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Coming into Paris by cab gets you thinking about the riots there a couple of years ago, because the outer rings of the city seem to be overwhelmingly populated by Arabic/Muslims and are uniformly bleak in appearance.   This is not the tourist Paris; it is a depressing cityscape just to drive through.  Of course the French have a very difficult relationship with their–very large–Muslim population, which has not been assimilated and is struggling to adjust to the increasingly tight strictures imposed by the secular French state on some forms of religious observance.  Chadors are not allowed in public, headscarves are banned in schools, and now there is talk of banning even headscarves in the public sphere altogether. France (terrorism aside) has a really volatile history with the Muslim world, including the Algerian and a hideous Paris flare-up in 1960 in which the French police killed several hundred Algerian immigrants and dumped their bodies in the Seine.  How did I get off on this history tangent?  I’ll stop here.  Back to Paris.

The contrast between the outer rings and the central core of the city is stark. Everywhere we went, and we covered large swathes of the city on foot, the place was humming with a diverse, multiethnic polyglot of vitality and prosperity.  It helped that we had beautiful, balmy weather, but the streets are packed with seemingly prosperous people, the restaurants and humming, and there are none of the rows of shuttered storefronts so common to many American cities.  European economic woes aside, this is no Detroit.  Far from it.  Part of this prosperity, though, comes from the uniformities imposed by a papering over globalization: Starbucks and other chains are everywhere. In some places this almost gives the feeling of walking down 5th Avenue in Seattle (one thing conspicuously lacking in the core city was observant Muslim women in headscarves. Central Paris shows a very diverse racial/ethnic mix, but some forms of discrimination/segregation look alive and well).

Of course not all is affluence and prosperity, even to the casual stroller.  There are street people here, looking just as wracked and desperate as their American counterparts, but in significantly fewer numbers.   I found myself doing the same sort of four step shuffle around them: first step sympathy, second step embarrassment, third step guilt, fourth step gone.  To all appearances the French give these unfortunates a similarly wide berth, with the same sort of body language.  Just a discouraging bit of cross-cultural commonality. There is less crime there–especially violent crime–but the same big city tensions pertain.  We talked to a shop owner who had lived many years in Daytona Beach, and returned to Paris in the last couple of years.  He had recently been mugged in the square outside his T-shirt shop, and said the stresses of living in the city were about to drive him back to Florida.

This brings me to the police.  They are everywhere, clad in a bewildering array of uniforms to guard public buildings, stroll the streets, roar around on motorcycles.  We even saw two uniformed police serving as crossing guards at an elementary school, and this on a sleepy side street about 15 feet wide.  The most striking thing about them–besides their colorful costuming–is that by our count they are about 99% white males.  A few women, but we didn’t see one face of color in uniform.  Not one.  In a city as diverse as Paris, this can’t be good.

I’ll give you a couple of serendipitous tourist moments illustrating the vitality of the city. We were walking along the Seine and happened on a large global photography exhibit stretched along the river.  Some of the images were quite powerful and haunting–kids in limbo in a lonely Russian orphanage, depressed Japanese self-scarring flaggelents (a phenonema I didn’t even know existed).  We happened to step into St Eustache, a Renaissance Catholic Church–more like a cathedral–during services.  A woman got up to sing, and her transcendently beautiful voice soaring through those high stone arches was almost enough to make a believer of me.  These two things happened on one day, which just shows what a heady mix of aesthetic and even moving stimulation Paris can be, and I haven’t even mentioned the museums.

In a way there isn’t much to say about the museums of Paris just because there is so much to say: they are a parallel world within the wider city world, a sort of gulag of art and history that Stalin might have imagined if he had been a humanist.  Here are a few fragments. There is series of Rembrandt self-portraits in the Louvre from youth to old age that in their own pictorial was suggest the liniments of that life and mind developing as powerfully as any print autobiography.  The huge, wraparound series of Monet Water Lilies in the Orangerie Museum are almost hallucinatory: you can become mesmerized and drown in those blue depths.  In the Pompidou Centre, there is a fascinating little documentary film covering a group of twelve year old Liverpool schoolchildren discussing an (unseen)
Picasso painting.  Somehow these kids, casually draped all over each other, burrow down into the heart of how Picasso uses form, emotion, and color.

Of course some things are a bit more earthy, such as the hordes of big black motorcycles blasting through the streets. It is apparently a Parisian law that these bikes are required to go from 0 to 60 between stop lights, making as much noise as possible (which is deafening). The curious thing is the cross walks actually work–the motorcycles bearing down like a pack of hungry sharks calmly halt and allow you to cross the street alive.  Paris has a thriving rent-a-bike program, in which Parisians check out bicycles from innumerable kiosks and placidly pedal around through the ravening, snarling traffic.  They look nothing like Americans ripping around on their $2,000 bikes and $500 biking outfits–Parisian bikes look like 1960 vintage Schwinns and they just pedal about slowly in their street clothes.  One American idea they should adopt is bike helmets. Parisians don’t wear them.  Still, I didn’t see any shattered bikes or squashed heads on the streets, and I was looking.

The women.  The stereotype goes that Parisian women have a certain attractiveness.  Believe it. I view it as a form of harassment.  For instance, I looked up from my menu at a sidewalk cafe to see a server who was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen, wearing a sweater off (way off) one shoulder.  I thought to myself, Really?  I’m just trying to order lunch here!  Please to stop assaulting me with your stunningness!  This sort of harrowing experience was repeated everywhere.  They come at you in waves.  (P.C. Note: I’m aware that the Strauss-Kahn adventures in New York have helped blow the lid off the real problem of French sexual harassment.)

This little report has been an impressionistic hodgepodge, but that is the sort of thing encouraged by the experience of Paris.  This is a city that is all surface and all depth, all present and all past. It sets off echoes in your head.  You can stand on a bridge over the Seine looking down at Notre Dame looming in the distance, or stroll down one of the innumerable narrow little streets lined with shops and restaurants, and suddenly start thinking about a counterpoint of Liverpool kids and Russian kids, calmly studying art on the one hand, desperately holding it together on the other.  Or you might find yourself trying to backpedal several centuries and imagine what it would be like for Parisians circa 1640 entering St Eustache from very different streets and hearing a woman’s singing voice echoing off those cavernous vaults.


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