Paris Triumphs Over the Mundane

Shopkeepers may treat you like an intruder, but what's that compared to a stroll on the Seine? TRAVEL: FRANCE

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

SOUS le Pont Mirabeau coule la Seine.... ``Under the Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine ....'' Those words by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire pierced my romantic heart the first time I read them as a college student in a French literature class. They - and the vision the full poem created of lost loves mourned in the winter-gray swirl of Paris's Seine - have stayed with me ever since. Just ask my wife. Today we live only a few blocks east of that bridge, and every time we cross it - usually in a shimmying city bus, but occasionally on foot, once on bicycles - I cannot help reciting as much of that poem as I can recall.

She must find the exercise a bit tedious, for predictably she rolls her eyes as we approach the elegant span and I inhale for my recitation. I don't blame her, but I do hope she will bear with me, because for me the act is important: It reminds me, now a resident of the City of Lights, not to let all that is mundane and frustrating - even difficult - about living in any urban setting obscure all that is wonderful about living in Paris.

It is not by accident that this reminder should come by way of the Seine. The river gives Paris its light, a much-needed sense of space and order. Other cities have tall buildings or public squares or parks at their center, but Paris has a true heart, the Ile de la Cit'e, carved out by a river that flows around it and through the city like a life-sustaining artery.

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Without the Seine, Notre Dame cathedral would not appear from the Left Bank to ride atop its island like a magnificent ship proclaiming man's art, imagination, and faith. Without the Seine, many of the city's most memorable perspectives would be lost; pause-inspiring bridges like the Neuf and the Alexandre III - and of course the Mirabeau - wouldn't exist, and Parisians and the city's visitors wouldn't have the miles of quays for strolling, thinking, or simply sunning.

Without the Seine, where would Gene Kelly have wooed Leslie Caron?

And speaking of that American in Paris, Mr. Kelly would be surprised at how unremarkable he would be today. With 25,000 of us Yankees living in France, according to the Interior Ministry, children no longer clamor around us as they did Kelly when he danced to and from his Montmartre loft. The positive side to this is that being an American is no longer a handicap here. As the French have prospered and gained confidence over the past couple decades, they have mellowed and lost some of their anti-foreigner, or at least anti-American, tendencies.

Just last week the French Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, wrapped a ribbon around a bashful Bob Dylan's neck, making him a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters. This is the same Mr. Lang who in the early days of the French Socialist government railed against the perniciousness of American pop culture. The improved status of the American in France reminds me of an experience I had a number of years ago while living in the French province as a student. In the middle of the day in a lovely small city, I found myself with two muggers on me like flypaper, demanding more francs than I cared to give them. One had a knife at my ribs. ``You're doing this to me because I'm a foreigner, n'est-ce pas?'' I exclaimed to my own surprise. The knife-wielder abruptly pulled back his weapon, insisting, ``You mustn't believe that! We do this to everybody.'' It was a bewildering harbinger of the France I now know: Today, the Yanks are treated pretty much like everybody else.

Lucky us. This means we get to share in the frustrations of life here like any Jacques, Fran,cois, or Marie-Claude. What figures at the top of my ``frustrations'' list? The post office, the corner news and stationery shop, and the dog-dirtied sidewalks.

The French post office stands as a bastion of bureacracy and against the reform and modernization that any sidewalk consultant might readily suggest. The telephone in France has improved astonishingly since the days when General DeGaulle called it a ``gadget.'' Trains here are a marvel, and many other social services, including those for children and pregnant women, make the United States seem short-sighted and niggardly.

BUT neither sleet nor snow nor anything else seems able to budge la Poste. It serves as a bank and a social security office, but try to mail a letter and you're asking for trouble. Try to mail a letter and a package at the same time, and you're likely to raise eyebrows; attempt to pick up an undelivered letter, send an airmail package, and buy commemorative stamps at the same window, and you might provoke a ministerial crisis.

Then there is the corner news shop. I've been going there for months now, but I still feel like an intruder. It reflects the indifference that a surprising number of Parisian shopowners and store clerks express toward their customers. I've been shooed away, like some bothersome banty, by a gaggle of floor clerks at one of Paris's major department stores. Granted, they had the previous night's outings to discuss, but aren't they supposed to help me?

My wife has her own particular frustrations along these lines. Recently at the supermarket she returned furiously to our cart, her eyes afire. ``They have shelves and shelves of toilet paper, but it's all pink!'' she wailed. ``You'd think we lived in some third-world country!''

``It's all a matter of priorities,'' I responded, escorting her to the cheese and p^at'e counter to make my point: There, before our eyes, was but a sample of the gastronomic variety that is France.

As for Paris's millions of dogs, and what they do to the city's sidewalks: I won't go into any tasteless mathematical calculations. Suffice it to say that, despite the city's special brush-equipped motorcycle scoopers, it is maddeningly unsafe to walk down the street with your eyes anywhere but right in front of you.

None of the frustrations match what is so special about Paris. How could such passing annoyances equal a Sunday afternoon at the Louvre, an evening concert of medieval music at the Sainte Chapelle, or a leisurely sit at a caf'e on the Place des Vosges?

Still, a long list of such urban delights would only obscure one very important fact about France: While it is home to one of the most beautiful cities in the world, it is in its soul a rural country.

This fact was brought home to me during a trip to the French southwest last fall. With Halloween coming on, my wife and I had pumpkins on our minds. The markets offered nothing special, but one day, driving through some lost collection of farmhouses and browning fields, we spied the perfect pumpkin in a vegetable patch.

I stopped at the nearest house, where a kind woman in a floral-pattern apron assured me she knew the pumpkin's proprietor.

``I can certainly tell you which house is hers, but I can also tell you she's not going to sell you that pumpkin,'' she said. ``You understand,'' she added, ``she doesn't have any commercial spirit, and she's going to want to keep that pumpkin for her winter soup.''

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