10 July 2010

Paris notes

On my summer vacation, I went to Paris. I've been lucky to live there, and luckier to return for several times. Here are my completely random, unscientific notes.

(my snap from the gay pride parade)

Up until five years ago, only sailors, punks and prisoners had them in France, pretty much like the USA until 1989. Now you can see ink on the kids, mostly limited to one or two -- not too many elaborate sleeves, tramp stamps or back-wide murals. I couldn't see any real trends in the tats.

The single-chair coiffure/hair salon by our apartment was run a fifty-something lady with an elaborate hairdo and who favored leopard patterned skintight pants and stiletto heels -- sort of a Jersey girl who somehow washed up on the Seine -- closed. It's now an acupuncture studio.

The very everyday cafe on one corner relaunched as "Le Murmur", all chocolate and butterscotch with a snotty gay waiter. No more drunks at 5:30 am knocking back an eau-de-vie in that joint.

The red-light sections continue to shrink, nearly domesticated, with only a few very sad looking old whores loitering -- almost as if the government paid them to stand around and kill your boner. A far cry from my first few times there where it was more like a hallucination out of Henry Miller, filled with whores from Africa, Algeria, white girls, white boys, black boys, groups of pacing, hot-eyed men, furtive guys in business suits, the doormen of the clubs grabbing your sleeves if you paused for a second. Now, it's dead. One cheeky doorman did offer us a family rate for the show; we declined. (No more drug dealers, either, or maybe I'm too respectable now to be approached.)

It's still a happening city, no doubt. But I miss the old, fierce and occasionaly terrifying piss soaked streets of yore.

A lot more men have gym bodies with tell-tale overdeveloped pecs and biceps and the simian posture that tends to accompany working out the show muscles. The women, thank the good lord above, still have beautiful legs, among other things.

The women tend to go braless more often. My son pointed this out, and after I started paying attention, I had to agree.

Parisians remain among the most polite citizens in the world. The speak softly. If they bump into you, they murmur a discreet "pardon" -- even thugs from the suburbs. They do not take more that a carefully calibrated space, usually directly proportional to their size. They leave you alone on the street. And if you speak French with an American accent while ordering something both pricey and useless, they treat you like a god.

The French still do not understand air conditioning. I used to have mixed feelings about air conditioning. My philosophy was that you should somehow be adaptive enough and stoic enough to do without it. Or move. My perspective changed after the 2003 heatwave. It was so hot, for so long, that it killed 14,000 French people. Once you undergo suffering like that, you realize what a true gift to humanity climate engineers have made. Back in 2003, we searched high and low for any air conditioned spaces we could find. Mostly we failed. The only truly American-style refrigeration was an Irish pub run by some guy from Atlanta who knew the score. The place was packed, and, oh so deliciously cool.

Since then, apparently, nothing has changed. The sun scorched the limestone, asphalt and trees towards the end of the week, cooking the rest of us along the way. I sweated copiously and inelegantly. No air con, anywhere.

Globalization and . . .
The young people look just the same. Well, there are fewer puffy, bloated ones, and the girls are slimmer. But except for a few tell-tale gestures, they could be from San Fran, or Toronto or Chicago -- but from the hipper neighborhoods. Maybe this is a function of my age, and all the young ones are beginning to blend together. Or perhaps it's globalization being fully realized in Nikes and Gap and Puma-clad millenials. But the young women look better -- did I mention that?

(An American tourist wearing cargo shorts, a baggy polo shirt and oversized sneakers is not necessarily any more stupid looking that a Frenchman in capri shorts and a sleeveless shirt.)

. . . Exhaustion
Being in Paris this time made me recall all those gloomy, Spenglerian moans about the death of civilization. It all seemed used up, filled with relics or copies. I know there's supposed to be some techno-driven scenes in the suburbs and hip hop and whatever else, but all that's second-hand, anyway, and cancerous on top of it. That's a simple-minded measurement, but the pop culture seems derivative. (The cinema, though, seems stronger to me). High culture seems irrelevant, a means, mainly, for torturing sclerotic tourists from Tokyo and Columbus, Ohio, who trudge through the museums with grim determination, never spending more than 20 seconds in front of any painting or sculpture. The galleries seem second hand, often -- I don't know why.

But -- where's France? I didn't feel the spine of it this time; maybe my radar was off, but it all seemed to be devolving into ersatz mall culture so quickly that I considered giving the sexy le Pen daughter a call or a donation or something, though I doubt that's the answer. Deporting immigrants and a return to the Church seem both unlikely and ineffectual; the combine grinds on. Our allies are lunatics, mostly, on the fringe, crazy farmers or quiet voiced men in the background, the very deep background, meeting to discuss the influence of Free Masons or whether or not to bring back the Bourbons.

Meanwhile, everyone fiddles with their mp3 players instead of reading, the way they used to.

And. Starbucks?? McDonald's makes a kind of sense, an addition, something new, but Starbucks in Paris is so meta it must make Deleuze's head spin. So many corners seem to aspire to the same perfumed quaintness or quirkiness you have your nose rubbed into in those refurbished centers in American cities. Just stop with that, okay? Stop. You want all that stuff, come over here, or visit Singapore.

I'm cutting myself off here -- maybe I'll write some more in another post. I did strongly feel that we're at the end of an era, maybe the way people felt in 1913. The new era is probably with us already, and we haven't noticed it -- take the obsession with prosthetics, with robotics, with the eye and the finger tip.

And with the apocalypse, as we quietly choke under the hazy yellow skies.

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