From travels in Europe by Bill Bryson
On my first trip to Paris I kept wondering, why does everyone hate me so much? Fresh off the train, I went to the tourist booth at the Gare du Nord, where a severe young woman in a blue uniform looked at me as if I were infectious. ‘What do you want?’ she said, or at least seemed to say. ‘I’d like a room, please,’ I replied, instantly meek. ‘Fill this out.’ She pushed a long form at me. ‘Not here. Over there.’ She indicated with a flick of her head a counter for filling out forms, then turned to the next person in line and said, ‘What do you want?’ I was amazed – I came from a place where everyone was friendly, where even funeral directors told you to have a nice day as you left to bury your grandmother – but I soon learned that everyone in Paris was not like that. You would go into a bakery and be greeted by some vast slug-like creature with a look that told you you would never be friends. In halting French you would ask for a small loaf of bread. The woman would give you a long, cold stare and then put a dead beaver on the counter. ‘No, no,’ you would say, hands aflutter, ‘not a dead beaver. A loaf of bread.’ The slug-like creature would stare at you in patent disbelief, then turn to the other customers and address them in French at much too high a speed for you to follow, but the drift of which clearly was that this person here, this American tourist, had come in and asked for a dead beaver and she had given him a dead beaver and now he was saying that he didn’t want a dead beaver at all, he wanted a loaf of bread. The other customers would look at you as if you had just tried to fart in their handbags, and you would have no choice but to slink away and console yourself with the thought that in another four days you would be in Brussels and probably able to eat again.
In the evening I strolled the eighteen miles to the Île de la Cité and Notre-Dame, through the sort of neighbourhoods where swarthy men in striped Breton shirts lean against lampposts cleaning their teeth with flick knives and spit between your legs as you pass. But it was a lovely March evening, with just the faintest tang of spring in the air, and once I stumbled onto the Seine, at the Pont de Sully, I was met with perfection. There facing me was the Île St-Louis, glowing softly and floating on the river like a vision, a medieval hamlet magically preserved in the midst of a modern city. I crossed the bridge and wandered up and down its shuttered streets, half expecting to find chickens wandering in the road and peasants pushing carts loaded with plague victims, but what I found instead were tiny, swish restaurants and appealing apartments in old buildings. Hardly anyone was about – a few dawdling customers in the restaurants, a pair of teenage lovers tonguing each other’s uvulas in a doorway, a woman in a fur coat encouraging a poodle to leave un doodoo on the pavement. The windows of the upstairs apartments were pools of warm light and from the street gave tantalizing glimpses of walls lined with books and sills of sprawling pot plants and decorative antiques. It must be wonderful to live on such streets on such an island and to gaze out on such a river. The very luckiest live at the western end, where the streets are busier but the windows overlook Notre-Dame. I cannot imagine tiring of that view, though I suppose in August when the streets are clogged with tour buses and a million tourists in Bermuda shorts that SHOUT, the sense of favoured ecstasy may flag. Even now the streets around the cathedral teemed. It was eight o’clock, but the souvenir shops were still open and doing a brisk trade. I made an unhurried circuit of Notre-Dame and draped myself over a railing by the Seine to watch the bateaux-mouches slide by, trimmed with neon like floating jukeboxes. It was hopelessly romantic. I dined modestly in a half-empty restaurant on a side street and afterwards, accompanied by small burps, wandered across the river to Shakespeare & Co., a wonderfully gloomy English-language bookstore full of cobwebs and musty smells and old forgotten novels by writers like Warwick Deeping. Anywhere else in the world Shakespeare & Co. would be a souvenir emporium, selling die-cast models of the cathedral, Quasimodo ashtrays, slide strips, postcards and oo LA LA T-shirts, or else one of those high-speed cafés where the waiters dash around frantically, leave you waiting forty minutes before taking your order and then make it clear that you have twenty-five seconds to drink your coffee and eat your rum baba and piss off, and don’t even think about asking for a glass of water if you don’t want spit in it. How it has managed to escape this dismal fate is a miracle to me, but it left me in the right admiring frame of mind, as I wandered back to my hotel through the dark streets, to think that Paris was a very fine place indeed.
In the morning I got up early and went for a long walk through the sleeping streets. I love to watch cities wake up, and Paris wakes up more abruptly, more startlingly, than any place I know. One minute you have the city to yourself: it’s just you and a guy delivering crates of bread, and a couple of droning street-cleaning machines. Then all at once it’s frantic: cars and buses swishing past in sudden abundance, cafés and kiosks opening, people flying out of Metro stations like flocks of startled birds, movement everywhere, thousands and thousands of pairs of hurrying legs. By half-past eight Paris is a terrible place for walking. There’s too much traffic. A blue haze of uncombusted diesel hangs over every boulevard. I know Baron Haussmann made Paris a grand place to look at, but the man had no concept of traffic flow. At the Arc de Triomphe alone thirteen roads come together. Can you imagine that? I mean to say, here you have a city with the world’s most pathologically aggressive drivers – drivers who in other circumstances would be given injections of thorazine from syringes the size of bicycle pumps and confined to their beds with leather straps – and you give them an open space where they can all try to go in any of thirteen directions at once. Is that asking for trouble or what? It’s interesting to note that the French have had this reputation for bad driving since long before the invention of the internal combustion engine. Even in the eighteenth century British travellers to Paris were remarking on what lunatic drivers the French were, on ‘the astonishing speed with which the carriages and people moved through the streets ... It was not an uncommon sight to see a child run over and probably killed.’ I quote from The Grand Tour by Christopher Hibbert, a book whose great virtue is in pointing out that the peoples of Europe have for at least 300 years been living up to their stereotypes. As long ago as the sixteenth century, travellers were describing the Italians as voluble, unreliable and hopelessly corrupt, the Germans as gluttonous, the Swiss as irritatingly officious and tidy, the French as, well, insufferably French. You also constantly keep coming up against these monumental squares and open spaces that are all but impossible to cross on foot. My wife and I went to Paris on our honeymoon and foolishly tried to cross the Place de la Concorde without first leaving our names at the embassy. Somehow she managed to get to the obelisk in the centre, but I was stranded in the midst of a circus maximus of killer automobiles, waving weakly to my dear spouse of two days and whimpering softly while hundreds and hundreds of little buff-coloured Renaults were bearing down on me with their drivers all wearing expressions like Jack Nicholson in Batman. It still happens now. At the Place de la Bastille, a vast open space dominated on its north-eastern side by a glossy new structure that I supposed to be the Paris branch of the Bradford and Bingley Building Society but which proved upon closer inspection to be the new Paris opera house, I spent three-quarters of an hour trying to get from the Rue de Lyon to the Rue de St-Antoine. The problem is that the pedestrian-crossing lights have been designed with the clear purpose of leaving the foreign visitor confused, humiliated and, if all goes to plan, dead. This is what happens: you arrive at a square to find all the traffic stopped, but the pedestrian light is red and you know that if you venture so much as a foot off the kerb all the cars will surge forward and turn you into a gooey crepe. So you wait. After a minute, a blind person comes along and crosses the great cobbled plain without hesitating. Then a ninety-year-old lady in a motorized wheelchair trundles past and wobbles across the cobbles to the other side of the square a quarter of a mile away. You are uncomfortably aware that all the drivers within 150 yards are sitting with moistened lips watching you expectantly, so you pretend that you don’t really want to cross the street at all, that actually you’ve come over here to look at this interesting fin-de-siècle lamppost. After another minute 150 pre-school children are herded across by their teachers, and then the blind man returns from the other direction with two bags of shopping. Finally, the pedestrian light turns green and you step off the kerb and all the cars come charging at you. And I don’t care how paranoid and irrational this sounds, but I know for a fact that the people of Paris want me dead. Eventually I gave up trying to cross streets in any kind of methodical way and instead just followed whatever route looked least threatening. So it was with some difficulty and not a little surprise that I managed to pick my way by early afternoon to the Louvre, where I found a long immobile queue curled around the entrance courtyard like an abandoned garden hose. I hovered, undecided whether to join the queue, come back later in the faint hope that it would have shrunk, or act like a Frenchman and jump it. The French were remarkably shameless about this. Every few minutes one would approach the front of the queue, affect to look at his wristwatch and then duck under the barrier and disappear through the door with the people at the front. No one protested, which surprised me. In New York, from where many of these people came, judging by their accents and the bullet holes in their trench coats, the queue jumpers would have been seized by the crowd and had their limbs torn from their sockets. I actually saw this happen to a man once at Shea Stadium. It was ugly, but you couldn’t help but cheer. Even in London the miscreants would have received a vicious rebuke – ‘I say, kindly take your place at the back of the queue, there’s a good fellow’ – but here there was not a peep of protest. I couldn’t bring myself to jump the queue, but equally I couldn’t stand among so much motionless humanity while others were flouting the rule of order and getting away with it. So I passed on, and was rather relieved.
On the morning of my departure I trudged through a grey rain to the Gare de Lyon to get a cab to the Gare du Nord and a train to Brussels. Because of the rain, there were no cabs so I stood and waited. For five minutes I was the only person there, but gradually other people came along and took places behind me. When at last a cab arrived and pulled up directly in front of me, I was astonished to discover that seventeen grown men and women believed they had a perfect right to try to get in ahead of me. A middle-aged man in a cashmere coat who was obviously wealthy and well-educated actually laid hands on me. I maintained possession by making a series of aggrieved Gallic honking noises – ‘Mais non! Mais non!’ – and using my bulk to block the door. I leaped in, resisting the chance to catch the pushy man’s tie in the door and let him trot along with us to the Gare du Nord, and just told the driver to get me the hell out of there. He looked at me as if I were a large, imperfectly formed piece of shit, and with a disgusted sigh engaged first gear. I was glad to see some things never change.
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