Paris Journal, Part I


Paris begins in the airport — in my case, Charles de Gaulle — with pretty Afro-French girls, who seem more French, in multiple ways, than the French-French girls.

A cabbie teaches me an expression new to me: to “slalom” through traffic.

I have never gotten used to the Place Stalingrad, or Place de Stalingrad — formal name, Place de la Bataille de Stalingrad. I don’t think I ever will. I think of something the late Bob Novak said. Someone asked him whom he was rooting for in a particular basketball game. Neither, he said. “I want them both to lose. For me, it’s like the Battle of Stalingrad.”

Throughout Paris are these Indiana Cafés. Their logo is an Indian in full headdress. You know, it’s weird, but I never associated the name “Indiana” with Indians. “Indiana” was too common to me, like “and” and “the” — too common to think about. But to a foreigner, the “Indian” in “Indiana” must be honkingly obvious.

Every time I come to Europe, I remember smoking. In America, you can forget about smoking, because so few do now. But in Europe, or elsewhere, you remember how it was. The smoke in Paris bothers me a little, at first. But then you get used to it — just as one did through all those decades at home.

It’s unfortunate for the anti-smoking cause that Parisian girls, sorry to say, look so cool when they smoke . . .

French fries ought to taste good in France, and they do. Why? Animal fat versus the virtuous vegetable oil we use? (That’s a lot of v’s, I know.)

It’s a pity some of the churches and other buildings can’t be cleaner. But it looks like there’s barely enough money to have the garbage picked up.

Paris as a whole, though — wow. It ain’t gettin’ any uglier, I can tell you that. It’s still Paris — still “Paris joli,” as the song says. (I’m talking about “Voyage à Paris,” by Poulenc.) (Text by Apollinaire — to read it, go here.)

Some Parisians tell me, “Paris isn’t Paris anymore.” By the same token, many Londoners have told me, “London isn’t London anymore. It isn’t even a British city.” Those things may be true. But to a foreigner merely dropping in, Paris is still Paris, and London is still London. (For now.)

I remember something the late Ed Koch said, in an interview with me about a year before he died. New York isn’t the most interesting city — that’s London. It isn’t the most beautiful — that’s Paris. But it is the most exciting, the most dynamic.

Now, you have to remember, there has never been anyone more rah-rah New York than Hizzoner. And for him to make those concessions, re London and Paris . . .

(He was certainly a realist.)

The reputation of composers, and other artists, is interesting. Reputations rise and fall, like hemlines. The names of a handful of composers are immortalized on the façade of the Palais Garnier, the splendid opera house. Not just their names — their busts, too (pardon the expression). You have Mozart and Beethoven, sure. But also Auber, Spontini, and Halévy. (We still know this last composer, somewhat, for La Juive — in particular for one aria from that opera, “Rachel, quand du Seigneur.”)

I have had a long time to get used to the Pei pyramid at the Louvre — more than 20 years. Hasn’t happened yet. Still looks out of place to me; still looks like an imposition.

But glimpsed through a particular archway — not so bad . . .

Clowns and mimes, who may seem absurd everywhere else? They don’t seem so absurd in Paris, to me. They seem kind of — natural.

I have a flashback to college: When I was a freshman, I mentioned to a teacher “the plaque outside Notre Dame, marking the center of Paris.” He looked at me with widened eyes and said, with mock scolding, “De l’univers, mon ami, de l’univers.”

Glad to see, within sight of Notre Dame, a Subway sandwich shop. What a success story, that chain. Did you see what the founder, Fred DeLuca, said recently? In today’s business environment, he would never have been able to get off the ground. A sad, sobering testimony.

Here in Paris, I see a stand (if that’s the word) of beautiful, and beautifully placed, trees. And I think, “All it takes is caring.”

Mitterrand has got himself a nice little memorial — his own quay, by the Louvre. I later learn, it used to be the Quai du Louvre. As I said, a nice little gig, or memorial.

A beggar has his cup on a fishing pole. He stands or sits against a wall, and his cup, on the pole, goes out into the sidewalk. Not sure I’ve ever seen anything like it.