Hominy & Hash
AMID THE ELECTION TURMOIL, PARIS IS A BLAST
by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
PARIS, France -- The May 5 run-off election threatened demonstrations in the streets, traffic snarls designed to paralyze the city, and protesters with placards to post on every pole.
None of that quite happened, but the threat was real and chaos quite possible. On my first trip to Paris, I wanted nothing to hold me captive in the hotel nor the back seat of a taxicab snailing its way over ancient roads and modern highways to Montmartre and Pigalle. Of course, a surface route by cab or bus from Hotel Saint Germain des Pres presents a better look at the city, but I braved the subway, called Le Metro here, and discovered a few examples of French efficiency.
The platforms, signs, turnstiles, staircases, the cars themselves, all look very much like those in New York with the same sense of millions having been there before you.
In New York, when you run to catch a train and catch the door just as it's closing, extend your hand and it will automatically open again -- there's always room for one more. Not here. I reached in just as the door was about to close, ready to shoulder in, when the door snapped shut. If it weren't for the rubber buffer, I ... well ... I don't want to think about it ... arm trapped, my body flailing. In Paris, when the conductor hits "close" he doesn't mean "except for stragglers."
There's no need to learn the language to travel Le Metro under the streets of Paris: The system is color-coded, making the posted maps easy to read. A further efficiency, an answer to subway scofflaws who either jump over turnstiles or crawl under them, is the fare system. A small ticket, one per ride, is put into the turnstile slot and immediately turned out again. When passengers exit the system, a spot-checker might ask to see the ticket. If they don't have it, they pay again.
When I surfaced, ticket in hand, I saw only the magnificent city with ordinary crowds, not marching demonstrators as predicted. Later I went back to the hotel without incident, straphanging on a crowded bus, listening to conversations I couldn't understand, looking out at the magnificent doors we passed.
This is a working trip, not a vacation, and began with an introduction to some basic cultural differences we might notice. "Observe they don't smile when you pass them on the street," we were advised. In fact, I learned, "The French call the English and Americans 'smileys'" because we always smile in passing.
I instantly put that theory to practice, and it's true. I found myself warming up my smile 20 feet from anyone coming toward me. Their cursory glance might brush my face but no more.
The French are not grim, they're selective: if they know you, they smile warmly; if not, they don't acknowledge an encounter. And, on the bus, when they are together or chatting with another French passenger, they smile and laugh the entire ride.
Most of my free time I stroll and absentmindedly hum the songs I've always known: "I Love Paris in the Springtime," or "April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom ... "
Since it's the end of April, I ask: "Where will I see chestnuts in blossom?"
The guest speaker stares at me over the top of her black horn-rims: "Chestnuts don't blossom," she says dourly. Once again I am caught by an assumption. (Songwriter "Yip" Harburg wrote "April in Paris" and also "Over the Rainbow." I'll have to rethink that flight of fancy as well.)
I do lean toward assumptions and walked into a pharmacy (Pharmacie) expecting to find hair products and everything from shoelaces to dog leashes, as at home. Not here. Using gestures, I told the clerk I wanted wave set like "Dep" or "Dippity Doo." (Even if she spoke English, these words would be challenging.) No luck, but I kept smiling and she did, too, indicating they only sold pharmaceuticals, sterile things and bandaids.
Although the city of Paris is here for my asking, time is not. I don't want to breeze through the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower. Paris, this city of lights in all its splendor, is genuinely spectacular. And, it's been here for a thousand years longer than my beloved country.
Where have I been all my life? I do know where I've been, but now I also know where I'm going; and, because of this little trip, I'll know how to get around.
NOTE BELOW: I'm at the DeGaulle Airport waiting for the Air France boarding call at Gate C-89. I just jumped an inch off the ground but survived an explosion I thought was ushering in my last moment on earth. Surprisingly, my adrenaline did not rush; I did not scream, nor did my throat close in fear. I instantly knew I couldn't run, I couldn't hide and I felt at peace with whatever was coming. I turned around (slow motion now) and saw the other end of the terminal empty of the hundreds of waiting passengers -- the throng I had just worked my way though ahalf hour ago. A man next to me on line saw my bewildered expression and said with a heavy accent: "They do it."
"They?" I asked.
"Oui, Madame." With gestures and a few words I determined someone had left a bag unattended. When Security sees that, they immediately bring a huge, six-foot high and wide wire cage, put it over the bag, then with a wire charge and remote control they blow it up. They justblow it up!
Business as usual after that. When France's Securite says "DO NOT LEAVE BAGGAGE UNATTENDED" they mean it.
Whatever was in that bag, from a million dollars in small bills to extra diapers for the journey, are now no more. That will teach you! That certainly taught me. I also learned I won't panic. That alone was worth the big bang.