Paris Journal, Part II


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?


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