Return to Paris

July 6, 2005

Paris is an interesting study in contrasts. It is hectic and bustling, yet forces serenity on you. I have been here less than twelve hours and already had the best father’s day in my life. Just returned from dinner at almost midnight after starting the meal at 9 pm. A good meal, eaten at a most leisurely pace, and a wonderful time with my wife and son.

I arrived here with my son at noon, then took a taxi to the apartment, smack in the middle of the Marais, which is wonderful. In fact, from the living room of our apartment I can sit and watch the revelry all day (and night). Just wonderful. We have been coming every year, and this time, we figured we would just live in the middle of it all. (Last year, my wife decided to live in the middle of the red light district, an opportunity I passed on, though because of prior exigencies).

Its a Sunday, Father’s day, what a good one it has been. But its already been a mix of good and bad. Bad: the person from whom we rented the apartment came an hour and a half late, while we waited on the stairs in the sweltering heat. And the shopkeeper would not sell me a single bottle of milk because he refused to make change for a twenty. But I ate the best dinner ever, and for lunch, the best tomato salad ever. I guess that puts me net on the plus side.

But it is one of the places in the world where humanity is clearly distinct from the machinery of life. Where aesthetics dominates economics. Where the service is superb even though no one tips. Where economic motive, though behind much, recedes into the background, so that human beings can relate to each other in non-transactional ways. Religion presupposes to explain what the meaning of life is, and man’s role in it. Paris, by deed itself, bypasses the need to explain, implementing meaning directly. Everyone finds their own meaning; to me that is really religion – the freedom to be who you really are.

The Marais reminds me of Greenwich village, where I spent many years in grad school. It reminds me also of Berkeley, where I have spent many years of my recent life. I feel lucky to have tasted these environments. And to be sitting writing these words, looking down from the second floor window into the happening street well past midnight, the mood can never be described, only experienced.

Its always nice to reflect back on the day and ask – what did I get out of my day? Sometimes the answer is a gratifying “nothing, but I still had a great day”. Today the answer is: I really lived it, including the four hour afternoon nap. I have these days when I look back and can clearly recall each minute, and I know, those are to die for. Today was exactly that. I remember every detail. And I also learnt one thing, that life is too short to spend it on things where you do not enjoy absolutely each and every minute of what you do.

Well, its now the end of the week, and we leave for Madrid tomorrow. But its been a very strange week, unlike any other I have spent here. There were several events this week that made it unique. First, it was beastly hot, and Parisians told me it was twenty degrees higher than normal. This heat coupled with the fact that there was never a quiet moment in the streets outside the apartment meant that I was usually only able to sleep at 5 or 6 am. So unlike the rest of the family, I had little sleep at night, a lot in the mornings and a pretty serious siesta in the afternoons. Only way to beat the heat and the noise of revelry that went on through the night.

Second, it was the week in which we had the “Fete de la Musique”, which happens every year on June 21, the longest day. Its an occasion when every street in Paris has a band playing and people walk around listening to music all night. We did too, it was wonderful, except that around 2-3 am, it degenerated into mostly the drunken smashing of bottles and the streets in the Marais were strewn with glass and other trash. The little restaurant in the ground floor of the building we live in, called the “Politburo”, decided to install the loudest music system they could find, and blared techno music till about 5am. At sunrise, the cleaning crews came out and the city was clean by early morning. Quite remarkable! It would be too much for the city’s pride to leave the mess lying around longer than that. I think there is a deeper reason too – it makes the wild night a great experience with no bad after taste.

Third, it is also the week of the “soldes” – the big clearance sale of the summer season, when everything in every store goes half price off. The sales runs Friday through Sunday, but nothing really remains after the first few hours on Friday. We saw lines to get in on early Friday morning. In a stroke of luck, my son, needed a suit for a wedding in Spain, so I took him to Galleries Lafayette on Thursday, so he could try out stuff that might fit him, and they were in the process of marking things down and agreed to sell us at sale prices a day earlier. That meant we missed a “pleasant” two hour wait in line to get a refund of the value added tax. It took but 10 minutes since we were there a day before soldes.

It is now 2am, and I am unable to sleep, hence writing is a release from the now deepening depression I am facing with “insomnia from external causes” (wilding and overstimulation). Of course, tonight there will be no respite, as it is the gay parade, which began around 8am this morning, and shows no sign of ending though it is now well past midnight! We ate dinner again tonight at one of our favorite places in the Marais, a Corsican restaurant below our apartment. For two hours, we ate and watched the tributaries of the parade stream by. It was wonderful. And it is nice to be sitting here on the carpet in the one spot in the apartment where there is a whiff of a cross wind giving some respite from the heat, writing this blog.

Its been strange in many ways this time. For one, I no longer feel like a tourist, only a visitor. I came away from a very hectic past two months, teaching a whole lot, getting lots of work done on our home, so the respite has been good for me. Its now been 8 days since I last looked at email or the internet, and if its another 8 weeks it would still be too soon. I am enjoying sleep tremendously, strange for someone who is quite happy getting by on just 5 hours a night. I have eaten a great meal every night, and taken 2-3 hours to do so. Its been like going to Chez Panisse for a week of groundhog days.

Anti-American feelings still seem to run quite deep. Being American but looking Indian (which I am originally) led me into strange situations where people would treat me differently because they thought I was not American, and then wierdly, when I told them I was an American who lived in the Bay area, forgave me for being who I was because of where I lived. Left me feeling like this is going the way of the old French-British stand-off, which also came up every now and then. It surely seemed like there were fewer Americans here this year. I do hope all this disagreement dissipates, as it seems pretty unnecessary. But it left me feeling strangely worried, because the feelings on both sides now seem to be deep rooted at the individual level, with an inability to separate the politics from the personal stuff. I grew up in India, being told constantly that Pakistan was bad, but somehow, individual people in both countries seemed to know deep down that it was all politics, and Indians and Pakistanis get along really well individually despite their political, and more important, sporting rivalries.

My son though, who has grown up in the Bay area, offered a counterpoint to the French attitude. He remained staunchly American, refusing to adapt to anything with an inflexibility butressed by what he thought was point of principle. Nothing here was right, it just was not done the way he would like it done as it is back home. So, thats just it, the current stand-off is nothing but a culture clash that will always exist, sharpened a bit in the recent past by some political to and fro. I think we all need to loosen up all round. It would really help.

So its been a week of complete hedonic experiences. If there is one difference between America and France, it is this. Much more in France seems to be done for no fathomable economic motive whatsoever. Now, where would that happen in America? Not easily. I like this, living life for purely hedonic reasons. In America today, with all the political correctness bordering on religious fundamentalism, the life in France would be interpreted as bordering dangerously close to social sacrilige. It would be wrong and we would do guilt. If there is any guilt here in France, it is well hidden, probably under several feet of attitude.

It is now 3am and the street outside is noisier still. There are more gay couples of both sexes outside on one street than I have possibly seen in my lifetime. Gay folks here are not agitating for marriage rights as they are in the Bay area. Maybe it is because they are so much a part of the fabric of society that it really does not matter. Back home, they are not and hence it may be necessary to fight for the status that gays in France get for free. I am not sure though that it is the right way, legal change is only a half way measure, in the end cultural change must come. And assuming that legal change will be naturally followed by cultural change may be a purely probabilistic, or worse, an erroneous premise.

But of course, cultures are different and that is what makes life so interesting. It can be disconcerting at times, like in France, dealing with attitude is something I find hard, though some Parisians told me that the only way was to return more attitude. Sounds like a death spiral to me! I also found the mysterious absence of the police when bottles were being smashed somewhat odd, but maybe it is known to work – leave the mob to staunch its own enthusiasm eventually. Premature interference may actually lead to more trouble.

I am writing some of this now that I am back in Berkeley, and no matter how interesting other places may be, there is no place like home.