Paris Journal, Part II


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.