Thursday, August 13, 2009

That certain 'Je ne sais quoi'

CROSS-CULTURAL OUTLINE visits PARIS: Le Jardin des Tuileries

From The Paris Journals by Michael Howard, Essayist, Commentator and CROSS CULTURAL OUTLINE Contributing Writer

"French police cruise on rollerblades and wear big silver stars copied from western movies. They no longer have the billy clubs and weighted capes with which they were wont to bash students upside the head. Now they carry guns. Dark vans with tinted windows transport them around town to monitor the manifestations. A manifestation is a peaceful, prearranged parade by anybody for any reason. Sometimes the bus and metro workers strike in sympathy and the city shuts down. Cars jam the streets. The police blow whistles and shout at the stalled cars and generally make things worse. Many people take a holiday. The French love holidays and take them all the time."

"Everybody smokes everywhere. Cigarette boxes say "Smoking Kills" in big black letters on one side and "Tobacco Causes Impotence" on the other. A popular item is a cardboard container into which a cigarette pack can be inserted to cover the warnings."

"In Paris everybody does the Paris Walk. If you don't do the Paris Walk, people behind you will knock you down and step over you. The basic step is simple; you just shorten the length of your stride by half and walk twice as fast. Paris is one of the most crowded cities in the world and people walk closely together. You must do The Walk in an absolutely straight line. If you swerve, you will collide with oncoming pedestrians in a domino effect which tumbles walkers for blocks. Parisians can estimate distances in millimeters, which is why they drive the way they do."

"In a crowd you see faces from history. A Voltaire sharp-chin slit-mouth face, a pudgy big-nosed Louis face, a girl with the delicate features of an 18th-century marquise. Noble families who marry carefully can trace their ancestors back to the Norman Conquest."

"This is what happens at a good café in Paris. The owner greets you by name, body-blocks an elderly lady who is heading for your favorite table, asks whether you want the usual (a bottle of St. Véran), brings an extra plate of peanuts, and fills both glasses. Everyone in the café speaks French except the couple at the next table, who are in love and do not speak at all. When you leave, the owner grasps your hand, kisses your wife on both cheeks, and begs you to return."

"This is what happens at a bad café in Paris. You spot a good table for two on the terrace; but seconds before you arrive, a party of Americans steals one of the chairs. Your wife sits in the remaining chair to establish ownership of the table and you stand in front of it while 50 comfortably-seated people stare at you with amused contempt. You feel like a bad stand-up comic. Your wife lights another cigarette and pretends she doesn't know you."

"Finally you find another chair and order wine. The waiter appears with a pot of muscadet and two glasses. He sprinkles your glass with a few drops and pauses reverently, no longer a waiter at the Café Bonaparte but a sommelier presenting a dusty bottle of Grand Cru Chateau Lafite Rothschild to the Minister of Culture. He is in fact only a waiter bearing a carafe containing a vile liquid the color of tap water tinged with piss. Without tasting it, you motion for him to fill both glasses. You do not taste the wine because you are embarrassed. You know that you have ordered the cheapest, most abominable wine on the menu, the glass misty with sludge from the bottom of the keg."

"On your right, two New Yorkers complain about their meal at one of the best restaurants in town. On your left, an ancient British couple cannot understand their menu, which happens to be written in English. With pictures. In the corner, a group of Germans loudly recall their student days in Heidelberg. The waiter overcharges you ten dollars on the bill and later presents his girl friend with the lighter your wife forgot."


[Text © Michael Howard ]

[Photo Credit: French MBA Club]


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