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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

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Sunday, January 18, 2004

Vie en Rues #1

La Vie en Rues, #1
January 18, 2004

Houston’s first French letter

One must approach writing about Paris with trepidation bordering on panic. There is no hope, it seems from the start, of writing something new. This is the city writers have made their cathedral. To do anything but kneel and genuflect must be folly. The writing, being unapproachable, is the opposite of the city itself, which can’t but beckon you to say something, anything, from the distant place in which your heart guards its hopes.

Coming from Shanghai, Paris is even more of a revelation. My skin prickles with the sensation of being in a place that celebrates life and makes a show of all things that humble us with their beauty. The Chinese, by contrast, are world champion pragmatists. One look at Paris, and you can be almost certain Parisians would consider “pragmatism” a character flaw.

One impact this has on a prospective writer is the struggle faced, here, to avoid using the words “beautiful”, “charming”, and “romance”. These are Paris’s hackneyed clichés. They are its calling cards to the tourist trade. And they do not do justice to the entire city’s engagement with things transcendent and sublime.

So, let’s reserve the word “beauty” only for the women. If you’re a highbrow lecher, it’s a real buzz to spend a few months in Shanghai, then come to Paris. Women in Shanghai are beautiful. Indeed, at least two of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met will sit in Shanghai reading this letter. But---and I’m about to be both very politically incorrect and unfairly damning---girl-watching on Shanghai sidewalks gets boring. They’re all one shape, one colour, one attitude… I hadn’t actually noticed how bored I had become with stunningly beautiful Shanghainese women until about three weeks ago, when I started walking in Paris.

Tall ones, short ones, black, white, brown, olive ones. Breasts and bums in every possible combination of contour and display. Women with hips! (I didn’t realize how much I love hips.) Women who know which underwear goes with ass-hugging pants. Shanghainese women, god bless them, have leaped hammer and sickle into wearing sexy gear, but they’re still afraid of the g-string…and it shows.

Then there are the men. While French women have long benefited from a global reputation for glamour, the men are relegated to a sort of beauregard bargain basement: little Frenchies wearing berets, smoking Galloises and whiffily in need of a bath. I am here to tell you it ain’t so. Geri and I are agreed on this point: French men are almost as beautiful as French women. Perhaps a trifle *too* pretty, Geri says. Not really a damning discount.

But I digress. The city.

People in Paris speak in a bewildering numerical code. No sooner do you say “I’m moving to Paris,” than you are assaulted by the universal, and odd, Parisian assumption that everyone on the planet knows what these numbers mean. “Oh, you must live in the 16th!” “For a man like you, without children, the fifteenth would be great.” “There are really only a couple of places to be: the fourth and the sixth.” “I wouldn’t recommend the 19th at all.” “I love the 2nd, but you’ll never be able to find anything there.”

It would seem more in character for Paris, a city renowned for romance and epic character, to have named its neighborhoods after mythic heroes or great artists, writers, statesmen and philosophers. I quite fancy the idea of living in the Rabellais district, or South Ingres, just on the other side of Lower Aphrodite, or in the fashionable quarter at the junction of Baudelaire and Balzac.

It wasn’t to be. The city’s planners were, of course, powerless before the Cartesian impulse to slap an overlay of virtually arbitrary numbers on top of the most sensual city in the world. It strikes me as particularly French to go so stubbornly against expectation. But, then, there is also a certain French logic to the numbering: it is laid out in a freaking circle, as is the whole city. So, to the Parisians, we now blithely say that we live in the 17th. To anyone else, we drop the pretense, and just say we live in the upper left.

Before we found our apartment, however, as we sought advice on a place to live, the neighborhood numbers didn’t help us. While they were initially indecipherable, we got the hang of them, only then to discover the next inescapably French aspect of the way the system is used. No one---and I mean no one---can agree on the relative merits of any of the neighborhoods, or “arondissements”. People can’t even agree on where the *bad* ones are, much less the good ones. Nor can they agree on whether you should live in a really old building, a moderately old building, or a “modern” building---which, in Paris terms, means anything built in the last century. We only got one consistent piece of advice: don’t live on the ground floor.

In the end, we found a place that we love. The building dates from the middle of the 19th century. After a popular revolution, the government decided it needed to open up Paris’s warren of narrow little streets. The great boulevards were laid---much easier for government troops to defend---and a whole new style of housing was planned to go along with them. A city planner named Hausmann was hired to get it all built. He put himself into the task with Napoleonic omnipotence and a rather imperial impulse to control, creating possibly the strictest centrally defined building regulations any city has ever seen.

Fortunately for Paris, and the world, his aesthetic impulses were without flaw. That so much of Paris looks alike (though not quite identical) and beautiful, is the result of Hausmann’s handiwork. We now live in one of these Hausmannian buildings, reaching our fifth floor apartment by way of a Lilliputian, rickety, old, wooden lift.

A block down from us is a small village square. A statue of St Ferdinand dominates the middle. (We affectionately refer to it as “the rock”.) It was because of this square that we were drawn to the neighborhood. Looking for an experience that would feel as Parisian as possible---whatever that means---we found it around this Place St Ferdinand. Within a stone’s throw of each other are now our local boulangerie, patisserie, fromagerie, boucherie (butcher) and cave (wine shop). There is a little café restaurant with tables on the sidewalk. Five minutes’ gets us to the Arc de Triomphe on foot. And, yes, there is a church on the corner that rings out melodically on the quarter hour and cacophonously for daily services.

It all feels rather, uh, French. We bathe in the romantic vision of Paris that you see on postcards. That’s our neighborhood. Mission accomplished.

For those of you wondering not so much about the city and our neighborhood, but about the Parisians, I’ve got disappointing news: they’re lovely. In every other way, they live up to the stereotype. They dress immaculately. They walk with baguettes under their arms. (It seems a fashion accessory.) They drink wine with every meal after breakfast. (Served in the Alcatel canteen at lunch, bien sur!) But they fail to live up to their reputation as rude air-sniffers, even under the assault of my American accent.

When people find out that we are new to Paris, the charm turns up a few degrees more. Two different sets of neighbors in our building have invited us for aperitifs, arranging small soirees including all the English-speakers they know. All the boys in the shops flirt warmly and persistently with Geri. (I’m shocked. Shocked.) We are greeted on the street. It is all a little bewildering emanating from people ubiquitously regarded as intolerant snobs.

Still, I worry that simply my non-francophone presence is a legitimate invitation to derision. More than ever it did in Shanghai, it feels incumbent on me to speak the local language better than I do. In China, it was perfectly acceptable to have poor Mandarin. The Chinese are even a little proud of how difficult their language is, so easily forgive Westerners unable to grasp it. In France, however, most people’s English is better than my French, and the languages are hardly fathoms apart. I feel the need to catch up quickly.

In the meantime, I open most conversations with enough self-deprecation to get the natives on-side. In France, a speaker of particularly poor French is said to talk “like a Spanish cow.” So, with a desperate look, I declare: “Je suis desolée, mais ma français est une catastrophe. Je suis australien, donc je parle français comme un kangourou.”

“I’m sorry, but my French is a catastrophe. I’m an Australian, so I speak French like a kangaroo.”

Seems to work. Fortunately for my pride, I feel no need to try it on Parisian women in ass-hugging pants.