PARIS - EYES WIDE SHUT by Armen Pandola
I was in my teens when I read about Ernest and Scott in Paris, in my 20s when I read Gertrude Stein and Henry Miller (now that would have been an interesting conversation to eavesdrop on) and in my 30s when, finally, I went to see for myself. I have been back many times. There is no doubt that my eyes were permanently vie-en-rosed. Yes, I love Paris.
And why not? In one city, there is more to see and do than in any other city in the world. It has the best museums, the best sights to see and the best food. It had these things when I first came here and it has them now, many years later.
But it has been over a decade since I made this pilgrimage. Cities change - as all things do, but a city must cope with changes if it hopes to continue its prominence. Sure, the museums and monuments are still there - except for a BIG one that almost burnt down (I will be going to Notre Dame later in my trip). And the restaurants are still the best, but -
There is an 1960s Italian movie in which a man is caught in bed with another woman. The other woman quickly dresses and leaves and the husband comes out of the bedroom to his wife’s vocal indignation. He denies it all and when his wife insists, ‘but I saw her!’he asks, ‘Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?’
Like the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz, I want to believe - I do, I do, I do, but my lyin’ eyes tell me that things have changed.
Maybe a rainy autumn Tuesday isn’t the best time to come to Paris, but I carved out a month in my schedule, closed my eyes and let the dice fly high! I am staying for a month in Paris, made possible by Airbnb - more on that experience later.
Charles De Gaulle Airport is big and busy and not very user friendly, but Hermes, the god of travel, or St. Christopher, the saint who watches over travellers, was there for me - at first. My American Airlines flight - by way of Air Tahiti Nui Airlines - was a problem free 10+ hours and we landed 30 minutes early. I breezed through passport control, went to grab my luggage and bingo! My elegant, large Hartman suitcase was one of the first to roll through the tunnel.
CDG airport is about 19 miles from the center of Paris and, at first, I was going to take the train - it’s fast and cheap. Then a couple of days ago, I decided to book a van - it was double the cost of the train, but the forecast was rain (it turned out to be accurate) so I booked a spot on a van run by Paris Shuttle for $25. The instructions I printed out with my confirmation said to call them after I picked up my luggage. My cell was almost fully charged because I shut it off during the flight - I recommend doing that until airlines join the 21st century and install outlets. I dialed and dialed and dialed and every time, in French it told me the number was not working. If ever you are stuck and don’t know what to do, you will most likely keep on doing the same thing even though it is not working. Yes, 10+ hours in the air, a day without sleep and an unfamiliar place and language will make you crazy. I imagined all kinds of things, mostly that this Paris Shuttle was a scam, yet it did have a very good-looking website. I read more of the instructions and they said to go to Exit 7 in Terminal 2A to meet the van. I looked. There was no exit 7 - really. There was an exit 1,2,3,4,5,6 and 8, but no 7. So, I asked someone - Pardon, parlez-vous anglais? ‘Une peu’ was the inevitable answer. No one knew anything. One guy who had a jacket that described him as a ‘transporte official’ told me to go to exit 4 and sure enough there were many vans there picking up people - but no Paris Shuttle.
It was then that I remembered the most important instruction for those traveling to a different world - Don’t Panic! I see the signs say there is a tourist office to help those who are far away from home and about to cry in the next terminal. I go there and a nice young woman who speaks English allows me to call the Paris Shuttle on her office’s landline. At first, the same recording which by now I have memorized - I don’t know a lot of French but I will always be able to say, “le numéro ne fonctionne pas et vous devriez essayer plus tard.”
Don’t Panic! I dial again, just to be sure and - viola! Paris Shuttle answers. A nice-sounding young woman asks me to spell my name and then confirms who I am and where I am. She asks if she can put me on hold for a minute and, reluctantly, I say oui. When she returns, her voice has the timbre of an undertaker - there has been a technical difficulty and Paris Shuttle will not be able to take me into Paris. She tries to console me by purring that they are fully refunding my payment. I am abandoned.
This semi-disaster has taught me a lesson - you have to learn how to dial a number in France. It is not as simple as you might think. Look it up.
Now I have to contact my airbnb host and so I decide to write him a message which you can do inside the airbnb app - they tell you to never contact your host any other way. I had done that in the past but my host was not a great communicator and it usually took a day for him to respond. But Hermes must have come back to me out of pity because my host responds in a few minutes and asks when I will get to the apartment. The train will take me an hour, but I am through with problems - I go outside and get a cab from the many that are waiting for just this opportunity. Cabs cost a flat 50 euros to Paris from CDG. They say it should only take 30 minutes. They say that in Los Angeles too. They lie.
On a rainy fall Tuesday morning, after rush hour, with no accidents in site, it took almost 90 minutes to get to my apartment in the 3rd arrondissement - the center of Paris. We used a freeway then entered by one of the northern ‘portes’ or gateways that lead into Paris, the Porte d’Aubervilliers. Right there at the freeway exit was a large tent city - hundreds of small tents with who knows how many homeless people in them. Some had baby carriages outside them. This ‘gateway’ street was filled with mostly young men, knocking on car windows, begging. The 19th and 20th arrondissements are the poorest sections in Paris. Hundreds of homeless people were on the streets. It is estimated that there are 8,000 homeless sleeping in the streets but that is plain wrong. The number is probably closer to 30,000 homeless assuming that those who live in tents are counted. And just like in LA, the politicians here have no clue. For years they claimed that there were fewer than a 1000 homeless in Paris, then they were forced to revise those numbers, but still they have no clue. Last year, they announced that Paris’ local city halls (every one of the 20 arrondissements has one) will supply shelter for homeless women - the largest of them will house 100 women. Yeah, that’s a real problem solver.
Then there was the graffiti. I recall that some well-known artists argued that graffiti is art. All I can see are stylized names or logos spray painted all over the city - on every closed shop’s metal gate, on every construction site, every park. It looked like New York or Philadelphia in the 70s and 80s before there was a concerted effort to stop it. I don’t believe that scribbling, even stylized scribbling, is art. And I know it looks horrible. Time to stop it.
And, finally, it’s dirty. In the 1950s and 60s, Philadelphia use to be called Filthadelphia. Yes, all those ladies in the neighborhoods would come out every day and wash their steps and pavements, but the rest of the city was a mess. Many cities were - and we should remember that it was Lady Bird Johnson, the First Lady, who started a campaign in 1965 to ‘Keep America Beautiful.” It no longer was OK to simply throw on the ground or from your car window whatever you wanted to get rid of. Dog owners had to take responsibility for their pets’ mess. It changed how our cities looked and how we thought of our communal spaces - they were precious and not open garbage cans.
In Paris, the dirt is both surface and deeply embedded. There is actually a hue and cry to try and get men to stop urinating in the street - really, it’s a problem here.
So, my eyes have been opened. Paris needs an intervention. It needs its tourists - 90 million went to France last year with almost half of those arriving in Paris. The money it makes on tourism is almost 10% of its GDP - more than 77 billion euros, providing over 2 million jobs.
It is time for the tourism industry to wake up Paris and get it to smell the mess,