Letter from Paris

Paris in Early Summer: A Busy, Intoxicating Place

  PARIS – If it’s spring it must be Paris.

  But this is summer, before the French go on holiday, and the city is crowded and noisy. Young backpackers, on the European circuit, crowd the sidewalks and cafes on the south side of the Seine River, known as the Left Bank.

  On the chic northside a different breed of tourist, one wielding gold credit cards, roam the lovely boulevards in search of good food and fine fashions. Each is in ample supply.

  And, then, there’s the French. In three weeks they’ll flee the city en masse for their country homes and south Europe’s beaches. So, you can’t blame them for being slightly more hurried – and short tempered – than normal.

  In fairness, Parisians have acquired an undeserved reputation. Rude and inhospitable are two frequent descriptions that come to mind. Yet this town’s citizens are no less friendly than New Yorkers, Chicagoans, San Fransicoans or other American city dwellers who race through life at a pace unfamiliar to people in Anniston and other small towns.

  One suggestion before you come: Learn a bit of the language. A simple “Bonjour, monsieur,” even with a hint of Dixie, will often earn a polite reply to whatever question in English might follow. Think of it this way: What would your response be if someone came up to you in your town and asked: “Ou puis-je garer ma voiture?” [“Where can I park my car?”]

  Of course, even if you know rudimentary French, no one here is going to ask about your mother’s health, and y’all is not in the book.

  With the crowds come heavy traffic. Parking places are harder to come by than barbecue. Well, almost. Imagine 24 square miles of Quintard Avenue? Fortunately, Paris has a wonderful subway system with 276 stations. It’s efficient. It’s fast. And you can get almost anywhere for 90 cents. By contrast, a single ride on the Metro in Washington, D.C. can cost $2.80.

  Nearly everything else is expensive, though, partly the result of a weak dollar. A local coffee with milk [café au lait] is $3 at most outdoor cafes. Tomatoes are running $1.80 a pound, and they aren’t as tasty as the ones you’re currently enjoying. Gas will run you four bucks a gallon, which is why the average car is the size of a Ford Fiesta. Speaking of vehicles, pick-up trucks are non-existent. Mopeds are in great abundance. They make this a noisy place.

  Like most European capitals, this is a city of contrasts. Modern buildings dwarf neighboring structures that are several centuries old. Archaic, clunky elevators are commonplace. Yet coin phones are almost obsolete, replaced by a sophisticated credit card system. Food World does not exist. The corner grocer does.

  And now for the good part.

  Only in Paris in summer can you spend the morning in a park across from the Notre Dame Cathedral [built in 1163], listening to a potpourri of live music or just marveling at the wonderful variety of the human race; have a three-hour lunch and not feel guilty; gaze at a Rembrandt or Van Gogh at the Louvre; dine on top of the Eiffel Tower; take a cruise on the Seine; shop on the Avenue des Champs Elysees; and party all night at clubs that will make you wonder what planet you’re on. And you can do it every day for two weeks and never tire of it.

  Imagine how good it would be if they had barbecue?

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  Editor’s note: This is a slightly edited version of an article that appeared in the Anniston [Ala.] Star on July 11, 1990, thus the reference to barbecue and Quintard Avenue, the main street in Anniston. It was the first in a series of articles published during a seven-week overland trip by car from Paris to Damascus and back, a number of which will later appear on this website.