Issue 157, Winter 2000
Paris is a big city, in the sense that London and New York are big cities, and that Rome is a village, Los Angeles a collection of villages and Zurich a backwater. A reckless friend defines a big city as a place where there are blacks, tall buildings and you can stay up all night. By that definition Paris is deficient in tall buildings; although President Pompidou had a scheme in the sixties and early seventies to fill Paris with skyscrapers, he succeeded only in marring the historic skyline with the faulty towers of a branch university, Paris VII at Jussieu (which was recently closed because it was copiously insulated with asbestos), the appalling Tour Montparnasse-and the bleak wasteland of the office district, La Defense.
La Defense has few apartment dwellers other than Africans and the rootless, whereas the young white middle class for whom it was intended are all off living in the restored Marias district with its exposed beams and period fireplaces. La Defense went directly from being futuristic to being passe without ever seeming like a normal feature of the present.
But while there are enough serious, intellectual reasons for defining Paris as a big city, there are many more minor ones, including the fact that it’s a place where you can sleep all day if you want to, score heroin, hear preposterous theories that are closely held and furiously argued ( especially in the “philosophical cafes,” where meetings are regularly scheduled to discuss ethical questions). In Paris you can encounter genuine tolerance of other races and religions-and of atheism.
It is a city where you can swap your wife if you want to—indoors, in a special club called Chris and Manu’s, or in your own car outdoors near the Porte Dauphine (where you can enjoy the additional thrill of exhibitionism, since male voyeurs lurk around the parked and locked automobiles and stare into the steamed-over windows). Paris is a city where even the most outrageous story of incest and murder is greeted with a verbal shrug: “Mair c’est normal!”
It’s true that Paris is made up of equal parts of social conservatism and anarchic experimentation, but foreigners never quite know where to place the moral accent mark. At least it’s certain we’ re always mistaken if we attempt to predict the response of le français moyen (the average French person, if such a creature exists). The French can be as indignant as a Texas Baptist over stories of men who buy child pornography; in the early nineties the names of a ring of such men were published in the national newspapers, which led to several suicides. There was no distinction made between those who staged the pornography and those who bought it, nor between films about prepubescent children and those about teenagers.
On the other hand, no one in Paris would worry about presidential sex affairs and the only doubt most people have about Lionel Jospin is that he’s too Protestant to have a mistress. Mitterrand’s illegitimate daughter Mazarine enjoyed a brief moment of widespread popularity after her father’s death until she did something really dubious and published a mediocre novel. Certainly the fuss in America over Monica Lewinsky’s “White House knee pads,” as she called them, made the French hold their sides with continental mirth and superior erotic sophistication.
Nonsexual political corruption used to be shrugged off with a similar Gallic weariness, but the whole Latin world, eager to build the new “Europe” with Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, has been cleaning up its act. Even so, most trials of high government officials in France (whether for deporting Jews during the war or paying one’s own wife the equivalent of $40,000 for preparing a ten-page report or failing to screen the blood bank for the AIDS virus) end not with a bang but with a whimper. One day you realize that you haven’t heard about a given scandal for a long time. Since the newspapers have no tradition of hard-hitting investigative reporting, inertia is allowed to bury even last year’s hottest story in the great compost heap that the French call le nondit— “the unsaid.”
I suppose the most basic index of any city’s big-cityness is what you can find in it. In Paris you can find Tex-Mex food served in a courtyard surrounded by a dance rehearsal space (Le Studio): you eat your tamales tranquilly while looking up at dancers in practice clothes lunging and twirling behind fogged-over windows. You can rent a whole castle for an American-style Halloween party (at least we rented the chateau of Chateau Lafite one year, with disastrous results, since the French showed up not as witches and monsters but as marquis and marquises). You can visit not one but two copies of the Statue of Liberty-one in a shaded corner of the Luxembourg Gardens and the other in the middle of the Seine between the fifteenth and sixteenth arrondissements on the Pont de Grenelle. You can find seventeen vegetarian restaurants, even though Parisians roll their eyes to heaven when Americans begin with their weird food fetishes, their cult of whole grain or fermented seaweed or no sugar or butter. You can find not one but several places to go ballroom dancing at five in the afternoon on a Tuesday, say; I’ve been to the Balajo on the rue de Lapp and to the Java on the rue Faubourg du Temple. At the Java I remember big peroxided retired waitresses being swooped and dipped by tiny black African salesmen of a certain age (and finesse!). A slightly nutty friend of mine in his twenties claimed that he used to go to the the dansant every afternoon at a major restaurant on the boulevard Montparnasse where elderly ladies sent drinks to young gigolos, who then asked them to dance. During a spin across the basement floor some interesting arrangements were worked out; my friend went home with one dowager and cleaned her apartment wearing nothing but a starched apron-and earned a thousand francs.
In Paris you can visit the sewers and the catacombs. You can meet collectors of Barbie dolls. You can go to a Buddhist center in the Bois de Vincennes (strangely, the buildings were originally designed for the Colonial Exposition of 1931 as the pavilions for Togo and the Cameroons). You can visit a wax museum, the Musee Grevin, where chic people sometimes give private parties in the miniature theater filled with likenesses of Rudolph Nureyev and Pavarotti. You can go to a restaurant that serves just caviar or another that serves just cheese. You can visit Russian izbas (log houses) that were originally constructed in the mid-nineteenth century for an international fair until they were transplanted to a quiet neighborhood, where they still stand, ignored by everyone.
When I first started living in Paris in the early 1980s there were still knife sharpeners, glaziers and chimney sweeps strolling the streets, each with his distinctive cry. The chimney sweeps still exist, though most of them are crooks who present phoney papers and demand lots of money for an ineffectual swipe at your fireplace. Le petit ramoneur may be a classic figure in the Parisian erotic imagination, though unfortunately he can no longer be counted on to unclog more intimate pipes.
In Paris you can find a large bird market on the Ile de la Ciré on Sundays and you can also attend a Mass in Latin in a creepy right-wing church off the place Maubert where the priests have been excommunicated for not adhering to Vatican reforms and the members of the parish all look and act like Stepford wives and husbands. You can find a market for secondhand and rare books in the outlying area of Vanves under a large, open-sided glass and metal awning. It offers the collector the equivalent of a city block of books. You can wander for hours through the world’s most luxurious flea market completely on the other side of Paris at Clignancourt.
In the very center of the vast Clignancourt maze is a restaurant serving sausage and greasy fries where all the waiters and waitresses take turns singing like the French cabaret stars of the past; the proprietress reserves for herself an exclusive on Piaf. With her brightly painted, perfectly maintained red nails she makes sweeping gestures up and down the length of her body, confident, stylized gestures at odds with her ringed, tormented eyes.
Of course Paris is the shopping city par excellence. Women who want to be dressed by couturiers can still find them in Paris if they’ re willing to pay up to $35,000 for a frock.
Although nearly half of all Parisians are content to appear neat and anonymous, the rest make some effort to follow fashions. One year, for instance, every man will be dressed in a silk jacket, another year in sherbert-colored summer linens.