under and over-stated piercings and tattoos. Everyone parties, every night, way until early morning.
Endless animated conversations take place, everywhere. If there is any common denominator, it’s…complaint.
Indeed, the French national pastime, especially in Paris is…complaining. Few people are happy about anything, other than the obvious fact that everyone else is just about as unhappy as they are, and can therefore be counted on to share long, disputatious conversations about the details of their personal angst. The resultant “Le stress” causes the French to have long had the reputation of consuming more psychotropic medications per capita than any other nation on earth. (And its only partly because prescription medicine — for much of which you don’t even need a prescription, just a brief consultation with a pharmacist - is cheap or free,)
And what do they complain about? Simple points of conversational entry are: the weather, the traffic, the cost of living, politics and politicians. But the real
fun tales, the subjects that engage endless one-upped series of locutions, with laughs, raised voices, fingers pointed, eyes raised to the sky are…the neighbors!
Everyone seems to live in, or has a close friend or relative who lives in, a building where individuals or sets of neighbors are thought to be impossible. Such neighbors walk with squeaky shoes on old wooden floors. Have teen kids (or, simply, are teen kids) who play music too loudly and have hashish parties when their parents are away. Fail to dispose of their refuse properly. Don’t say hello when they run across you outside the building (failing to say hello while inside the building would be considered a sign of advanced mental illness). Are part of a cabal of owners or renters in a conspiracy to cost everyone money by demanding some kind of building renovation. Don’t pay their taxes. Gave bad advice on the stock market.
It is sometimes assumed that Parisians’ dislike for each other is communitarian, i.e. racist. And some of it, no doubt, is. But long before a large percentage (25% for the country, 50% or more for Paris) of Greater Metropolitan Paris were of North African, African, or Eastern European origin, the culture of complaint about “them” was a cultural norm. One of Sartre’s most memorable lines, “Hell is Other People,” goes back to 1944.
Still, unless you know enough French, and get enough confidence from those who do, to get close to this issue, it won’t affect your stay, should you be lucky enough to have one. But knowing about it will allow you to creatively interpret those gesticulated conversations you witness but don’t understand.
Another thing you probably won’t understand, even if someone has the patience to try to explain it to you, is French politics. There are many political parties. Many levels of elected officials. Many young, idealistic politicians; many older,corrupt, egotistical, venal ones. (Sometimes these traits overlap.) The French tend to distrust, if not hate, all of them. Roughly, the country is narrowly divided into leftish and rightish tendencies. A wave of one or the other sweeps through every decade or so, and then is itself washed away in turn. Almost nothing changes in any case, for the better or worse. Or at least nothing that the politicians could or would do anything meaningful about. Paris, for example, has been governed by a (gay) Socialist mayor and a leftish entourage for the past dozen years. The net result has been a few more bike lanes, some good community art and culture centers, and a continuing destruction of large parts of the city by real estate speculators, while large, poverty-dominated neighborhoods endure unchanged.
Me, I go there for business, mostly, though my business involves a lot of cultural pleasure (www.radioproust.org) Take long walks. Sit in parks and read and watch people. Sometimes get a coffee or a glass of wine in a café, although, in one of history’s most ironic cultural reverses, it is now no longer possible, without grave health risk, to sit on a café terrace. As of January 1, 2012, it became illegal to smoke inside cafes. But although technically illegal outside as well, in a bow to France’s frightening degree of nicotine addiction, smoking is now tolerated outside. (The degree of addiction can be witnessed outside any Middle School at dismissal time; a third to half of the 11-12-13 year olds light up immediately as they hit the streers.)
Given the expense and exhaustion of the trip, why bother, or why bother more than once? Well, maybe you’ll be lucky enough to find a bookstore that saves books for you, and bills you only sporadically. Maybe you’ll come across a bakery with unbelievably delicious vegetarian sandwiches. Perhaps you’ll notice that more movies play in Paris in a week than in San Francisco in a year. Or that there’s a good or great classical music almost every night, and you usually don’t have to pay more than $25 to see it. Fine wine can be found for less than $10 a bottle. And the variations on the conversations of complaint take on ever more Baroque shapes.
But I’m dreaming more and more about Tokyo.
It might be good to try to find out what Japanese people think and say about their neighbors. Or is it just another place where too many people ruin too many places by smoking, compulsively, in them? And where, maybe, there are neighborhoods where French people sell handbags, wholesale?
The author may be reached in French or English, at: LBensky@igc.org.