PLUS ÇA CHANGE PLUS C’EST LA MÊME CHOSE: HOWEVER…
(The more things change the more they remain the same, however…)
“Je t’aime, ô capitale infâme!”
—Charles Baudelaire (“Le Spleen de Paris”)
Place St- Sulpice—Café de la Mairie, 2 September 1999
Paris is the same & dramatically changed. As in E. B. White’s wonderful essay, “Once More to the Lake,” the changes à Paris are consequences of man-made technological developments. Case in point: As I write & sip my café crème, I am surrounded by the age-old custom of leisurely reading & writing at a café table; men & women peruse paper backs, newspapers, professional documents & newly acquired antique volumes with gilt binding, while others write letters & make lists. Thankfully, not many are smoking. But the cell phone (“portable” here) has arrived with a noisy & ostentatious vengeance, so some conversations are loud & intrusive without being engaging.
And now almost everyone asks for a glass of water on the side, a survival response to a major problem: air pollution. The biggest irritants in Paris are pollutions: air, noise, et al. Electronic street panels sponsored by the city to announce civic events also flash air quality reports (yesterday the air was a mediocre–6 on a scale of 1-10- -with the promise of improvement today). Many, if not all, residents suffer from some kind of allergic reaction to atmospheric poisons in the beautiful City of Light. Outdoor café waiters experience hearing loss, sniffles, & on bad- air days look dazed.
Recently, I witnessed a historic first: a maître d’ at Lipp blew his nose into his white handkerchief as unobtrusively as possible. City bus drivers carry & drink often from plastic bottles of water as their routes advance along the exhaust-filled streets. I don’t imagine that I’ll live long enough to see this situation cleaned up, but I’m hopeful for future wised-up generations.
In my naiveté I once thought Paris would never change-at least not in my lifetime. Fashions & tastes change. People change & die, relationships shift & terminate & inflation makes everything-just about-cost more, but I believed PARIS would remain a pristine terrestrial haven. Now, of course, I know better but am dazed by the speed with which the French have accepted, even embraced, what they once abhorred as crass, bad taste: fast & frozen food of all types, processed & pre-packaged in abundance, sweet fizzy drinks—the list could go on & on to obesity and cardiac arrest.
Nostalgia for my youth à Paris (& how grateful I am that I lived here as a young woman before this era of fresh-frozen speed&greed) compels me each year to revisit, repeat, reenact, revive, re-re-re…. Yet I relish exploring the unfamiliar, trying new restaurants, shops, galleries, cafés, museums & strolling obscure parks & quartiers, discovering new old & new new.
While traffic patterns have been transformed by perpetual traffic jams (even in once deserted August) into smelly & noisy gridlock, the pace & style of sidewalk activity remain reassuringly unchanged. As hordes of harried Parisians race to & fro’, the noble flâneur tradition continues apace along leafy boulevards.
St-Germain-des-Près—Café de Flore, 3 December 2007
At this renowned Left Bank café where writer/philosopher/media favorite Bernard Henri Lévy has his table & fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld sweeps routinely in with an ever younger entourage (curiously these famous habitués both dress strictly in black & white like the movies & television of their youth),
I walk through the glassed-in terrace, cross the crowded, smoky ground floor to take the narrow winding wooden staircase next to the smiling blonde cashier up to the clean (non fumeur) air room where young mothers with toddlers in tow, quiet couples, writers & readers of all ages sit, sip, savor, chat & concentrate on works-in-progress throughout the day & into the night. The vibe is velvet & felt & fine. Upstairs tranquility reigns. Discreet waiters take & serve orders, the daily papers are available on a shelf at the top of the stairs & the row of windows along one wall offers a view of Boulevard St-Germain, which this time of year is partially obscured by holiday decorations adorning the exterior ledge, adding a festive touch.
My preparation for the conversation to begin when my friend- student-fellow writer arrives is interrupted by a visit from across the aisle of a perky, inquisitive two year old girl dressed in shades of pink & cream. She waddles over, curious about what I’m writing. Smiling I greet her with a welcoming, “Bonjour,” while her fashionably dressed mother & two friends drink their tea & wonder too. After a sudden, inadvertent plop to the floor, sh aue regains her wobbly upright position, scurrying to the safety of her mother’s arms. Is this her first Café de Flore visit, I wonder. What a lucky, yes privileged, little girl. Not all Parisian mommies can afford the Flore.
This year in Paris I note how the city has begun addressing the pollutions which have plagued for so long. Attempts to ameliorate traffic congestion, noise & air pollution include special bus & bicycle lanes, as well as making available municipally owned bikes for short-term rental at designated spots strategically sprinkled curbside along streets around town. Now it’s hip to rent a bike with your debit card & proudly wheel off in healthy if sometimes slightly shaky silence.
Copacetic for some, controversial & challenging for others is the new no-smoking law which will go into effect 1 January 2008. Banning smoking in public places including restaurants & cafés, it will trouble & transform the routines of many puffing patrons of clean well- lighted places. To accommodate them, sidewalk cafés are expanding their terraces with heated enclosures as much & as fast as they can. The makers of outdoor heaters are in for big profit in 2008.
While environmental stress remains ubiquitous & measures to improve conditions in Paris are not without dissenters, I am encouraged by the public consensus that drivers, riders & pedestrians all need to get around town safely, breathe cleaner air & be able to enjoy the art of conversation in comfort.
Mary Folliet was educated at Northwestern University, the University of Minnesota and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. After living for many years abroad (London and Paris), she taught literature and writing in New York at the Metropolitan Center of the State University of New York—Empire State College and served as the Writing Program Coordinator. She divides her time, energy and heart between New York and Paris, seltzer and champagne, jazz and poetry and coaches writers individually and in small groups along their authorial way.