Linguist, lexicographer, radio host, public speaker


In preparation for Paris I have been reading books. I am in the middle of my 22nd book about Paris, or France, or the French, this one “The Oxford History of the French Revolution” by William Doyle. I recommend it as a quick, smart gloss on a complicated bit of world history. I also recommend “Portraits of France” by Robert Daley. He knits together personal stories and history in a pleasant, engaging way, in which the reader is tied up, bound, and beaten about the neck and head with the story of Roquefort cheese or the momentous opening of an ancient bottle of wine. A good book, whether you’re France-ward or not. Please notice the absence of links to an online bookseller. This is intentional. You are capable of finding them on your own, I think. I should also like to take this moment to say that if you are in the market for used books, and you live in or are visiting New York City, you should go to the Strand at 12th Street and Broadway where you will find approximately one-half of all of my books on sale for less than the cover price but for more than I was paid for them. Rex and Carol and I hauled them downtown yesterday, a supposedly quick task turning into a multi-hour trauma due to cars from Maine and Delaware clogging the streets looking for God knows what. The Strand’s buy-back policy is efficient. You bring in your books. If you have a lot, they only want to see a box or two to start (I had eight boxes) to verify that you are not trying to pass off crap. People do that. I saw them. Old, crumby books used until that moment to prop up furniture or to wipe dripping grease off of restaurant exhaust hoods. Then one of the NYU students the Strand employs takes your books out of the boxes, creating hard- and soft-cover stacks. A curt no-nonsense man takes a quick look at each book, stacks the ones he wants near him, slides the rejects your way. He decides, he says, based solely on quality, although he’s partial to art books and academic texts. It’s fast. It took about 15 minutes to go through all eight boxes. They bought a little more than half of my books, not counting the ones I couldn’t part with. It felt criminal. They paid me $205. That’s about, oh, I dunno, $2800 less than those books were worth new. Not that I bought them new. I buy books for the words, not as fashion accessories. Seemed like free money to me, so I took Rex and Carol out to Good World, a pleasant little Scandinavian restaurant in the untouristed part of Chinatown. Orchard and Division streets. There used to be a barbershop there by the same name. We sat and ate in the brick and iron courtyard for two hours, loving the company of our cute Swedish waitress (who appreciated my few polite Swedish phrases), the beer and the pytt i panna. The books the Strand didn’t buy and I didn’t keep I took around the corner to the Salvation Army where the staff will probably take them home, read them, and then try to sell them to the Strand again. Who hates Paris? Also in preparation for my departure, now less than a week away, I have during the last few months quizzed 13 people and talked to another 28 idly and frivolously about Paris, France and the French. They ranged from Paris natives to college kids on holiday. This might surprise you, but about one-quarter of all of these people do not or did not like Paris. This leaves San Francisco at the top of my list of “places people like unreservedly,” barring the one person I know who hated it because that’s where she found out her beautiful, seven-year husband was gay and had been sleeping around. But I think I have determined, without ever actually having been to Paris, why these people dislike it. There’s the group for whom Paris was their first venture into any true urban area, any pedestrian city of any real size at all. So the noise and the dirt and the crowds seemed to those people as if they were characteristics of Paris alone. This is particularly true for those people who are almost completely car-bound when they are at home. They don’t know what a great pedestrian city is like. Despite the logic error, I think their dislike of Paris is fair. A few of them, I know, also do not like New York City for the same reasons. They are not devoted pedestrians or urbanites. These are, I think, reasonable dislikes. Then there are the people who hate Paris because they are imbeciles. I found one in the form of a “native New Yorker.” A couple of weeks ago I was meeting Mac on Avenue B to eat at Max’s, a rinky-dink pasta joint with chintzy interior and the kind of pasta you want to spoon into your shirt pocket so as to eat it more of it later when you’re not so full. So I showed up early, popped into a nearby bar for some neat rum, and started chatting with the Lesbian couple to my left and Miss Cleavage to my right. As it tends to do, housing came up, and rents, and apartments, and where we’ve all lived and blah de blah blah. Miss Cleavage apparently is a “native New Yorker.” I use the quotes with some seriousness, to indicate the questionability of this application of the term, particularly as it is self-applied. A Native New Yorker, in my opinion, need not only be born here, but must know the city. That is, Know The City. Anyway, Miss Cleavage is also bicoastal. San Francisco and New York. She likes San Francisco better she says, and hates Paris most of all. She brought it up, not me. Paris? You “hate” Paris? How’s that? “Well, they were just, so, you know, rude, just like everyone said they would be. They, like were so just like ‘Oh zee dirty Americans.’” What? What part of Paris were you in? “Well, one time we were in McDonald’s and…” Dear Reader, you’re understanding this right? She went to McDonald’s. In Paris. Some of the best food in the world she passed up. Even the homeless eat better in Paris than McDonald’s can serve. Or so I’m told. Which, uh, McDonald’s? “The one on the Champs Elysèes. We were just checking it out. We just wanted to see what McDonald’s in Paris is like.” This is a Big Lie. This is a Big Lie I’ve heard a thousand times. “We just wanted to see what it was like.” Crap. Bullshit. You were a stupid American tourist without the guts or the gumption or whatever small little bit of toenail dirt it takes to actually walk into a strange restaurant in a strange city and try to make sense of the place. You didn’t even have the spine to at least eat local fast food, but had to eat at McDonald’s. Dear Reader, please don’t get all defensive. I know you’ve done it. I’ve done it. You’ve travelled away from home, even in the US, and automatically headed for the Arches when you were hungry. It’s so easy. So simple. Automatic. Like smiling at someone who smiles at you first. Like taking a flier someone hands you on the street. I forgive you. But please don’t compound it with rationalizations, justifications. In a big city, I can’t think of a single good reason to eat there. You can just go ahead and use the restroom, you know. You don’t really have to be a customer. Her justification was that McDonald’s was cheap. Sure it was. I’m sure it was the cheapest thing on the great Champs Elysèes. That’s because the Champs Elysèes is one of the worst tourist bungholes ever invented and trod upon by fat American tourists in stone-washed jeans and white running shoes. It’s like the Hard Rock Cafe, Rockefeller Center and Big Apple Tours rolled into one. A Huge Waste of Money and Time. Of course, she, like most of the other people who “hate Paris” spent three days there. Part of a whirlwind, three-week tour of all of Europe. I always like to ask these people how they liked Warsaw, and did they find Danes to be nice people, but Europe for these types consists of no nations, just the cities of London, Paris, Amsterdam and Florence. The rest of Europe is of much of an interest to them as Nebraska is to Parisians. Miss Cleavage also does not qualify as a native New Yorker. She’s one of those provincial New Yorkers for whom a trip to Shea Stadium is like taking the train to Boston: a real event. The only reason she’s bi-coastal is because her parents are divorced. A hundred bucks says she’s never been to Oakland, either. She’s the kind of person who thinks everything above 96th Street in Manhattan is Harlem and is always amazed to be reminded that there are different, unconnected Broadways in the other boroughs. There was, I must admit, a gleam of perverse pleasure in her eye. It seemed to me she did not really hate Paris. She just liked telling the lie. The obstinancy and contrariness brought any attention that her cleavage hadn’t already procured.

author avatar
Grant Barrett