This time last year, I scribbled you a little journal of a National Review cruise — through the Douro Valley of Portugal. May I scribble you a little journal about our most recent cruise, on the Seine River? The thing about these journals, and any other Impromptus: You don’t have to read them. Long live the Internet, and freedom of choice.
We started in Paris, of course — Charles de Gaulle Airport, to be specific. To me, the name “Orly” is becoming as distant as “Idlewild.” (Apples and oranges, I know: Idlewild was renamed JFK, and CDG is simply a different airport from Orly.) As I was standing at, or near, the appropriate carousel, I noted an Air France flight from Damascus. I thought, “Good time to leave Damascus” — unless, of course, you’re a Syrian wanting to participate in a freedom struggle . . .
In any Parisian café, bistro, or bar, you’ll see a mean-looking French girl, smoking furiously — and looking fantastic (as well as mean) while doing so.
Speaking of smoking, I saw this, on a pack of cigarettes: “SMOKING KILLS.” They must have an extra-blunt surgeon general in France.
Are you allowed to smoke in cafés, bistros, etc.? Frankly, I’m not sure — could be I saw those mean- and fantastic-looking French girls sitting outside, only . . .
We went to Chartres Cathedral, which reminded me of Bill Buckley — a story he used to tell. In fact, he incorporated it into one of his novels. A man from an important family in Russia was a refugee in France. The only work he could get was as a bus driver. He decided that he wanted only the route to Chartres, even though it was repetitive: because, if he had to be a bus driver, at least he could see the cathedral every day.
Speaking of Buckleys: Priscilla and Carol are aboard — two of Bill’s sisters. Priscilla worked in Paris as a journalist, years ago. She took her little sister Carol, along with another little sister, Maureen, on an extended tour of Europe. Now Priscilla and Carol are back, traveling with NR, and delighting the other passengers.
Priscilla tells me the full story of this Russian who had the route to Chartres — fascinating.
I have switched to the present tense in this here journal — knowing you don’t mind . . .
In the gardens of Versailles, I see the acme of adorableness — it can’t go any further: A little girl, dressed in pink, sits atop a tiny pony. She is wearing a bike helmet. Alongside her, and the pony, are her mom and some older siblings. They are all walking slowly. The little girl has a fairly serious look on her face. The pony is more casual.
This is cute (though nothing like the scene at Versailles): An eatery in Paris is called “Mac Doner” — “doner” being the ubiquitous, and delicious, Turkish food.
This is much less cute: the Cuban government’s Office of Tourism. How nice! This is the way they should advertise: “Experience the segregated hotels, shops, restaurants, and beaches! No Cubans allowed (except when they have been carefully vetted by the government)! Enjoy the ‘tourism apartheid’! All the mojitos you can drink! Don’t forget the underage prostitution — we’re not telling! And, all the while, enrich the Castro brothers, extending their rule!”
People from free countries just love to visit totalitarian countries with gulags. People from free countries sometimes don’t deserve their freedom, I think . . .
I find it somewhat amazing that there’s an Esplanade David Ben-Gurion, smack in the middle of Paris (or close enough). This came about last year. An esplanade named for a founding father of the Jewish state was controversial, of course. There were protests. Have you heard that there are people in France who aren’t too high on Israel? Shocking. Anyway, the Parisians held firm: and honored Ben-Gurion with a piece of their real estate.
Maybe it was the socialism they found attractive?
In my wanderings, I come across an Avenue Rapp. We had an editor at National Review, Cris Rapp. The avenue is named after Jean Rapp, a Napoleonic general. If I had my way, I would name a street after Cris Rapp — one of the all-time greats. (Working for Bill Buckley, he worked for a much better man than Jean Rapp did.)
(I know, I know, General Rapp supposed himself to be working for France. Whatevsky . . .)
Somewhere off the Avenue Rapp, I buy a crêpe complète, from a modest stand. But there’s not much modest about the crêpe: filled — laced — with ham, egg, and cheese. Liked to’ve died.
On the Boulevard Raspail, there is a Casa Lopez, which sells tasteful rugs. I think of our famed editor Kathryn. National Review Online is, in a sense, a Casa Lopez.
At a soirée in one of the nicer arrondissements, I meet a man named Bill Browder. I say to him, “‘Browder,’ like Earl?” Turns out that Bill is the grandson of Earl Browder, onetime leader of the CPUSA — the American Communist party. Bill Browder is a businessman, and a highly successful one. Used to do a lot in Russia. He puts the matter memorably: His grandfather was the biggest Communist in America; he himself became one of the biggest capitalists in Russia. Life can be amusing.
But this is not so amusing: Bill’s lawyer in Russia was murdered — tortured to death, I believe. Bill dedicates much of his time to the cause of human rights in Russia.
Just when you think that Paris might — just might — be overrated, you visit again: and you rediscover, “No way — if anything, it’s under-.” Year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation, it remains a delight to the eye, mouth, and ear. Paul Johnson is one of our cruisers — one of our special guests. Like Priscilla Buckley, he worked here as a journalist. Paris was down at the heels then — recovering from war and occupation. He remarks on how prosperous the city looks today. It just glitters.
About the banlieues — those “strife-riven” suburbs — we can speak another time . . .
I really don’t like national stereotypes, or generalizations about peoples and nations, even when they’re positive: “The Irish are excellent storytellers,” etc. But I feel like making a statement, so I think I’ll just go ahead: All of my life, I’ve loved being in France, and among French people — not just in small cities and towns, and in the countryside, but in the capital itself.
“Well, aren’t French elites ferociously anti-American?” you might say. A lot of them are — but that is common throughout Western Europe. “Well, don’t you meet people who are vain, godless, immoral, and self-loving?”
Oh, baby, you don’t have to leave home for that . . .
I think I’ll knock off for today, and do a final installment tomorrow. Thanks for putting up with these idiosyncratic (to choose a polite word) jottings. See you.