Paris in Your Face

When I first came to Paris I discovered there existed both a real Paris and a faux Paris, and the strange thing was that the Parisians often couldn’t tell them apart. Possibly this had to do with France’s love-hate relationship with the US which has led the French to soak up American culture without admitting they could love anything so vulgar. It may have started out American, sure; but it's French now, might be the French attitude, if put into words.

The real Paris – the Paris in your face – was buying bread sans bag, curmudgeons in black beanies deliberately giving wrong directions, a liter of good red wine in a cheap plastic bottle with a twist-off cap from a little Left Bank grocery, weird and perpetual stains on the sidewalk, weird and perpetual slop by the curbside, coffee much worse than expected, drivers who seemed to deliberately treat pedestrians as guided missile targets, sneaky and sometimes menacing cab drivers, scamming limo drivers (stay away from those guys at the airport), ill-mannered cops, subway stations with functional gum machines, naked gays tanning on the Seine embankments, the Eiffel Tower deliberately lit at night to resemble a gigantic erection, women who deliberately stood in windows with the blinds raised putting on their underwear who didn’t bolt when they caught you watching them through binoculars, and far too many equestrian statues.

Other moments when Paris got in my face occurred on the Metro at off-hours when ridership was light, and I witnessed the materialization of totally unplanned political debates among apparently utter strangers. The first time this happened I expected a brawl. But before I knew it, spirited but fairly polite discussions quickly drew in a fair number of passengers. They ended just as fast as riders got off and went their separate ways. Such was obviously a far cry from a comparable New York subway moment, which might begin with a Travis Bickle-esque, “You lookin’ at me?” and actually end in a brawl.

As to the faux Paris, on the eve of my arrival, one of my first gee-whiz sights was James Joyce, complete with monocle, homburg and goatee, jauntily breezing through crowds on the Boulevard des Batignolles, not far from my humble Clichy pied-à-terre. This was unbelievable for two main reasons. The first was that anybody would go to the trouble of dressing up like James Joyce, and the second that the obvious object of being recognized as the author of Finnegans Wake, et al, would be totally pointless anywhere else on the planet, with the possible exception of Dublin. (I mean, once a clerk at Manhattan’s The Strand asked me what author I was looking for and when I answered, “Joyce,” snapped, “Joyce who?”)

Other literary ghosts of Christmas past haunted Shakespeare & Company. Entering the bookstore (which then, as now, doubles as a hostel with residents sandwiched among its shelves) for the first time in my life, I found Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway already present. No, I don’t mean present in books. I mean that having walked in off the street, at a totally random moment, I find two guys sitting at a table who were so obviously Ez and Hem ringers that it could not possibly have been coincidental. They were as instantly recognizable as the real Mailer had been recognizable, when, sometime later, I drove up a narrow street in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the white-haired dude in open chambray work shirt (denim cut-offs exposing ample paunch) and sockless tennis sneakers, carrying what looked like dirty laundry, who I instantly recognized as the Idol of My Youth, passed within inches. But that Mailer was the real Mailer and the two in the bookstore had merely been vogueing and whacking.

The nonchalant parody of shared Franco-American cultural icons also apparently extended to the sex strolls of Pig Alley (the Left Bank’s Pigalle quarter), where I found myself amazed to discover real-life Irma la Douces lined up like tin ducks in a shooting gallery along the eponymous Rue Pigalle. Yes, I know about Hamburg, Amsterdam and elsewhere; my point is that this string of sex workers, attired to suit every taste, seemed one with the same warping of American iconography that had marked the faux dead writers (and also the miscellaneous Jim Morrisons and Inspector Clouseaus) that had cropped up like phantoms to haunt my freshman days in Paris.

An object lesson that might be drawn from these experiences, I reasoned, was that when in Paris, it paid to separate the map from the territory, because the Parisians, like Americans, seemed to have had trouble doing this themselves. The best way to see Paris is to put your fries in her face and get some French fries in your own, and the best way to do this is to walk.

Hemingway wrote in his memoirs, A Moveable Feast, that he considered Paris "the city best organized for a writer to write in," by which I gather he meant Paris was best for getting around on foot. Be this as it may, I found I could put in eight-hour days alternately walking, taking short Metro hops to more distant quarters, and cooling my heels in cafes. In this way I could negotiate Paris in any season in a manner I can only comfortably navigate my native Apple during the dog days of August, when foot and car traffic are at a minimum.

One trick I learned early was to get in synch with the rhythms of Paris at street level, a habit especially useful when crossing some of the scarier intersections, such as those near the Louvre, where le circulation comes at you from many directions at once. Among the pleasures this holds is strolling across with unhurried ease between light changes while viewing the stark terror on the faces of obvious tourists who often either stop in their tracks or turn and run.  I also find having a pair of binoculars handy sometimes. All the better to see you, my dear.

Copyright (C) 2012 David Alexander