It was a few minutes to midnight, and we were finishing our pints outside the Smuggler’s Inn when a gaunt bald man appeared and asked if we had any fire to lend. A light? he said. A match? He was not from here, he said in apology; his English, not so good. He was from Russia. He was from Samarra.
My blood ran cold: Do we have an appointment?
That’s the old legend, of course. The man sees Death in the marketplace and knows he is marked; he flees to Samarra. As Death later remarks to someone, he was surprised to see the fellow in the marketplace, because they had an appointment later that night in Samarra. Was that the deal here? Death had pursued us across the Continent and the Channel to find us two blocks from a McDonald’s in London? Maybe a McFlurry before I go. I beg you. I’ve never had one. They looked so fattening, but, well, that’s no longer an issue.
Turns out he was a computer coder sent here to work with a firm that did something with taxis. One of those chance conversations you have when you’re traveling, letting the experiences unravel the straitjackets of your back-home routine. The best part, though, is what you discover about yourself, something you always knew you had inside: the ability to make snap judgments about entire countries based on four days of traipsing around the tourist attractions.
First, Paris. We used Airbnb, which lets you stay in other people’s apartments. The flat was in an early-20th-century building designed according to the Haussmann dictates, and this explains much of Paris’s appeal for some: The great urban planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann carved out the broad urban thoroughfares and plazas and required buildings to be uniform in height and hue, dripping with Beaux-Arts ornamentation and tiny balconies suitable for enjoying a glass of wine or throwing paving stones on the heads of soldiers below. Around the corner from our flat was a street named after a prime minister who died while his mistress was administering the afternoon constitutional. Everywhere you look, the remnants of history! On every building, the architect’s name, proudly engraved on the second floor!
Except when it wasn’t, which meant it was a new building. The architects don’t seem to have signed anything from the post-war period, and you can’t blame them. What was new was drab. To be fair, what was old was often drab as well, and this was the surprise of coming to Paris after many years away. At the Place de la Concorde, weeds sprout from a statue; the wooden doors in the plinth are broken and spattered with graffiti. Nearby is a park dedicated to a Belgian king for being the king of Belgium or some such accomplishment; all thistles and quackgrass, its benches busted and smeared with bird leavings. By the presidential palace, the same — unkempt streets and heaps of garbage. In our neighborhood, a stained mattress leaned against a fence by a bag of overflowing refuse.
We met up with relatives, and my sister-in-law — who lived in France for years — put it to words. “Paris, c’est fatigué.” No pop, no shine, no joy. Soldiers with guns patrol the monuments — four at the massive Arc de Triomphe and four at the small Holocaust Museum, which gives you a sense of what they consider a likely target. There was happiness when France won a sports event, and the next morning I saw a guy who’d pulled a celebratory all-nighter walking down the street and raising his arms, saying “Hoorah!” No one had time for that now. Dour people streamed around him, down the Metró stairs to the clamorous acrid holes below.
If you’re inclined to rational design and visual unity, the look of Paris is a marvelous thing. It signifies a cohesive culture, confident in its values. But they are the values of the State, not the individual. The glories reach their apogee with the museums, bridges, railway stations, and exhibition halls of the early 20th century, and you cannot help but feel that the spirit that built these beautiful works has long fled. Bled white in the trenches, then smothered with shame in the ’40s. Paris, c’est fatigué.
Then we went to London. Louder. Brighter. Happier. Could be the tourists — seems as if there are ten times more of them than in Paris. The streetscapes are more varied; Dickensian buildings abut new glass blocks. The parks are cleaner and more beautiful. At the end of the day, we watched the sun illuminate Elizabeth Tower at Parliament — okay, okay, Big Ben. The sunset falls on the Eiffel Tower like music on deaf ears; here the clock tower glows like gold. Across the street a statue of Churchill watches with jowly satisfaction.
My daughter, reading the paper, pointed out that one of the European capitals was hosting a massive art project. People showed up, took their clothes off, painted themselves blue, and lay down in the square. “That’s because they believe in nothing,” I said, just to be Irritating Windy Judgmental American Father. “Take away God, King, and Country, and all they have is food and conceptual art.”
Europe’s winded, but England still has strength and life. I suspected as much before I went on vacation, but having spent a hundred hours in two nations, I think I’m entitled to call this an expert opinion. I mean, the Russian guy had been in England two days and had his views on the place, too. It was friendly! Then we started talking about Ukraine and almost came to blows. Which is good! In Paris we would have just shrugged and thought: What’s the point?
– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.