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HindustanTimes Mon,20 Oct 2014

Ruminations of a tourist in Paris

Sudeep Ralhan  Paris, November 04, 2011
First Published: 16:30 IST(4/11/2011) | Last Updated: 16:30 IST(4/11/2011)
Why people would want to sit on tiny tables three feet away from roaring traffic and poisonous fumes, consume copious amounts of food and drink at a leisurely pace, and believe that they are absorbing the feel of being in gay Paree, is beyond me. While I am familiar with the Indian culinary obsession with street food garnished with dirt and other unmentionables, I doubt if that is what's on the mind of these well-heeled guests.  Maybe the answer lies across the road, in those little book-shacks (for want of a better word, or the right French term). 

Benevolent dictatorships and autocracies around the world could take some tips from these shacks on how to sell idealism and romance and make people believe in (and shell out good money for) a reality that doesn't exist. Three out of every five shacks have a couple of hundred drawings, watercolors and sometimes oil paintings of Paris' most scenic aspects captured on paper.  What's interesting to note is that none of these include even a hint of anything that resembles automobiles, mobile phones, dispirited trees or any of other symbols of current urban sadness.  And if there are people, they are usually dressed in clothes right off designer racks, or carry large umbrellas that can act as alternative homes to the homeless (who also never appear in any of the scenes depicting Seine's walkways). And all the shacks contain some form of literature - novels by French authors, or French translations of books from all over the world (thus perpetuating the assumption of this being the center of the literary world), old and new comics, covers of vintage magazines, old philosophical and educational tomes and so on. If an alien were to land right there, it could be forgiven for thinking it had found Utopia. Not that you need to be from another planet to believe that. Hordes of tourists collectively fall under the influence of this opium and spend pleasurable days browsing these shacks, walking along the river and eating their onion soup three feet away from the friendly neighborhood cars & scooters. Yours truly included.

Absinthe and assorted drugs may have been responsible for the creation of some great art, including poetry, novels and paintings in Paris in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. But it is these shacks and museums, and the tourists, which will probably trigger a similar explosion of material for the subsequent generations. Except that instead of novels and poetry, what they will be subjected to are endless galleries chronicling every frame of the city through photographs. Every picturesque (or even the not-so-picturesque) surface of the city will be recorded for posterity; whether it be the gothic arches and cobbled streets, or the underbelly of bridges and chain supermarket fronts,  all are fair game. And the custodians and unwitting historians of this priceless archiving will be the Chinese, who faithfully click away at everything pointed out by flag-waving tour guides, all the while delicately balancing their Louis Vuitton bags on their arms. Despite all these changes, the assorted life forms carved and embellished on most Parisian buildings continue to look down disdainfully at us mere mortals clicking away or gazing at them in awe. It's as if these centuries-old symbols of Parisian culture and aesthetics have seen plenty come and go, secure that they present a splendid vista difficult to replicate at such scale and density in any other place. Even in China.

However, other than LV, another thing that the Chinese and Europeans have in common is their love for queues (which of course is directly opposite to Indians who wouldn't know a queue if it bit them). As a tourist hot spot, Paris has prepared itself well.  At most information or ticket counters, the clerks try to respond in English (never mind the exasperated raised eyebrows and unintelligible accents, at least they try!) and most tourist attractions are equipped with automated ticket machines. But if there's someone doing a return-on-investment study on these machines, they would produce a disappointing report as nearly all of them remain woefully underutilized while thousands (okay, hundreds) of sheep (okay, people) stand patiently in line to buy tickets from the aforementioned clerks staring vacantly into space. I can just see our middle class grandfathers rubbing their hands in glee as they look on these fine examples of people who work hard for what they get. Or maybe they just enjoy the social interaction.

Not that social interaction is in short supply. For a society that regularly dishes out movies about lonely, dysfunctional people, most people on the streets look surprisingly chirpy, thus proving that movies reflect an alternate reality. Even the staff in service roles (and I use the word service in the most loose form imaginable) talk amiably to each other, whereas in most other cities they usually just grunt and growl. But then most other cities are not as beautiful; not that the Parisians would let you believe that they think their city is beautiful, their magnificent shrugs could fool you into thinking they take their city for granted. After all, it's just not done to show pleasure at such compliments, even if they are expected. That would be quite American, and that's one thing they are certainly not. No...they belong to the land that's given the world some of the finest art and architecture over the last few centuries, not to mention the fries, cheese, wine, kisses, beards and windows the modern world knows them for.

But is that excuse enough for the famous unflappable shrug in response to every question, even logical ones like "Why is this counter closed when it's not closing time yet"? Or for staring at you like you are a demented stranger, instead of a respectable, successful man who's just trying to tie his scarf against the wind? Or for the shockingly slow service at the cafes, even if the waiters are impossibly chic and cute? Artistic gestures of the hand are not a substitute for the soup I ordered, I felt like telling them sometimes. But then they would have looked at me as if I am retarded and shrugged. You can't win. Once the soup does arrive, followed by other delicacies, the magic begins to work and you calm down and look upon the world with kindly eyes, and even the eye-popping amount in the bill is paid with the careless indulgence that billionaires might display towards their most recently purchased yacht.

Despite all this seeming indifference, the French do get roused to emotion sometimes. It could be while passionately arguing the merits of a book or denouncing the Americans. How they reconcile that with their eager sampling of American food chains and designer brands is something I wonder at. Like the French lady who told me that all current economic, social and political ills of the world are caused by America, all the while sipping on a Coke glass as large as her handbag. Politeness (and my fear of being greeted by that shrug) forbade me from asking her if current economic woes could have been lessened if the French were to work just a little bit more. Paris probably rivals (and outdoes) Calcutta in the number of strikes its workforce goes on during the year. They get their training in school with never being made to study for more than 2 days in a row.

On the other hand, this attitude to work is precisely what allows them to look after themselves with the luxury and intensity affordable only by rich socialites elsewhere in the world. When one speaks or thinks of the beauty of Paris, it is not just the architecture and the river and the museum that comes to mind, but the people themselves. With their carelessly draped scarves and the carefully tousled hair, they make us tourists bow our head in shame and quickly fork out more euros for more wine.

Having arrived here from London,

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