Saturday, September 01, 2007

Vive La Résistance Française!

A friend and her twin daughters visited us recently from Dublin, all three in love with Paris, all three wanting to move here immediately. We walked and talked (women can multi-task...and chew gum), discovering vintage clothing stores and drinking most of last year's supply of Vin Blanc. We strummed guitars, participated in accordion porn, sang loudly, learned to bend notes on a harmonica and told tall stories (well, you know, they are Irish).

But all was not folderol. We talked with sadness about the mallification of America and the unfortunate Americanization of the rest of the world. The "American Way" (whatever that means in this unhappy time in America) is envied and copied by the rest of the world. Our friends told us that Dublin has already been corporatized and is stuffed with gas-guzzling SUVs that roar around the quickly disappearing country roads. Everybody's yuppified with expensive shoes and watches, designer Scotch and Cuban cigars.

Thank God for the French Resistance.

The French recently noticed, avec l'horreur, that the Champs-Élysées had become a bit too slick for the locals. Too much glitz and shiny expensive things, not enough character and depth. So they denied a British department store's bid to place one of their stores on the venerable avenue. A classic example of the French Resistance.

Here's another: The city of Paris is surrounded by the Périphérique freeway, outside of which the French have relegated all the big-box stores. It's still sad that the stores are in France at all.

Meanwhile, take a wild 12-minute motorcycle ride around the Périphérique (don't try this at home).
The existence of the Périphérique, as some sort of dividing line between the old and the new, means you can still walk around central Paris on cobblestone streets and get to know your butcher, baker, pharmacist, fishmonger, bistro owner and the vegetable man personally. Anyone who knows the owner of their local Wal*Mart, raise your hand. How about at least one of the check-out people? Do you get the local gossip from the pharmacist at Walgreens? Does he/she lean on the counter conspiratorially to discuss the pros and cons of suppositories versus pills for the efficacious delivery of medicine? (A common French obsession) Do you and a little old lady wearing a fur hat and wool coat in summer, stand together and sniff the mussels at the fish market, and nod to the fishmonger that they pass muster, and oui monsieur, you'll have a kilo? Oh, I forgot, you can't dig your hands into the mussel basket at Safeway, and even if you could, you'd have to ring the bell to get the butcher to come out from the back to wait on you. Do you slip into Starbucks on your way to work (walking, of course) and order a quick espresso and lean on the counter and discuss with the "barista" the questionable funding of your recently-elected President's vacation or the rheumatism of the resident dog? On your way out the door, do you tip your hat and say "Bonjour Monsieur!" to the dusty old wool-capped gentleman with whiskers and no teeth that sits at the same table by the window nursing one Café Crème (charitably given to him by the owner) every morning? I don't see many hands waving. I think we believe somehow that life is about commerce and consumption and continuously having more stuff and putting up with jobs we hate in order to fund our retirement. What if life was about relationships? Not just with a select few; but everybody with whom we come in contact - good, bad or indifferent. Human beings need each other. Freeways, monolithic buildings, malls, restaurant chains, planned communities, fast-food chains, cookie-cutter prefab homes, home furnishing chains, corporate cubicles, clothing chains... All these things that are sold to us to make our lives better are actually sucking the very life out of us all. And people wonder why I feel so alive in Paris.

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