Paris Diarist

Claire Berlinski
Joie de Decline
Winter 2012

I arrived in Paris to find commuter trains on strike, graffiti everywhere, the streets filthy, and every restaurant at which one might eat with a toddler closed. But Paris is always like this, and I saw no sign of distress at the imminent prospect of the eurozone breakup or even much evidence of a recession.

I had been in New York and then in Istanbul the week before. Of the three cities, New York is the only one where everything works reliably. In Istanbul, where I live, no one is ever on time for anything; the word “deadline” has no meaning. Once I nearly collapsed in shock after a repairman told me that he would be at my apartment within 90 minutes and was indeed there within 90 minutes. At first, I was suspicious. Was he a spy? When I concluded that he had really come to fix something, I had to fight back tears of gratitude.

The exception to Istanbul’s dysfunction is Atatürk International, one of the most pleasant and efficient airports in the world—it took me just 15 minutes, starting from my deposit at curbside, to get through check-in, security, and immigration—and Turkish Airlines, which I adore, despite those discomfiting rumors about its prioritization of customer service over pilot training. I’ll take the customer service and my chances, not to mention the certainty that Turkish Airlines won’t be on strike and the high probability that Air France will be.

No one in France seems to have grasped the connection between the country’s army of ceaselessly striking civil servants and the prospect of economic doom. For now, the cash machines still dispense euros, and the army of civil servants still makes French life more pleasant, not less. After all, they provide an agreeable diversion. My father, who lives in Paris, was taking out the garbage when he was accosted by two women in uniform, members of the ecology police, patrolling the neighborhood to make sure that tenants understood the importance of recycling. He offered them his opinion: recycling is a stupid racket. They listened and then offered the official state opinion: recycling is not a stupid racket. They were polite, well-informed, and dogged. In the end, they won: he agreed to recycle. It was all very civilized, and one could see that many people in the neighborhood found the bureaucrats’ visit pleasant.

France can no longer pay for its comfortable way of life. French exports are declining, French budget deficits are increasing, and French taxes are too high. Despite the statistics, though, Paris feels like a city whose troubles are far away. Alain is still hawking his oysters. Over the years, like a master who begins to resemble his dog, he has come to look like a hairy oyster himself—a tiny man with a great bushy beard and long, gray, matted hair, sea salt permanently embedded in the deep wrinkles around his eyes and in the creases of his blue proletarian overalls. He’s always drunk and fiendishly proud of his display. “Come try my oysters, mesdames and messieurs!” he hollers to no one in particular. “Excellent for your gymnastique de nuit!”

The florists sell bouquets of snapdragons and tiger lilies in harvest colors; the fruit sellers hawk crisp apples and walnuts from the outdoor stalls; the butchers roast chickens, sell potatoes soaked in juices from the rotisserie spit, and serve massive dishes of steaming cabbage, garnished with sausages and pork knuckles, from huge vats; you can smell the juniper berries all the way across the street. The shopwindows overflow with pastries, wrapped in delicate plastic collars and sealed with gold-foil stickers printed with the bakery crest: praline mousse layered with a chocolate-espresso genoise, soaked in rum, finished with a velvety chocolate glaze, topped with piped chocolate-truffle leaves, and splashed in gold dust; winter tarts of poached apples, spiced almond cream, vanilla sugar, and plum brandy, all in a pâte sucrée, with an apricot and Grand Marnier glaze; kirsch-soaked red-currant soufflés with pink-and-white-striped pistachio biscuits.

A France in decline is still considerably wealthier and far more functional than a Turkey with a booming economy. Only in New York, though, could I conceive the desire to find at 3:30 AM the special kind of cloth that Apple recommends for cleaning my computer screen—and fulfill it by 3:45.

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