The last of 363 days in Paris

Rue de la Butte aux Cailles is the center of a small neighborhood of bars and restaurants between Denfert-Rochereau and Place d'Italie. It's small, friendly, young and French.
Rue de la Butte aux Cailles is the center of a small neighborhood of bars and restaurants between Denfert-Rochereau and Place d’Italie. It’s small, friendly, young and French.

To some people it’s a foregone conclusion that the last 12 months have been wonderful for me, seeing as how I spent them in France. So when I say I am a bit melancholy at the prospect of leaving Paris tomorrow morning they won’t be surprised. I suspect that others, those who’ve been here and experienced more than tourism, might understand why a year in Paris can be an iffy proposition. Not because of what you think you know is bad about Paris. That’s probably wrong. Yes, it is. Pretty much everything you were told in advance, good and bad, was wrong and useless, but there’s another whole set of good and bad to do the job. But, it turns out that I’ve come out on the positive end. After a rough down time last fall as the result of gray skies, becalmed French progress and a heavy school work load, this semester has turned out to be a real joy, a time in which I could leave the house with friends at 10 or 11 in the evening and be confident of several hours of good food and drink and cigarettes and above all, conversation. So these are my end notes for a year in France. I’m working on a manuscript tenatively titled The New Yorker in Paris which will be a small, sarcastic living manual for those who don’t need guidebooks to explain that there may be long lines at the H&M or that the métro is the best way to get around (or how to use it), and those who don’t want explicit instructions on setting up a bank account or why they might encounter a huissier.

There are two major ways in which Paris is deficient. First, the métro does not operate 24 hours a day. Second, everything except museums and restaurants is closed on Sundays. These two inconveniences are vestiges of culture and a time that the French like to pretend still exists. (I shall continue to generalize and say things like “the French” because it makes me like them more; I like the idea that they are knowable, conceivable and recognizable instead of strangely unidentifiable, irregular and hairy, which is what they actually are.). There are also several minor ways in which Paris is deficient. Many shops are also closed on Mondays, and many museums and libraries are closed on Tuesdays, although not all, so it’s a crap shoot. Some Parisians keep a guidebook to their own town just to know what is open when. Most bars close at 2 a.m.; those most likely to stay open later by special license are tourist-targeted and tourist located, though not always. These are bars I recommend avoiding. They have very little in common with the rest of Paris, or France. Cabs are difficult to find except at a few major intersections which usually are far from places that are designated as official taxi stands. You might think that, like New York, the cabs cluster in the tourist areas, or near the bars and nightclub districts, or on the busiest thoroughfares. This may be true, but it doesn’t seem like it. A small bit of advice: like New York, always get in the cab before you give your destination. Then it’s harder to be refused. People do not respect queues; they like to boldly butt in line, kind of sidling in while looking away. Particularly guilty of this are young couples who are not quite hip but have aspirations; this is a small example of the means by which they intend to get ahead. Sometimes the French like to pretend that having a question authorizes them to jump to the front of the line, which may or may not already contain people who also only want to ask a question. Sometimes they question they need to ask is, “Can I pay for this here?” in which case the answer is “oui” and so they succeed in their plot to feel superior to the chumps and suckers who have chosen to wait in an orderly fashion. French men are more sexually aggressive than most American women are capable of handling. There are numerous ways in which Paris is superior to New York. The pace is slower. The meals are better, although the food is the same. Related to the line above, this paradox is explained by the fourth dimension of food: after cost, setting and chef comes time, the element by which pleasure is nurtured rather than extinguished as the waiters and busboys push you, as they don’t do in Paris, to pay and leave so they can roll the table over to another customer. You see the time-food element come into play in those restaurants which plan for only one sitting a night: they fully expect their guests to dally so that each table by the end of the night will only have accrued one meal check. People are quieter. There is less shouting on the streets, less talking on the métro, less fooling around in general.

Posted June 3, 2001

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