Au revoir, France

Montmartre at the Place du Tertre is a little bohemian bubble in time.

Though people do live here, it must cost a fortune. In my neighborhood, South Pigalle in the 9th Arrondissement, a 100 sq. foot studio apartment is selling for $173,000. Which, yes, is affordable, but the size of my small hotel room. The sense of real living is also alive, unlike the other ‘most visited’ places I have visited. At least today–but can you imagine if it is like this on a Wednesday in the middle of winter, what it must be like in the high season? However, at least in January, a lot of the tourists here are French themselves, as you may note of the couple in the foreground.

You can see the dome of the famous Sacré Coeur church, and this is the top of the butte, with Paris laid out to the south. Another lucky sunny day, and most of it was rambling through little streets with few people in them. The mention of other artists who found this quartier agreeable are dotted about, like a bust of the famous (to the French) singer Dalida, or a mention on the map of a certain little square being the home of Picasso. I ate in a cafe, Le Consulat, that claimed to be one of the oldest, and frequented by Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as Picasso and Woody Allen. What? Why Woody Allen? He filmed one of his many irrelevant movies here, that’s why.

At the viewpoint, on the church steps, there was a lone guitarist who sounded American, singing a rendition of “oooo baby, it’s a wild world…” in a gravelly voice. I tipped him, and he thanked me in a thick French accent. I was surprised, complimented his accent, and he said I was too kind. La politesse!  By the time I got out of the church, which was extremely hushed and prayerful, notwithstanding the amount of visitors, he had switched to “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M. I observed with dismay several soldiers in fatigues, armed with machine guns, their faces covered with wide cloths and berets pulled down low. I videoed them from behind, then approached them from the front and asked if they wanted to be filmed. They shook their heads and put their hands up, so, since I’d already got them, I said sorry, and quit. Since when can’t a soldier show his face, hein? A sign says this site was previously home to the Roman Temple of Mars, the god of war, so own it already.

The city is laid out below, a guide showing Notre Dame in the middle, which the white plastic helps distinguish, if you can. That is the heart of the city, the high-rise buildings go outside the periphery. Inside it is found the highest per capita income in Europe. The jewel of French culture.

I know I have seen mostly the highlights, at a quiet time.  Every other day, however, I would stop on the outskirts of a town or city, to get gas or use the restrooms, and these places seem more like the U.S.: ugly and lacking in self-respect. This is not news, but yes, the suburbs of Paris are huge, three times the population of the city, and as far as I saw, largely Arab and African. The Français de souche are hanging in there, as they do, and though in a service job, they retain their dignity. Finding a skilled waiter or hairdresser or concierge who is a middle aged French man is not at all rare. I find it enjoyable that they work with dignity, and without tips. Over all, France impressed me as a living culture, with real values. I did not experience a moment of snobbery in this city. In fact the whole visit, I have not been treated with anything less than courtesy, and often kindness.

Heading back down the butte, around a corner from the church, there was a little street with a man playing the accordion. I the sad tune was familiar, then he started “Sous le Ciel de Paris”, and it made my heart seize a little. To such a cliché! But with the sun and the hills and the view, I had a flash of being in San Francisco on a sunny day, which has a similar old romance, and song to go with it. Does the famous joie de vivre still exist? If so, it is a private thing for the French. Or I wonder if you have to be getting old to feel it. As bad as things seem, they can always get worse!

To end things on a perfectly appropriate note, today the public transport workers are having a strike. I did find my favorite pâtisserie in the morning, stopping on the way to take this picture to a) prove that tiny handles are a thing, and b) blueberries are taking over the world, and c) white strawberries exist. The nice ladies remembered me, and upon hearing it was my last day, they informed me of la grève that was planned. Here I had already bought my Métro and train ticket. But the front desk man, who I have spoken with every morning, just smiled with a twinkle in his eyes and said give it more time, the trains will come. He talked about the strikes, and then smiled again and said it was the Gaul in them, and that les Français, ils changent pas.

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