I always feel sad leaving Paris. Our most recent visit of a month was the longest continuous time I’ve ever spent there. My Francophilia did not diminish with more prolonged exposure. Sally has become infected, too.
Our apartment was on the ancient Rue de Temple, just one block from the Hotel de Ville, the dazzling architectural extravaganza that serves as the city hall of Paris. Having been seriously torched by the Paris Commune in 1871, it was rebuilt, replicating the original neo-Renaissance style, complete with 146 statues of illustrious Frenchmen that adorn its façades.
It was there after the July Revolution in 1830 that La Fayette gave the throne to the Duc d’Orleans under constitutional restrictions acknowledging ultimate sovereignty resting with the citizenry. This act ended the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy after Napoleon, the final termination of a dynasty that had ruled France since the mid-15th century. This Duc d’Orleans, thereafter King Louis-Phillipe I, only lasted in power until 1848, when a new generation of Parisian insurrectionarists overthrew him as well, establishing a new republic, declared at the same Hotel de Ville.
The broad open area in front of it is the Place de Grève where, according to Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Notre Dame de Paris), Quasimodo’s beloved La Esmeralda met her fate in 1482. Stroll from there up the Rue de Rivoli past the Louvre to the Place de la Concorde and stand on the spot where Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and Robespierre all lost their heads, along with a few thousand others during “the Terror” of 1793. Then turn south just across the Seine into the Left Bank neighborhood to visit the house where Karl Marx spent some of his most formative years or the café where Lenin worked as a waiter or Gertrude Stein’s place where Hemingway, Picasso, and Joyce hung out, or have an existential coffee at the Deux Magots on Sartre/de Beauvoir Place, or tour the medieval Abbey de Cluny with its Roman baths. Then turn back north on the Boulevard St. Michel, where the main battles of the 1968 student uprising took place, cross over the river via the Ile de la Cité where Julius Caesar camped in 63 BC, stopping in front of Notre Dame, built between 1163 and 1300, where Napoleon crowned himself emperor in 1804, and you’ve returned to the Hotel de Ville, having walked a couple of miles, with waves of history washing over you every step. Described as the world’s finest outdoor museum, the consistent architectural antiquity of central Paris provides the perfect setting for your stroll.
On our last night in Paris, we made the mistake of visiting our friends Billy and Jean-Luc, a French-American couple together more than 20 years, in their Marais apartment. Billy came to gay Paris from Austin in the 70’s “to dance at the Lido in a g-string with a feather up my ass.” Along the way, he qualified for a French government pension. We drank a few 1664’s, France’s best mass beer, while they showed us the new photos of their cute-to-die-for 200 year-old country cottage two hours south of Paris and we played with their cute-to-die-for French bulldogs. The cottage’s thick, stuccoed walls and sloping tile roof are set in a bucolic idyll, appropriate subject matter for an impressionist masterpiece. Not a good way to prepare to return to Amerika.
Separation anxiety sets in as the cab to the airport rolls out of central Paris and into the suburbs, where the attractive old housing thins out, replaced by modern, unimaginative, high-rise apartment blocks. These boxes are usually described in grim tones, but they look at least a couple of steps up from public housing in the US, not infrequently with adjacent areas of kitchen gardens, and with very culturally diverse inhabitants.
Entering De Gaulle airport, you’re suddenly swallowed up by the concrete, glass and steel modernism distinctive of nowhere and the US-inspired paranoid security apparatus. It’s getting painful, but there remain a couple of French frills scattered about the airport to staunch the psychic wounds. You don’t have to take your shoes off. Café staff still speak French first and English badly enough to successfully piss off one already angry American dad with very expensive blonde brood in tow when they missed his order in English on the first try. I relished the reconfirmation of my stereotypes. One more double expresso and a copy of “Liberation” and it’s a bientot, hopefully not au revoir. Henceforth, speaking French becomes an affectation.
Waves of undesirable change in ambiance increasingly roll over you. The size of the average person increases about 50% between Charles de Gaulle and Bush League International, especially outward. Unlike de Gaulle, Houston’s airport has pedestrian safety issues due to overbearing motorized carts for the variously infirm and terminally lazy speeding up behind you and demanding right of way. I pretend I’m deaf. Fox News once again blares its repulsiveness into my reality. Baseball caps are suddenly back in fashion, even indoors, even at night. The airport food court welcomes you with a full blast of Americana, including an imitation Italian food stall with a sign saying “God Bless America” (and fuck everyone else?), run by Mexicans serving processed carbo-fat while defanged R&B hums subliminally. On numerous large flat screens, some golf tournament and a baseball game have replaced the World Cup, where the US team started off by getting ripped 3-0 by a Czech Republic team which then lost 2-0 to Ghana.
Back in the US, I drive, not walk, through the city in my very own car, not a taxi or a bus, and everything looks unaestheticly modern, temporary and disposable. This part of the world has exponentially more and more space devoted to the requirements of large, mechanized, individual mobility devices, which Paris and many other European cities are struggling to restrain. Here these vehicles are typically of an entirely different nature, as there are almost no pick-up trucks, Hummers or maxed-out SUV’s in Europe. Gasoline there costs more than twice as much as here, primarily because of taxes that support public transportation and restrain the unfettered growth of car fetishism, forced collectivization unthinkable here. As a result, Paris has highly efficient and overlapping bus, boat, metro, regional computer train and high speed international train systems, not to mention lots of Smart cars.
Here, the urban geography has been developed so as to render almost impossible all alternatives to car addiction.
It’s culture shock time. The immigration man stamped my passport and welcomed me back home with a smile. I told him he cannot imagine how happy I am to be here.