OUR CONSENSUS ON PARIS, based on a recent visit, is that what you really notice is the attitude of the people. They love who they are, where they are and what they’ve got. For all the notoriety, the food is not that remarkable, unless you happen to be big on croissants and cheese, and you’d have to be nuts to get behind the wheel of almost anything within the city limits.
On the other hand, there is a happiness, a joie de vie, that is not only evident, it is everywhere. Once, when buying tickets for passage on a Metro train, the agent refused to do business with us until we greeted her with a robust Bon jour. So we plugged in right away, and loved it.
But then, we’re not your typical tourists. The only site we targeted was Monet’s gardens, and casual planning killed that one — too far from the city and insufficient time. Instead, we prefer a hanging-out approach, with the adventure being where we find ourselves at any given time, so people watching as we stroll is what we’re after. It works because we don’t find the language barrier to really be one, in that you can get a sense of what a sign or notice means with careful study, plus English is never that far away; the help in most restaurants can manage the basic necessities, and surprisingly often people on the streets will jump in with directions for going from point A to point B.
In essence, you can feel a part of the action without undue effort.
Let me give you another example. A couple of times I got up early — about 5 local time — to walk across a nearby bridge to watch the sun rise behind — get this — le Tour Eiffel. Once, in the approaching dawn, two riders on bicycles came down the street and the voice of a girl called out, “Bon jour, monsieur!” Reflexively, I replied, “Bon jour.” On they rode and on I walked. I was delighted. People I have never, and most likely will never meet, simply took a moment to greet a complete stranger there in the melting darkness. No aspersions here, but I have never had a similar experience on this side of the Atlantic. This, in a country that was once occupied by a brutal foreign power in the lifetimes of thousands of still surviving people.
We felt that in Paris.
To be sure, France is not beyond reproach, and Paris is where there was a time when lopping off the heads of your political enemies in a very public manner was in vogue. Plus, post-war French government was ludicrous and corrupt with no apparent apology, inclusive of the current French president’s philandering. And recently, the French government passed a law that bans its Muslim citizens from wearing native apparel, which is equally as hateful as Arizona’s new Hispanic profiling practices.
But life on the street, if you choose to appreciate it, has unmistakable and ready charm.
And heavens, do they have trains! Absolute foamers delight! We were looking at a map in a station — “Is it the Number 12 train on the Green Line or Number 10 on the Yellow Line?” — and Kris just shook her head. “How — or why — did they build so many different lines? Who figured that out?” she asked. I had no idea. I just grinned, remembering that I had taken a train down from Brussels two days prior, screaming along at nearly 180 mph.
That kind of stuff stays with you. On our first day home I went over to the market to pick up something for breakfast, which I intended to include a couple of croissants. Approaching an attendant in the pastries section I nearly sang out with a cheery “Bon jour” and later came close to concluding the conversation with “Merci.” No croissants, but the chance kept a smile on my face. Most of the day.