Paris, France–Now and again one is seized by the desire to recapitulate the madcap, carefree days of youth; and while in the mildest circumstances this urge produces nothing more undignified than a man with a bad hangover or a mature woman in a skirt too short and tight for her socioeconomic bracket, there are, alas, more extreme cases, and I am chagrined to report that mine is one of them. At least it was, last week, when Molly and I detrained at the Gare du Nord full, in my case, of the unaccustomed zest of student-style, infant-free travel, and, in her case, of the alarm of finding herself in a seedy Parisian neighborhood with a lot of leering drunks and a mother who had obviously gone mad.
”You see?” I cried, lifting my pen from the map of Paris on which I had drawn our route. “It’s not that far, and this way you’ll get to see a lot more than you can ever see on the Metro. Street life, beautiful architecture, even, ha-ha, patisseries!”
“Wouldn’t it be better to take a taxi?” she asked dubiously. “We could still see everything, but we wouldn’t have to–”
“Nonsense!” I interrupted gaily. “I used to do this all the time. It’ll be fun, I tell you! I’ll take the suitcases, you take the camera, and let’s go.”
For reasons which I cannot fully explain (having partly to do with punitive exchange rates, which is the explicable bit, but far more with this yearning for madcappery I mentioned earlier), I had, on our journey through the Channel Tunnel, conceived an unshakeable belief that for us to arrive in Paris and take any form of transport apart from our own feet to get to our hotel would be a shameful capitulation and we were simply not going to do it. It is true that when I drew that black line from the Gare du Nord, where we were, to the Trocadero, where we were bound, which is a dramatic and daunting distance, I was aware of the slightest inward pang of alarm. But as I had already decided there was to be no cheese-eating surrender from me, I felt it was essential to maintain a courageous face for Molly.
“But that was 20 years ago, Mummy, and you’re pregnant now…” she objected, her gentle voice disappearing in the noise as we surged out of the train station and on to grubby, picturesque streets.
“That’s why I’m so pleased to have this suitcase on wheels,” I riposted smartly, just before the thing hit its first cobblestone and twisted, taking my wrist painfully with it. “Gee. Ow.”
And so we walked. And walked. I beamed at the passersby, who had so recently, and by a huge margin, blown a raspberry at the hateful European constitution. Molly hovered close by my side, bravely trying not to flinch as we moved through the crowds of picaresque individuals such as inhabit urban districts near bus and train stations.
“Ooh, la-la,” we heard, or something along those lines, as a beery fellow emerged from of the throng and said something admiring, and no doubt avuncular, about the teddy bear clutched in Molly’s arms.
“There’s some local color for you, darling,” I said, swiftly steering her away and past him.
“Please can’t we take a taxi?” she tried again, glancing back fearfully.
“Goodness no, we don’t want to give in, do we? It’s a lovely day and if we pace ourselves, I think you’ll find you really enjoy the walk. Now, look over there, a whole row of cafes, do you see? And here, see these huge doors? You’ll notice them in the sides of these beautiful old buildings. They usually lead to a courtyard, and sometimes you’ll get a glimpse of gardens or fountains inside, and blah blah blah…” I went on, dragging my ten-year-old daughter and our luggage through the increasing heat of the day.
“How much farther, Mummy?” Molly asked, as we stopped at a crossroads for a breather. Above us loomed the neo-baroque elegance of the Paris Opera, one of those splendid buildings that make you glad the Germans didn’t bomb Paris to bits before they marched in.
“I think we’re about a third of the way there,” I said, after I had stopped gasping. I unfolded our map and squinted around for street signs. “The important thing is not to think about how long the walk is, but to drink in the sights and sounds.”
“Could we drink in something else? Like juice?”
“Oh, we can’t not stop yet,” I said, “Let’s at least get half-way. Now, where is that wretched street? Come on, sweetheart–no, wait. That’s not–”
“Que est’que vous cherchez, Madame?” came a pleasant voice.
Without thinking I heard myself reply that we sought the Boulevard de la Madeline but what a shame we were not able to find. To my surprise, upon hearing my accent the man did not immediately shift scornfully into English but, on the contrary, exuded continental amiability.
“C’est facile, Madame. Vous marchez a droit,” he began, lengthily directing us where we wanted to go. I thanked him; he gave a bow, and vanished into the crowd.
“Hey,” said Molly, poking me in the ribs, “you do so speak French.”
But I was gazing after the man in wonderment. He had been… friendly. How could such a thing be, in such a place? This turned out to be the first of many inexplicably affable encounters we were to have. Over the next few days, not once was any Parisian rude to us, peremptory in tone, or dismissive of my clumsy phrasing. It was like being in a small American town, except for the beaux-arts architecture and everyone being thinner and better dressed. Every Gallic soul we met was smiley, courteous–even enthusiastic.
Unfortunately, the laws of etiquette pretty much rule out asking people why they aren’t rude anymore, but my theory is that Parisians are a) deeply embarrassed by the recent surveys that find them the most reviled people in Europe, and b) that everyone is anyway too blissed out since the imposition of the 35-hour work week to be discourteous to visitors. This utopian measure, which surely cannot last, has had many curious effects. One is that there’s no longer much of a morning rush hour, since Parisians can drift into their offices anytime mid-morning before stepping out for a long lunch. People complain that it’s actually difficult to comply with such a petite week–some find it necessary to take every fourth week off lest they work overtime and break the law. A friend of mine who works in British television recently rang up a Champagne producer to arrange shooting some interviews and footage.
“Can we come on Friday?” my friend asked.
“Alors,” exclaimed the dismayed vintner. “A quelle heur?”
“How about early afternoon?” my friend suggested.
“C’est ne pas possible,” the man said. On Fridays, he explained, his workers all had to go home at ten o’clock in the morning, for they would have completed their weekly allotment and he was not allowed to keep them on longer.
“Perfect!” said my friend, whose aim it was to illustrate the farcical unproductivity of the 35-hour regime, and who, not incidentally, was thereby able to arrange for himself and his crew a leisurely afternoon in Champagne country after a brief morning of work. But, then, being British, he is an exponent of the cold cruelty of Anglo-American capitalism so feared by French workers.
“Okay, Molly,” I announced in cold, cruel Anglo-American tones of my own, “time to keep walking.” And so we walked. And walked. And walked.
“There’s a Chanel boutique,” Molly suddenly said, pointing at it and visibly cheering up. “Phew. We must be in a nicer part of town.”
“Cherie,” I said, “I give you… Paris!” We rounded a corner to find, spread out before us, the Place de la Concorde with its Egyptian obelisk and fountains. Molly’s face bore its first broad smile since we left the hushed comfort of our Eurostar. “Wowsa,” she breathed. “This almost makes the walk worthwhile.”
“I said almost,” she shot back dryly, but she was still smiling.
“And there, my darling,” said I, “that is the Champs Elysees, where Josephine Baker used to walk a pair of leopards and where the German army marched in World War II and blah blah blah blah…” I went on. And had you happened to be one of the amazingly friendly, 35-hour-week-working, cheese-eating, Eurocrat-repudiating Parisians walking near us that day as we toiled up the hill with luggage that seemed to double in weight every ten steps, you might have heard me go on: “…and we just have to walk halfway up, and then take a left, and then we only have a little more to walk, couldn’t be more than another mile…”