Sunday, July 20, 2008

Thirty Years

I came to live in France in January 1977. I arrived by train from Zurich, because the cheapest flight I could find from Boston landed in the Swiss city. Having no idea where I was going to stay, I checked my bag in the consigne of the Gare de l'Est and set out on foot (the expense of a taxi was out of the question) to check out a few of the addresses I'd been given. I remember my exhilaration at the animation of the streets and the aesthetics of the shop windows (many stores still had their Christmas displays). The city was unfamiliar enough to create a sense of mild adventure yet at the same time reassuringly familiar.

A few days ago I arrived again in France. Unlike the train from Zurich, which disgorged its passengers more or less directly onto the city streets, the Boeing from Boston emptied its load first into the maze of Terminal 2E at CDG and then into a bizarre holding pen whose corrals were marked "EU" and "non-EU," species that did not exist 30 years ago. In the non-EU section, Brahmins from Boston were interspersed with two planeloads of Africans, one from Kinshasa and one from Ouagadougou, and a third planeload of Australians from Melbourne. The dress was as variegated as the skin tones. Many of the Africans wore their Sunday best, as though a border crossing were a sacred rite--only the most elderly of the palefaces accorded it similar solemnity. Other Africans wore the costumes of their homeland; still others wore lightweight suits that looked like a cross between Mao jackets and disco dancing outfits from Saturday Night Fever. Many, though, sported the new international uniform of travel, the warm-up suit, embellished by a New York Yankees cap, perhaps, or "official" NBA championship headwear, no doubt manufactured in Malaysia.

Clearly, globalization had come to tourism. The train into town--the RER B--passed between concrete walls decorated with mural art, the ubiquitous expression of the voiceless that now graces even the tubes of the Metro, as if Paris were Harlem. The line passes through towns whose names would once have seemed to me incongruously bucolic--Aulnay-sous-Bois--but that now speak of painful recent history.

And then, spit out from the mouth of Luxembourg station, I was home. There were les Jardins du Luxembourg, there was Le Rostand, there was the Boul' Mich', there was the kiosque with the news on paper rather than on a screen, there were Parisians, there were tourists quizzically consulting their maps, and there was I, exhausted but once again exhilarated to be in my favorite city, changed though it was: le coeur d'une ville change plus vite, hélas, que le coeur d'un mortel.

Not all the changes are agreeable. The FNAC on the rue de Rennes has inevitably ceded a floor of books to flat-screen TVs, and the rayon entitled sciences humaines seems to have been invaded by "alternative" religions, pop-psychology, and the literature of self-help. The displays, which used to reflect the latest intellectual fashions, now seemed filled with re-issues of books I read 30 years ago, while one entire panel in the political science section contained nothing but books about Sarkozy. Yet all was not lost: while ambling along rue Monsieur le Prince I chanced upon a small bookshop that displayed a recent volume of the correspondence of Albert Camus and René Char. There was also a book I'd translated by François Jullien, which led to a conversation with the shopkeeper about him and about Camus (whose writing for Combat I also translated).

Oh, and perhaps I should mention that I saw Bienvenue chez les ch'tis. Alongside me sat two women, evidently ch'ties themselves, who enjoyed every bit of dialect. To my surprise I discovered a film in which regional stereotypes played only a superficial role. It was really a film about men whose lives are ruled by women, about their fears, aspirations, and compensations in the form of friendship and a kind of art (in this case le carillon). I rather liked it in spite of its ostensible subject, which seemed to me rather a pretext, and a silly one at that. But Dany Boon and Kad Merad have a gift for conveying the poignancy in the life of the pauv' con that makes the film something more than a forgettable comic confection.