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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 / February 9, 1990



PARIS

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.

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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.

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.