C'est la Vile

Airline deregulation has made visiting Europe affordable to almost everyone, even those who usually satisfy wanderlust's call on a bus. Lucky Europe. Everyone raves about Paris, so I bought a ticket and went to see what all the fuss was about.

Unfortunately, Paris is in the French part of Europe, meaning few people could understand my simple requests. Is it asking too much for a supposedly modern people to give up their annoying habit of blathering in that jibber-jabber "language" of theirs? English doesn't cost a penny, last I heard.

I figured I could at least make an attempt to meet them halfway by reading from their menus. At my first Parisian restaurant, I ordered orally. The waiter nodded and brought me a live goat wearing open-toed pumps. From then on I just pointed.

They're supposed to have good art over there, so I went to a place called "The Louvre". I think it's French for "major disappointment". All those amputee statues and cracked paintings--it was like a Renaissance rummage sale. You wouldn't think anyone could get worked up over such junk, but if you climb on anything, even for a really good gag photo, they'll kick you out. Small loss, say I.

Certain New World inventions, like bathing, haven't quite caught on in this town the French are so proud of. Fortunately, I brought lots of miniature soap bars and passed them out to the Parisites. I was a veritable ambassador of hygiene. Sadly, many thought they were candy bars, including the subway patrons in whose stench I was forced to baste for the duration of a hellish ride to the Eiffel Tower. I prayed that a skunk might find its way onto the tracks and provide me olfactory relief. No such luck. Where was Pepe le Pew when I needed him?

And don't say "Eiffel Tower" to any of these brie-eating beret-wearing baugette-wielding mistress-having socialist-leaning red-white-and-blue-flag-stealing Gauls; they'll pretend they haven't the slightest idea what you're talking about until you say it backwards: "Le Tower Eiffel". Hey, Frenchy: "Me bite".

The misery that is "the City with Lights" was only compounded by the paucity of truly useful phrases in my phrase book. It lacked several basic queries and statements that tourists doubtless waste many minutes vainly pantomiming to bewildered locals, such as:

"Do you have any real food?"

"What is this thing next to the toilet?"

"It's not candy, you morons; it's soap."

"Listen, frog-boy, if it wasn't for Americans like me fifty years ago, you'd be wearing leather britches and serving sauerkraut croissants right now."

Actually, I only needed that last one once, but I needed it quite badly.

The thing that struck me most on my visit, aside from waiters and museum guards, is that no one in Paris seems to be doing much of anything. At any given time, one third of the population sits in a sidewalk cafe having a four hour meal, while another third of the population cooks and serves it. The third third is busy shuttling tourists past crumbling "sights". Then a bell chimes in some cathedral and they all switch places. This is how their society is structured, as nearly as I can tell. Another big difference from the rest of the world is that many people in Paris voluntarily drive Renaults.

And when you think of Renaults, what do you picture? A dainty, temperamental contraption, licensable as a car in the more blasť states, right? In France, they have Renault semis, and they're just as big as Kenworths except a lot scarier because they say RENAULT on the front in six-inch letters, and you just know they were built in a factory where wine is served at lunch, if not continuously throughout the day from water-cooler-like dispensers. When one considers the narrow streets with their lack of lane markings, coupled with the typical French driver's laissez-faire take on traffic law, it's easy to conclude that if these trucks had been around in 1940, the invading Germans would have thrown down their weapons and fled.

Speaking of France's periodically rambunctious Northeastern neighbors, the one bright spot in my visit was meeting a family from the former East Germany. They were making their first trip to the West and were very curious about life in the USA. I told them I am a typical American: I have a house, two cars, three pair of Levi's, 50 TV channels, a computer so advanced it could not legally be exported to their former country, machines every few blocks that dispense money at the push of a button, 24-hour stores brimming with goods, free checking with a minimum balance, and rocket-ship rides to the moon every other Saturday, weather permitting. Their eyes popped out of their little former-communist heads. "THREE pair of Levi's?!" they asked in unison.

Five years ago, after 14 years on a bureaucrat's waiting list, this family was able to buy a car: a used Lada (a Russian-built Fiat clone; Fahrvegnugen it's not). They have been waiting eight years for a phone--a freakin' phone. I would not wait eight years for a date with Claudia Schiffer. When I told them I had three phones in my house and another in my car, they laughed heartily. "Good joke, Wilhelm! Ein Auto-Phone, ha ha!" And to think these people once thought themselves the master race. Pathetic.

However, we all agreed that Paris was a miserable cesspool of pretentious food, hopelessly outdated art, maniacal drivers, idiot tourists, and so much B.O. that taking the entire month of August off is as much a matter of nasal necessity as cultural tradition. At least I think we agreed; they nodded while I made these observations. The whole city reminded me of the movie Gigi, except the plot was worse and character development all but nil. Yes, Paris is the world center of wine culture, but it is also the largest city in which Jerry Lewis is considered a genius. Coincidence? Please.

Finally, I had stayed over the required weekend and could fly home. My super-saver flight allowed me time to muse, nay ruminate, on my trip. First thought: Now I understand why Hitler couldn't be bothered with bombing it. Second thought: Perhaps I would have more leg-room if I climbed into the overhead bin. Third thought: Airline travel is ungracious enough without stripping passengers of whatever dignity they managed to squeeze on board by then forcing them to eat these so-called meals with a spork. Hybrid cutlery is for children and camping knives. Fourth thought: Four dollars to rent air-powered "headphones" for six hours? Soup cans with string would delivery greater dynamic range. I can only hope that in the event we lose cabin pressure, I'll have the exact change needed to get the oxygen flowing to my mask.