Paris Journal, Part I

by Jay Nordlinger

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.

We Americans are knocked for our huge portions, in restaurants (and elsewhere). Probably a fair knock. But some of these crêpes — man, they could feed an army (not that I share).

A question I have posed before, including in this column, I think: Why can’t we have decent paper napkins? Why are others’ bigger and more substantial? Is it just a matter of cost? Our paper napkins, you have to grab like 30 of them to have something that gets the job done.

I see a goddess of democracy, and think, of course, of Tiananmen Square. This was the image that the young people bore aloft there, in 1989 (same year the Pei pyramid went up). I also think of the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent, awarded by the Human Rights Foundation. When you win the prize, they give you a little statue of this goddess.

It was given to three people in Oslo a couple of weeks ago. One of them was Ali Ferzat, the Syrian cartoonist (who was brutally beaten by government forces for drawing one cartoon too many). I was able to explain to him what his statue was — to remind him of the symbol of Tiananmen. He was pleased, I was pleased . . .

I see a Gypsy girl — am I supposed to say “Roma”? — playing with an Etch A Sketch. My mind flies to the 2012 Republican primaries. Whose wouldn’t, right? I can see Rick Santorum, holding an Etch A Sketch aloft, almost like those Olympians in Mexico City, thrusting their fists into the air.

Some nice ladies solicit for the Red Cross. I wish I didn’t know so damn much about the Red Cross — from the journalist Claudia Rosett, for example, and from my own researches into the Nobel Peace Prize (which the Red Cross has won three times — four, if you count a certain way). The less you know about the Red Cross, the more you may admire them.

They’re about what you should expect, I think — for an international organization based in Geneva. All those attitudes, those politics, those blind spots (regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example).

By rights, the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l’Est should be spaced far apart — the one somewhere near 12 o’clock in Paris, the other somewhere near 3. But no: They’re very close together. Beautiful structures, too.

Which makes me think of the train stations back home in New York. I was just discussing this with someone, the other day. Grand Central is just what it should be — glorious. But Penn Station? Quite possibly the ugliest train station in all the world. And many people’s introduction to New York — a shame.

Unless my nose deceives me, there are more scents on the streets of Paris than elsewhere. I’m talking about perfumes and colognes. The ladies are scented, and the men are too. And not just upper-class types; people of what seem various classes, and races.

Outside Sacré-Coeur, a harpist is playing, and well. But I have a thought I’ve often had about street musicians: You may not want to hear music; but they have decided you will. Is that 100 percent right? (Not a big issue, regardless.)

There are so many candles in Sacré-Coeur, I’m thinking, “Would the regulators in America allow this? What would the insurers say — and charge?”

Funny how I’ve never forgotten this: When I was 18, I was in the Cologne Cathedral. A grim-faced official approached me and said, “You never put your hand in your pocket in a church.” What a strange episode, I thought, and think.

Outside a building — a governmental building, I believe — I see the following words: No Posters. Law since July 29, 1881. Those words are august, sternly majestic. I swear, I think of that Washington Post guy, who said that the Constitution was “written 100 years ago,” so, really, what relevance could it have?

(Students of French history will recognize July 29, 1881 — the date of the Law on the Freedom of the Press.)

As a rule, you can look into the faces of very old men and women and see the boys and girls they were. With certain Muslim clerics, out on the streets of Paris, I find this impossible, or hard. The failing is probably mine.

Have you had enough of Paris for one day? I wouldn’t blame you. I’ll continue with a second and final part tomorrow. See you then.

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