Sunday, July 11, 2010

It's Paris, isn't it?

Paris breeds bitterness. It’s not just me who feels it either. Many friends of mine who I have spoken to are in complete agreement. Having spent an extended period of time in the city one is constantly reminded of the ridiculousness of Parisian life. All too often a horrific story of French bureaucracy, unhelpful employees and appalling manners is shrugged off with a simple ‘it’s Paris, isn’t it?’ Paris is by no means an inconsequential city. In fact, more often than not it is listed alongside London and New York as one of the great cities for culture, fashion and art amongst others things. Be that as it may, having lived in London and visited New York, I can say categorically that Paris trails dismally in the wake of these two clean, efficient and modern cities.

Jessie, a friend of mine who works at Breakfast in America, was negotiating the metro recently. Of course, no one could say that the underground or the subway are particularly clean, but the metro is home to hundreds of homeless people, ripe with the fetid stench of excrement, a breeding ground for thousands of cockroaches and lined with gutters filled with questionable sludge and muck. One homeless man approached Jessie and asked her for some change. She apologised and attempted to pass along the platform at which point he pinched her, hard, on the thigh. Shocking as this may seem, it’s Paris, isn’t it?

John and I are continuing our walks of Paris. An attraction of one such walk was a clock mounted on the side of a building surrounded by ornate figurines depicting a fight scene between a giant serpent, a man and a phoenix. The guide book advised us that every hour, as the clock strikes, this scene comes to life and a battle is waged until one side is defeated. Happy that we had been fortunate enough to arrive at five minutes to nine we positioned ourselves in a perfect vantage point. Presently, however, we noticed a sign affixed beneath the clock informing viewers that the mechanism used to power the figurines was, in fact, en panne i.e. broken. Rather than repairing the mechanism, in their infinite wisdom, the Marie had decided it made more sense to affix a permanent sign to the building and leave the clock broken indefinitely. Hey, this is Paris, remember?

The Auld Alliance, a Scottish pub near St Paul, is a favourite of ours and we often frequent the terrace at the front and take advantage of the shaded aspect and relatively cheap drinks. We were enjoying a particularly relaxing afternoon recently when we spotted one of the many clinically insane homeless people living in Paris shambling up to our table. He hobbled along on his bare, deformed feet and proceeded to lean over the table and screech violently for several minutes all the while dribbling thick strands of brown saliva from his toothless gums onto our table. I was struck by how little effect this episode had on all of us. We continued our conversation as though nothing had changed and even after he had shambled off no one felt it necessary to discuss the matter further. I once saw another man raging at his poor dog who, loyally, was following with his tail between his legs occasionally letting out frightened yelps of distress. I would be interested to ascertain what, precisely, the protocol is in the UK for dealing with homeless people who have mental problems since it is rare that one finds any roaming the streets. There is clearly no such protocol in this city but it is Paris after all.

Liz and I were chatting the other day about how, regardless of nationality, Paris will create a propensity in you to instantly dislike anyone outside of, or linked in some way, to your friendship group. The Parisians, of course, are the first to come under fire. With their tendency to repeat everything you say to them and their thick, gungey accent they are incapable of remaining quiet when thinking of what to say next but instead develop an assortment of noises which can be slipped into conversation where necessary simply to avoid a moment’s silence.

Walking towards a park in the suburbs the other day, Rose and I found ourselves in the unfortunate position of being in between two French chavs one of whom had walked slightly ahead of her friend. The one behind us called to her friend who refused to turn her head when she responded and as a result the conversation went like this:
‘Il y a quoi la?’
‘Il y a un parc’
‘Un quoi?’
‘Un parc’
‘Un QUOI?’
‘Un PARC!’
At this point Rose and I were so sick of listening to the two of them that we picked up our pace and didn’t stop until we were well ahead of both of them. It isn’t just the Parisians who irritate those of us who have lived in the city for an extended period of time however. Upon hearing an English or Irish accent the natural assumption the city imposes upon you is that they are typical tourists who want nothing more than to climb the Eiffel tower, get spectacularly lost, eat a full English breakfast and get annihilated in one of the expat bars. Americans face a similar fate with the exception that they are generally louder. ‘Tyler’ and ‘Dwaine’ or whatever other unfortunate names the parents have chosen for their children will be the subject of a longer ridicule simply because their parents have chosen to announce their presence so forcefully thus providing more time for mockery.

After work yesterday evening we went for a drink and then played a game of Beer Pong. I needed to be up early today so I left at 2:00 with the intention of getting a velibe and being home by 2:30. I passed, perhaps, eight different velibe stations, the majority of which were empty. Two or three, however, were full of fully functional bikes but, of course, the station itself was broken and would not release any. I attempted to get a taxi after this process continued to repeat itself but naturally there wasn’t a single one available. After an hour and a half of walking I arrived at Gare de l’Est and finally found a taxi. The driver was reluctant to take me since Chateau Rouge was such a short ride (five minutes by car, fifteen on foot) but eventually he agreed. He wacked his meter up to the highest tariff possible and off we went. As I watched the figures soaring I reminisced about the days in London when I would walk from the West End down to Trafalgar Square, buzzing with people, and await the friendly glow of the N155 back to Clapham. That was, of course, towards the end of the month, at the beginning I would have taken one of the thousands of vacant taxis cruising through the streets until all hours.

Presently we arrived at Chateau Rouge. I wanted to give the driver a tip since he HAD agreed to take me after all. I asked him for three euros change giving him a generous tip. This he handed me without a word. I paused for a second before getting out and slamming the door as hard as I could and making my way, furiously, back home. There was no friendly chatter as one can expect from the London taxi drivers, nor was there any cockney good wishes of goodnight. It’s Paris, isn’t it?