04 February, 2010

Back-B-Log: UK20: Paris Vs. London

[From the 2nd and final issue of the Tuesday Express/American Voyeur Paris/Cannes Issue! 1990
After just over 2 months in London, Comshare seconded me to Paris. I was there for about 3 and a half months. I was particularly lucky as I had an old friend living there and instantly hit it off with a whole raft of his French, Brit, Dutch and ex-pat friends. And, unlike my slightly miserable tourist experience of Paris, I was on EXPENSES.]

Mini-cab ride to Heathrow, under grey sky, past the gloomy architecture of council flats and reactionary edifices of industrial revolution, looking like so many leftover workhouses stuccoed by the pollution of a million smokestacks and the dirty grey rain since the flood. The Smoke is the old slang term for London; I have been here a short time, the different/sameness weaving together oscillating waves of manic wonder. The glow of an unknown street like a pulse from a drug. The first month I was here I had to process London as a waking dream. The awe wears off leaving only the thin all-enveloping film of alien terrain.

Paris, the briefest of air flights away and I'm in a cab middle-aged French driver some English, me some French, loud American rap on radio. Driving through Paris, all buildings, all streets, one, with vague variation. This is an organized hallucination, surreal, every street is the same and language is comprehension just beyond each corner.

The taxi halts in front of 73 Boulevard Haussmann. Did I, as a tourist last summer, remembering the Paris address of the company, poke my head into the shade of this archway? This seems more a notion than a memory. I am more the American tourist now, overladen with overstuffed luggage which I drag like a pair of reluctant alsatians to the first stairwell. 4eme etage. The particularly narrow cage elevator accommodates only myself and half my luggage. Although I'm expected, no one seems in a particular hurry to get on with the work... I'm gradually led around, introduced bewilderingly to virtually everyone in the office, spouting my enchante's and je suis tres heureuse de faire votre...s to a pleasantly patient audience even when a I lapse clumsily, quickly back into my native tongue.

It would be unfair to say that the women in Paris are more attractive than those in London. At first it seemed that there was an abundance of the various physical/style types that fit particularly into the subset of what I find attractive. No, London is just as frustrating, if not more so, and this is probably the crux:

On the Tubes women sit cramped, crossed, closed, not talking. On the King's Road they walk, fashionable, aloof. On the Metro, on the street, Parisian women seem open. They smile and converse in public. They look back at you when you look at them. On top of which French men are either fairly handsome, or by and large repulsive, completely weird, short chauvinistic bad dressers. So even if the women in Paris are no more accessible than women anywhere else (especially less to non-French speakers)... they just seem more available, more possible.

Here's the really horribly sexist statement... because they walk everywhere and eat little, the plainest of them still have fantastic legs and asses. This is true, and makes me generally ashamed of all Americans (of both sexes)... our tourists literally waddle down the Champs next to the Parisians. Who cares if they shave those toned legs? As long as they don't build up shag pile.

Everyday all you hear is 'Bonjour!' In London, its 'Morning.' Just that, simple statement of the time. Don't try to add 'Good...' to it, they look at you as if you're from Mars. 'Good Morning1 to the Londoners is either a presumption or simply impossible. I couldn't imagine the French saying simply 'Jour' or 'Matin', no its 'Bonjour, ça va!' And they mean it.

Londoners thrive on complaint, Parisians understand comfort, to the lack of which the Brits are constant martyrs. You may have heard of the smelliness of French. Parisians, at least, are quite the opposite. Bidets, perfume, good showers. The English have yet to discover the crucial element of water pressure necessary to a real shower, it's like standing under a leaky tap. rain

Rain in London is cold, dreary and wearing, what is wearing is the nearly constant threat of rain, even when it is already pissing down, it is still threatening to rain. Rain in Paris is sudden, intense, brief, large full bodied raindrops that pelt like myriad kisses. This is rain to dance and fuck in. English rain is rain to avoid all contact, it's isolating, don't touch me sort of rain.

coffee vs tea, wine vs beer
Tea is comfort and easement, it is personal, private comfort, yet you offer it to all around you, and you share, with soothing milk, separate, alone. Coffee is frenetic, boosting, basic black thick, or calming with clouds of milk, or luxurious with froth and cinnamon. The French take their coffee, espressos, the cafeterias, and fast food joints have these machines that half-fill demitasse cups black bitter, sugar cubes drop, 3 or 4 sometimes, maybe a third of the volume - this does not get rid of the bitterness, it just brings an unbearable sweet sludge to partner it. Don't mention tea with lemon to the English, that's foreign, and iced tea is disgusting to them - tea is for shielding against awful weather, not for quenching your thirst while enjoying good weather... that's what beer is for (in any weather).

Wine is the calm for the French. Europeans don't believe that alcoholism exists within their number - no frenchman on wine is a drunkard next to the English on lager and bitter who couldn't be at all out of hand next to the Irish and Scottish with their whiskies.... I like my café au lait, lemon tea (milk in tea is for the worst chills of winter), I will drink enough wine not to offend the French, I'll never even attempt to keep up with the Brits in booze, but I do appreciate the various brews.

All that can be said in favour of London architecture is that there is more variety; its a hodgepodge, each item thrown up with a total disregard for its neighbour, the concept of vernacular architecture just hasn't hit here yet. Only in the more well-off controlled areas will you see either commonality or stability, but in these cases they are forbidding, private shells. And everywhere else the thick coating of industrial grit.

The facade of Paris, the rows of windows, thin vertical zigzag shutters, railings outside the windows. Ledges, the stuff for adulterers in farces. The tall wooden doors, arched doorways, dark foyers, cage elevators held by squared spiral stairways, afternoon light courtyards. The plaques bearing streetnames on each corner. The outsides, polished, clean, or with a thin atmospheric layer of grey-green. The real brilliance of the view from the Tour Eiffel is that you can really see how uniform the buildings of Paris are on the outside... it's easy to spot the landmarks, they're the only different buildings. The Parisians had the sense to ban most of the ugly modern architecture to La Defense a corporate box ghetto. O.K., there are the few atrocities, the Montparnasse tower, I.M. Pei's pyramids, the Pompidoux centre (which I love, I don't care what anyone says), but these are so isolated that they can't help but be cause celebre.

The aerial view also provides you with some sense, though hardly universal of organization, planning, the stars of boulevards spreading from rond-points, so, the streets between may meander, imitating straight lines. If these courses are the paths of tipsy frenchmen, the street plan of London is most certainly the footsteps of drunken lager louts. It only takes a 40 page booklet to show Paris, two for each arrondissement. It takes books of well over 140 pages to describe London ( + another 90 for street index), and this is not in particularly thorough detail.

A new add for a Chanel cologne: a woman arguing swearing angrily, pacing back and forth caught in skewed tight shots, jump cut together, Prokofiev - Montague's and Capulet's, she flings open her windows, portico balcony, she screams out to her (male?) tormentor 'egoiste!' But its two women, adjoining, balconies, simultaneous, no, four in a square, then the whole side of the building, women opening shudders crying 'egoiste! egoiste!' as it echoes. Well, I'm here, I guess maybe they were expecting me.... It must be the right time for me to be in Paris.

[Addendum: Yes, that's me looking good lounging on some sculpture in La Defense. I say "looking good" as this photo later got me a date the one time I ever answered a personal ad. The Eiffel Tower shot is really for people from New Jersey and Environs, it's titled "Eiffel via Margate."]

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