postcard from paris

life and fate have conspired and brought me to paris for a week.

and since i am in the habit of carrying around a tiny notepad and a pencil and jot stuff down for my own benefit, i thought what the heck i should share some of these observations on here and in that sense try to imitate yesteryear’s literary types who made overgeneralized statements from their travels and provoked at once the outrage and envy of the rest of us. by the way i do submit a notice of disclaimer that this is the stuff of my own notepad which even clouds some of the creepier things on this blog (since letterman made that word fashionable we creepy types are no more frightened by its use); and that none of this is really paris or france or the french. you need to come see for yourself as paris is one of those places everyone ought to spend some time in.

and starting with some of those overgeneralizations, i wonder how do people here stay so thin with such an overabundance of nice places to eat? my hotel is a five minute walk from the eiffel tower and apparently this must be the place to hang out and be seen and eat at cafes because there is so much of them, and yet everyone is so thin. this must be the city with the highest per capita concentration of women shaped in the western measurements of beauty; i.e. tall, slender and perhaps a little anemic looking. also i have not seen as many blondes as i had thought. most people are brunettes and have dark hair. many men -especially those between 18 to 30 sport facial hair, which despite the dishevelled look of it sometimes, suits them well.

people smoke cigarettes here, and they make it look so damn good. alas if you are having trouble quitting, don’t come to paris. smoking is actually cool here and nobody frowns upon it. the fahionistas do it, beautiful people do it, and people take to it like drinking water or excercising even.

i was sitting in this streetside cafe earlier today and reading the day’s paper and people-watching, and at one point after the smoke of the neighboring clients got too much and even crossed that limit which social smokers generally don’t mind and in fact find pleasant, i was tempted to observe that here in paris lives a species that thrives on a diet of coffee, freshly baked french pastry, and tobacco. and then of course i changed my mind as that would not be a nice thing to say and amounts to essentialism of the sort edward said would not like and he certainly spent a fair share of his time in paris. but one still wonders.

there is constant noise of sirens in paris. you are sure to hear a police vehicle go by with its siren wailing at least once every hour. guaranteed. (another one drove right by my window right now as i was writing this, in fact.)

people dress up nicely in paris. nothing, neither the weather nor wealth and social status, not even gender dictates what people wear. instead, an implicit collective imperative to keep paris the best looking city in the world drives what people wear every day here. paris is where conspicuous consumerism became conspicuous trendiness, and fashion for the heck of it. you see people in trenchcoats and with scarves wrapped tightly around their necks side by side with miniskirts and bare arms. normally, one would be suited for the middle of winter, and the other for the inferno of summer on a tropical island. but here, you will see both side by side even on a day like today when one would do better erring on the warmer side. and the weather could not be more kind or playful. when it rains here, it drizzles playfully so that it is not the gushing shower that sends everyone hiding with their bags over their heads. i was strolling down the champs elysees last night and it started to rain for lack of a better word. a half-hearted, tentative, and a little playful drizzle on now off now and infusing the air with a pleasant freshness. people here, and women in particular, must feel as entitled to looking drop dead gorgeous as a vital and inalienable right as people in some parts of the world feel about food and shelter. how else could be so devoted to it? no room for error. chic and impeccable is how everyone without exception must look or some sort of a law the rest of us are not privy to will be transgressed against with apparently dire consequences. as one keen observer of paris said it a few centuries ago, “fashion is more tyrannical at paris than in any other place in the world; it governs even more absolutely than their king, which is saying a great deal. the least revolt against it is punished by proscription. you must observe and conform to all the minutiae of it, if you will be in fashion there yourself; and if you are not in fashion, you are nobody” (philip dormer stanhope, 4th earl of chesterfield 1694-1773 in a letter to his son who he obviously wanted to be somebody.) and if my few days in the city are enough to allow me another observation on a finer nuance of the fashion trends here, it is that people, and again women in particular, dress in darker tones, and particularly with a weakness for the color black. which lends them with a certain mystique as if they are in touch with the darker side more than the rest of us mortals.

and yet i wonder where these people get their clothes? it did not take me long to realize that for the week i was in paris and outside the meetings where i could get away with the suit, i needed to indulge in some cloth shopping and revamp my casual wardrobe. and yet after hours of walking i was not able to locate a store where any of the stuff i had seen and liked was sold. that mystery remains unsolved as this report goes to the press. everywhere you see places to eat, or places that have to do with eating -patisseries and boulangeries- and shops that sell art and painting stuff, and god how many hair salons can be in one neighborhood? but no proper, big clothing shops where you can bury a couple of hours and come out with a couple of wholesome shopping bags and already looking forward to trying your new spoils.

cities often have distinctive smells – i have not spotted what it is for paris yet. there is the background slight smell of the seine. then there is freshly baked bread. then there is tobacco. and then of course there is every brand of expensive perfume as people walk by (wonder if that old tale i heard about the french being so excellent at making perfumes because they were so poor at personal hygiene is true, because they certainly make a point of wearing their perfumes so that it is smell-able five meters away). but none defines paris for me yet.

the prices here can be expensive, but not always, and sometimes, not even what you expect. yes, a bottle of water can be rediculously expensive (1.7 euros for half a litre) which makes you miss the wasteful abundance of cristal water in kabul at 10 cents a bottle (and all for what? because they don’t like plastic and must bottle everything in glass such that by my estimate about 90% of the cost has to do with the bottle and not what’s in it). but a reasonable hotel room is on par with any other city i have stayed at which is a relief because that can normally be the biggest cost when travelling. (you also have to pay for the grocery bags separately if you are stupid enough not to carry your own shopping bag as most parisienne do -which is nice for the environment.)

so nice to see people kiss on cheeks when they meet or say goodbye. this of course is a custom we hold dearly to in afghanistan, and something a lot of americans are frightened by or at least made uncomfortable. and i had heard that there was going to be this new law somewhere in europe that because of the swine flu dread people would be stopped from smooching on the cheek. glad to find out that the custom of bissous is intact. what a nice gesture. it is better to live with kindness and style and elegance even when there is a slight risk of illness, just as it is better to live free when there is some risk of insecurity. otherwise we will all become dull, mechanical beings unfit for living in the first place and in constant fear of our own shadows.

les parisiennes walk a lot. (i hope you have by now noticed my commandeering, overgeneralized and authoritative tone as i make these definitive statements of ultimate truth.) and why shouldn’t they? the city’s transport infrastructure as a whole is more friendly towards walking than cycling, and towards cycling than driving. and there are so many views and vistas of the city that it is never boring or tiresome to walk -just get a pair of comfortable shoes and a map and get lost in the city. whatever you do, do not submit yourself to the tyranny and dictate of the open air tour bus. paris is one of the most tourist-invaded cities in the world and while the people do put up with tourists in the same way as you and i would put up with guests who totally overstay their welcome and are nosy and don’t speak your language and can be loud and poke their cameras into every hole, one should still not push one’s luck. try to blend in and see the city from an average resident’s point of view. it’s much more interesting than limiting yourself to the monuments and museums. i know louvre needs its two days, which i cannot afford now -and so i have not even tried. instead, i am perfectly content getting to know this neighborhood, making friends with the lebanese sandwich shop around the corner and the cafe up the street where i can read the morning paper over an overpriced coffee that a friendly waitress of north african origin brings me and bears with my attempt at speaking french. (i suspect some must be wondering what on earth is this person’s job anyway?)

apart from walking, metro is your best friend and guide around paris. get a map and you will never be more than a couple of minutes walking distance from a metro station regardless of where you are in paris.

aspects of the recent economic crisis are visible here and there, i think. things seem a bit slower than they normally would be, and a bit unrepaired than they normally should be; although i admit i would have no reference to tie that observation to since i was not here ever before in the normal economic times. but one does wonder what do people here do for a living? everything is a monument or a museum or a cafe. smoking and entertaining and sitting leisurely in cafes seem to me to be the chief pastime of the person here. how does the economy sustain itself one wonders? china makes stuff for the world. india solves the world’s computer problems through long distance back-office operations. the arab world sells its oil while it has it, and america is america is the largest economy and invents and invests and borrows and banks. what do the french do? ok, a few of them farm and grow and make wine and fatten pigs, but that’s mostly as a hobby isn’t it? why else does it need to be subsidized so heavily if they can make their own money on the open market and in competition with the rest of the world’s farmers? and where does the money for those subsidies (the taxes) come from? one wonders. i would love to be placed as a guest observer in an average working class french host family as they go about their daily work routine to find out. yes, you see the immigrants work but those are the people who seem to do everything. the other french persons and i don’t know how should i put this they seem so relaxed and busy living the good life and enjoying their joie de vivre that they seem unable to stoop to the level of hard realities that the rest of us have to contend with. so how do they pay the bills and buy the food?

by the way apparently not all the french are enjoying it all. just this morning i read in the current issue of the economist (bonjour tristesse) that france has the third highest suicide rate in the western europe, and is right up there with japan and others globally, with men taking their lives at a rate of nearly 23 per 100,000 annually and women 7.5.

and on this subject, the other day i went and visited the montparnasse cemetry, a place i had already become familiar with reading artists and writers’ biographies that always ended with died in so and so and is buried in the montparnasse cemetry of paris. i found two sites that i was familiar with -the tomb of chapour bakhtiar the last iranian prime minister under the shah and that of sartre and simon de beauvoir. i nearly found that of guy de maupassant and am disappointed down to perhaps within a few meters but it must not be a very prominent grave because i had to give up soon. i was surprised at how many of the graves are dated in the late 2000s. so many were from 2008 and 2009. my guess was that all the graves were from the earlier centuries and decades. no. the rich and famous who can afford a plot in the montparnasse are dying at as rapid a rate as the rest of us even today. also i could not find jim morrison’s grave but that’s a grave i really wanted to visit bad about five years ago. not as much today. i still like the music of the doors though. chapour bakhtiar’s grave had visibly been the subject of recent visits as there were many flowers and ribbons and memorial paraphyrnalia laying around. i saw the tomb of sartre and de beauvoir from a distance of a few steps as there was a visibly more devoted student of existentialist philosophy and she was unwilling to budge from the bench in front of their grave. so i paid my respects from a distance. once again, a few years earlier and i would have challenged her to a duel for the right to sit at the master’s footsteps.

yesterday i went to see arc de triomphe. i had read somewhere that under the gateway, which was first constructed by the order of empreror napoleon after his victory at a battle, remains of the unknown soldier are buried and a flame that must never go out is revived every evening at exactly 6:30 pm at the changing of the guard. i timed my visit to witness this event; and my god, if the state of the french military and decorum and discipline is what was on display last night at 6:30, then by god that conservative american commentator of the national review is right to allege that the europeans, led by the french are living in post-history and have gone off on some sort of a vacation from history. the few younger folks at the changing of the guard did not understand the significance of the occasion and could not stop giggling and being loud and disrespectful, and the older folks who did were too old to keep still and one had to be helped up back to his feet when he kneeled for something at one stage, and most held the flags such that the tips were flowing in the wind (they have to be held with the mast) or touching the earth. unlike the rest of paris where the average age seems to be 35 here at the ceremony it was all senior citizens galore -the only constituency, i guess, who remember, who attach some importance to it all, who remain loyal to the nation as opposed to the imaginary construct of a continental union of values and markets and agricultural policies that they feel all too often ends up draining their coffers to assist farmers elsewhere, and to the tricolore, the flag, to marianne, and to the ideals of the republic: liberté, égalité, fraternité ; the only people who feel something swelling up in their hearts when they hear la marseillaise: to arms, citizens! form your batallions! let’s march – so that the impure blood should water the furrows of our fields! (which the brass band rendered with impeccable precision such that i found deeply moving.) instead, the whole event was an uncoordinated and undignified caricature of what once must have been a superb show of discipline and respect to honor the country’s many dead on the many bloody wars fought on its borders. i am not talking about glorifying war and killing, but rather honoring the dead to remember, lest everyone forgets and then reverts back to the opposite pole, the mania that nearly got le pen elected a few years back. certainly those observers are equally aghast at how the country’s dignity and history is being disparaged and it must fuel over-zealot nationalist sentiments. that’s the danger of not remembering and honoring the past properly.

this is the multilingual latin city that speaks little english. you can get by easily if you speak italian or spanish -but good luck if you are an english-only speaker. the the day before yesterday i tried to communicate to a young stationary store clerk that i needed a fountain pen, but to no avail. i gestured and gesticulated. i threw in my whole vocabulary of french having to do with writing all together: un instrument pour l’ecrive. ek-reeve. oui. il y a deux sort de ‘pen’: un sort est le ball point – c’est ca. l’utre est un fountain pen damnit. non. juste un fountain pen without the damnit. je besoin l’utre.
nope. i had to walk out in shame and disappointment and feeling altogether too much like a dumb tourist.

lastly, on my second day here i requested the hotel to give me a room on a higher floor and with a window that opens to the street and which faces the eiffel tower. my wish was granted and they gave me room 747 – comme la aroplane boeing 747. when i am not out (which i should not be too much, despite all that is there to do and see, and despite the guilt i feel at spending these hours indoors when i could really be out there in paris, because, and it might be hard to believe this, i actually have stuff to do too) then i am here on my laptop working and increasingly getting the sense that i could really get used to this city and understanding why the likes of sohrab sepehri and others liked the city so much. there is something in here that nourishes the soul and soothes the mind.

perhaps the very realization itself that one is in paris.

but then again, it may also have to do something with not having to constantly fear ending up in a suicide attack or the like. being at the wrong place in the wrong time sort of thing.

maybe.

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~ by safrang on October 12, 2009.

6 Responses to “postcard from paris”

  1. Fuck.

  2. salaam.
    I hope you have enjoyed being in Paris. unfortunately i didn’t know that you were here in Paris otherwise i could invite you to discover more and more about Paris.
    Best wishes

  3. یادداشت ”

    ورنه شما را دعوت می کردم [به خانه ام] و کمک می کردم تا پاریس را خوبتر می شناختید. بهرصورت امیدوارم که برای تان خوش گذشته باشد

    ببخشید بخاطر انگلیسی غلطی که نوشته ام. انگلیسی من هم ازنوع انگلیسی فرانسوی است.

  4. For me it sounds as if you’re describing Copenhagen in the summer, I love that city…Actually, I love most european cities, at least the ones I have been to. As for the way they dress; I don’t know exactly what style you’re talking about, but most of the styles could probably be found online or if you go to the right stores in some other european cities ( you seem to travel a lot anyway) or in the US for that matter.

  5. […] by associating smoking with an international frequent flyer jetsetting lifestyle, the sign reinforces the chic aura of smoking. the same aspect of smoking that makes it appealing when you see greta garbo and albert camus with cigarettes alight, or anorexic-looking french models. […]

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