Archive for February, 2008

Paris November 2007

Monday, February 18th, 2008

gendarmerie

On Tuesday, I reserved an airport taxi. You never can tell how long French strikes will last, I thought, and this one smelled like it might be around for awhile. The RER is sure to be out and the city transit-run Roissy bus will be unpredictable at best – deadly for anyone trying to make a flight. I put the air traffic controllers and the Air France workers safely out of mind. A traveler can deal with only so much. At least with a private taxi, I could count on the acquisitive spirit of the Paris entrepreneur. That and the strong possibility the driver would be an immigrant.

I have to admit it, though, I was looking forward to a good old-fashioned Paris rumble. How dare Sarkozy, that impudent Hungarian parvenu, take away a cherished social benefit guaranteeing early retirement for every railway worker. There would be a reaction, retribution with students in the streets; late night study sessions in smoky, packed cafés; tense confrontations with police at the Bastille; eddies of tear-gas floating along Beaumarchais; passion. Who could ask for more in a 10-day November vacation? And, in the end, I would negotiate my way through the barricades in my rented taxi (after having paid a certain risk premium, of course) promising to tell the true story of the new Commune to the world. I would gloss over the fact that I was dealing with November ‘07 much the same way De Gaulle had May ‘68 – by flying away, the President to Baden-Baden to ask General Massu for the support of the French army in Germany, me to the quiet comforts of Toronto the beige.

Walking the Streets

I walked the streets looking for trouble. The police were with me, I decided, dashing here and there in buses and minivans. Things looked especially promising for us both late one afternoon just at that point where the Boulevard St. Michel flows lazily down from Montparnasse to deposit its tide of humanity on the banks of the Seine. No-nonsense buses pulled up; riot police poured out. Formations formed. And then… tourists. One can confront rioters. One can stand one’s ground faced with stones, bricks and Molotov cocktails. But how does one shield oneself from the piercing and relentless gaze of the cruel little red eyes of hundreds of camera cellphones? How does one stand there in one’s riot gear, looking for all the world like an aging mutant ninja turtle, while middle-aged ladies from Mississauga, Madison and Milton Keynes pose beside you for their friends back home? It was then that I knew the cause was lost.

There would be no uprising, no citizens’ committees, no massive sit-ins, no melées in the Place de la Concorde, no flying pavés. Sarko and Easyjet, helped perhaps by Bernard Delanoë’s fleets of rented bicycles, had won. I accepted defeat the only way I knew how – I sought solace in food. Armed with a Pudlo guide and a street map I prowled the city, or at least the area within walking distance of my hotel, looking for something to eat and a place to mourn.

Bicycles

My first stop was Anacreon on Boulevard St. Marcel where I found at least some solace in a truly lovely steak. And the extraordinary pain perdu brought tears to my eyes and I wept for the revolutionary Paris of the past. The following day, still with hopes of finding some form of comradely solidarity, I sought out Le Temps des Cerises on Rue de la Butte aux Cailles. The name had its origins in the Commune and the restaurant itself was run as a workers’ cooperative. Here there would be welcome. And everyone was, indeed, friendly enough. But while the food was delicious, that revolutionary spark seemed to be missing. Had they given up too? I next lunched at L’Ourcine on Rue Broca near a campus of the Sorbonne hoping for at least a study session or a sit-in or two. But my fellow diners were all well-dressed law professors and I spent lunch watching my neighbour tuck in while absently leafing through a 1,000 page edition of the Code Civil. I thought that French law professors ate very well for my wild mushroom mousse was as light and foamy as a defendent’s rights and the blanquette de veau all creamy, melting flavour.

Then, in my darkest hour, I found Le Bistrot du Peintre on Avenue Ledru-Rollin. After failing my lesson with the indecipherable chalk board, I was sternly mocked by the waiter and then given a good reminder that it is possible to eat as badly in Paris as anywhere else. But my faith in the revolution was also renewed for here, in the heart of the old Commune, I found in my indigestible pavé d’espadon a pavé that could be saved and used against the forces of law and order in the truly revolutionary situations to come.

I left Paris soon after in the dark of an early morning. And as my rented taxi sped through the deserted streets of a sleeping city and then through the unguarded gates to the autoroute beyond I thought that, despite the tranquility of this November, history is not yet at an end and that the real Paris has survived worse.

Courbet watching