Around Paris

"Rouge!" Monique said.
"That means red," her sister, Nicole said over her shoulder. Linda and I were in the back seat.
It was the third red light she'd gone though, or at least the third one her sister had scolded her about. Nicole lives near the Swiss border, and Monique lives on the outskirts of Paris. She was doing navigation and performance critique.

Neither Linda nor I speak French, and so it was good fortune when Nicole, who has been my email friend for years, joined us for a day. Monique decided to join us at the last minute, and though she spoke only a little english, she used what she knew to good effect, as when she warned me away from the andouille sausage and steered me to the roast duck. Two men at the next table were having the sausage. I laughed involuntarily.

"What's funny?" Linda asked.

"I was just thinking of a Kliban cartoon," I said. "These guys are eating burgers in a cheap diner, and one of them says, 'What did the city of New York ever do with King Kong, anyway?' This other guy is looking at his burger like, 'What am I eating here?'"

She looked over at the giant sausages at the next table. "Yea?" Then comprehension. "Oh."

"The duck is delicious."

"Your mind needs to go into the shop for maintenance."

Nicole and Monique had taken us to a neighborhood where there are passages filled with art shops and cafes, with an opaque glass roof two stories above. I wanted an authentic Parisian lunch that didn't cater to tourists. "Can you drink that much wine, Daniel?"

I had assumed we all wanted wine when I ordered the bottle of Bordeaux, but Nicole wanted none of it and the other two were giving refills the palm up. "It would be rude to leave it," I said, taking the last of it with a plate of fromage de la France.

"No!" Monique said sharply. But I had already mistaken a slab of butter for cheese, not having on my reading glasses and thus having a fuzzy view of the cheeses. I realized only when I tasted it that I had cut off a chunk of butter.

"I don't see close up ..."

Nicole turned to Linda. "If he is drunk we will take him back to the hotel and proceed without him, Oui?"

"Of course."

I walked along the passages looking at art posters, old stamps and photographs, and various art objects. I breathed very deeply to take in extra oxygen, and reminded myself that the wine would leave my system in an hour or two. An old Doors song kept playing through my mind, as I remembered reading that at my age one drink is the same as five drinks back when I was twenty.

"Show me the way to the next whiskey bar, no don't ask why; no don't ask why ..."

"You're just singing that again to irritate me," Linda said. It had in fact been stuck in my head for days, and was my guiding light as I explored London and Brussels. I often get a song stuck in my head and can't stop humming or singing it. I'm sure this is irritating to someone who is stuck with me all the time, though I try to make it more palatable by singing with resonance and feeling. "Oh moon, of Alabama, we now must say goodbye. We've lost our good old mama, and must have whiskey, now don't ask why, no don't ask why."

What I like most about Paris is the sophistication. Only in this city of light can a woman get away with wearing one of those backwoods hunting caps with ear flaps and look chic instead of demented.

Parisians are fashionable and sophisticated and they don't book fools from the english speaking world lightly. I pulled myself together and began walking upright, without using my hands for extra balance. I didn't mind that the women had disappeared into a shop somewhere to fondle trinkets and boost the economy. I needed a few minutes to compose myself anyway.

There are people in the world who actually walk on all fours, by the way. There's a family in Turkey that does. I saw a special on BBC when I was in London. Nobody had thought to give them simple walkers to help them learn upright balance. It does seem to be more a genetic disturbance of balance than a throwback to earlier times. At one point in the documentary the military showed up to run the researchers out of the country, because they were suggesting a belief in evolution, which is contrary to Islam.

Fundamentalists have more in common with each other than with the rest of us, no matter where they live. We were inside Notre Dame when Nicole asked if I was Catholic. I said I am not and she asked what I am. "I am secular," I said. "I know a lot about many religions, which is usually how one ends up secular, instead of just sinful. Are you Catholic?"

"Yes, our family is Catholic."

"I am not Catholic," Monique said, as if the idea was borderline offensive. She also is secular. I was surprised her sister didn't know this about her. Nicole seemed to not care one way or the other; she was -- like most everyone touring the old church -- more impressed with the architecture and relics and stained glass than with the supernatural. It was a museum, and a place for organ concerts. For whatever reason I'm not particularly interested in religious museums. It would have pleased me if Quasimodo had come swinging through on a bell rope and snatched a fashion model from the crowd, then disappeared down a man hole.

No such luck. There were some gorgeous outfits for the new, all straight, priesthood.

"What are you thinking, Daniel? You look far away."

"That is the most magnificent stained glass I've seen."

"Yes ..." There was a light rain falling when we came out of Notre Dame and the air was fragrant. The wine had dissipated from my system and the Doors were no longer urging me toward mischief.

We found the Moulin Rouge, made famous by 19th century artist Toulouse Lautrec. In an earlier age he would've worked for the church, doing portraits of Cardinals.

Nicole and Monique are like a lot of sisters; they split up the energy, so that Nicole is lively and outgoing, while Monique is more conservative and firmly planted on the ground. She would stop for all the red lights. But Nicole was better at charming the police officer who pulled up beside her to demand what she is doing when she wants to take an impossible left turn.

"Then how do I get there from here?" She pointed across a broad boulevard.

We were in the middle of a huge round with traffic flowing like the Seine with impersonal force and direction. The officer could not think of a way we could get to where we want to go without making the illegal maneuver. She looked up and down the street, exasperated. There was a moment of pause in the traffic due to a light's changing. It would last only seconds. She gave up and waved Nicole through to get rid of the problem and keep things moving.

Monique suggested the officer was irritated with us.

"No," Nicole said, "she was cute! Which way here?"

Monique directed her at the last moment and we slipped through the intersection headed toward the Eiffel Tower, which is just beside our hotel. It was exactly seven o'clock, and the tower sprang to life, sparkling with 20,000 electric lights. "Oh, this is beautiful!" Nicole said. "I must come to Paris more often."

Posted: Tue - March 21, 2006 at 10:03 AM