Impromptus

Paris Journal, Part II

by Jay Nordlinger

Yesterday, I began some jottings on Paris, here. Just resume, without prelude or fanfare? Okay.

Behold, I give you a miracle: You can always tell what street you’re on, in Paris. The streets are marked. At an intersection in New York, you’re lucky if there’s one street sign among the four corners. Often, there’s not one. All four — aren’t there supposed to be four? — are gone.

Problem is, taxes in New York aren’t high enough, you know? The government is starved for funds . . .

I’m looking at an ordinary chicken sandwich: bread, chicken, cheese, tomato, lettuce. It looks like any chicken sandwich back home. But it sure doesn’t taste the same. It tastes miles and miles better. So odd.

I’m also looking at a brownie. Apparently, there is no French word for “brownie.” They just say “brownie.” It looks wonderful — absolutely wonderful. And, sadly, isn’t.

I’d like to tell you a story about William F. Buckley Sr., told to me by his son and namesake. WFB Sr. liked Chantilly cream. So he imported cows from Chantilly to his place in Connecticut, so he could have proper Chantilly cream whenever he wanted. But the cream turned out not to taste the same — because of the grass these cows were eating.

French waiters are famous for ignoring you. And I’m here to report they still know how. Would you like another WFB Sr. story? He had a rule, in Paris: He would ask for the bill twice. And when it wasn’t forthcoming, he would simply leave. By the time he reached the door, the bill — whaddaya know? — appeared.

I meet a young man from Turkey, who needs directions. (In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, and I suppose I have one eye working.) He speaks excellent English, and other languages too. He has just graduated from college. He is obviously a real scholar. He is taking his first tour of Europe, soaking up Brussels, Barcelona, and other cities, I think. His affection for civilization — true civilization, wherever it may be — is clear.

I think, “He doesn’t deserve to live in an Islamist hellhole. He deserves to live in a country more like the one Ataturk worked to build.”

That’s not a terrible thing to think, is it?

Near my hotel, there is a sign: Here Lived, in 1793, the Poet André Chénier. I have never read a line of his, I’m sorry to say. I know him only through the Giordano opera, Andrea Chénier.

I remember doing a preview of one New York music season. The Metropolitan Opera, as I recall, was doing both Andrea Chénier and the Poulenc opera, Dialogues des Carmélites. I said, “It’s going to be a bad season for the Boys of ’89” — 1789, the French revolutionaries, those cutthroats and monsters. Andrea Chénier and Dialogues des Carmélites are two of the most stirring anti-revolutionary works I know (especially the latter, of course).

Out on the streets, I see quite a number of African families: dad, mom, children. This is immensely satisfying. Is it bad to say it’s immensely satisfying? Well, it will have to be that way, then.

Every city has chaff and wheat: ordinary, mediocre, or ugly parts; and then parts that distinguish it. It seems to me that Paris has a strikingly high percentage of wheat. Even the uninteresting streets are interesting, if you know what I mean. Beauty is to be found almost everywhere.

Is there ugliness? Oh, of course. I’m just speaking of something like ratio.

In an Oslo Journal last month, I wrote of the Gypsies, or Roma, and my experiences with them over the years. (For that particular installment, go here.) I won’t repeat myself. But I think of this, while in Paris: In America, we speak of “welfare as a way of life.” We’re against “welfare as a way of life.” Welfare as a stopgap or relief, sure. But not as a way of life.

It’s one thing to beg and steal for a generation or two. But for generations on end? How long are the Gypsies going to keep this up? Forever? Do some young people ever break free, into another way of life? I trust and hope they do.

A colleague of mine once remonstrated with me when I quoted a politician as saying, “Welfare shouldn’t be a way of life.” “Find me the person who thinks welfare should be a way of life!” my colleague said. Well, I’ve encountered such people — at least people who don’t mind so much if welfare is someone’s way of life. Have you?

I remember when I first heard the term “Pig Alley.” It was out of the mouth of a retiree who was working part-time at a golf course in Michigan. He had been in the war. And he remembered “Pig Alley,” in Paris — where the hookers were (in great preponderance, that is). Pig Alley was our guys’ name for the district formally called “Pigalle.”

In a cabaret — a quite polished, upscale establishment — one man says to another, “If you’re going to have a strip club, it ought to be raunchy, not classy. In for a penny, in for a pound. You know?”

Paris, of course, is filled with immigrants. I can’t help wondering — is this bad? — whether they appreciate the place: its peerless beauty, its sublime proportions. Do they know what they have? Or do they appreciate it more than others, because they have someplace worse to contrast it with? Are they resentful — resentful of the new digs, which outshine the old?

Depends on the individual, no doubt.

Parenthood is more evident here than it is in New York. I’ll explain what I mean: I see more mothers with children and, especially, more fathers with children. (And when I say “New York” in this instance, I should really say “Manhattan.”)

I think I’ve made this point before: I always find it shocking, or at least surprising, when a very old clock on a very old building works. Kind of nice. Clocks don’t have to be stopped, or wrong.

In this journal, I’ve mentioned opera a few times, and here I go again — something about Paris must bring it out. I’m in Saint-Sulpice, the church in the Luxembourg quarter — and the setting for Act III, Scene 2 of Manon (Massenet). A choir is singing. It’s no good. The organist accompanying the choir is, though.

Waiters in this city can be a little haughty, it’s true. But a) they’re supposed to be — you expect it, and sort of want it — and b) you can admire their professionalism nonetheless. They have honed what they do over many years, and they do it well. At their busiest, they are dervishes, in control of their umpteen responsibilities. Lunchtime at Les Deux Magots looks virtually choreographed.

The moelleux au chocolat in this place — with vanilla ice cream, of course — will bring tears to your eyes.

All over Paris, there are signs of the West’s intense interest in what we came to call the Third World (and then called the developing world). (I’m not sure what our designation du jour is.) What is not very often acknowledged is this: We were interested in them; they didn’t give a rat’s behind about us.

For a long time, interest in other peoples, cultures, and places was essentially Western. Remember that, the next time someone utters the word “ethnocentric.”

The Sainte-Chapelle is in shabby shape. The windows are grimy. But it’s being refurbished, at what must be terrific expense. The chapel was built in the 1240s.

While here, I think of a young woman I once knew, who was devoted to the medieval period. She strongly resented that “medieval” had come to mean primitive, benighted, crude. She could not reconcile herself to that particular sense of the word. And she said, “In the ’hood, they say things like, ‘I’m about to go medieval on yo’ a**.’”

That was funny. This, I find funny too: A young couple — American — is running for the bus. She, behind him, says, “I can’t run very fast in these shoes.” He calls back — lovingly — “It ain’t the shoes.”

Funniest thing I’ve heard in ages. And I looked: The lady was, in fact, wearing tennis shoes. Sneakers. Not high heels. Interesting.

“France is doomed,” a friend of mine tells me. (He is a Parisian businessman, now working elsewhere — in climes more congenial to business.) Other people think France is doomed too. But there’s a lot of ruin in a nation — and a lot of ruin in Paris as well. It may be doomed. But we can love it, hail it, soak it up, as she goes (if going she is).

Thanks for joining me, guys, and catch you soon.