An Aesthetically Challenged American in Paris (Part II)


Cartoon by Jeff MacNelly

Today I'll be concluding my two-part series on Paris, France. In writing this series, my goal, as a journalist, is to provide you with enough information about this beautiful and culturally important city so that I can claim my summer vacation trip there as a tax deduction.

My topic in Part Two is the historic tourist attractions of Paris. The Parisians have been building historic attractions for more than 1,500 years as part of a coordinated effort to kill whatever tourists manage to escape the drivers. The key is stairs. Most tourist attractions, such as L'Arc de Triomphe (literally, ``The Lark of Triumph'') and the Hunchback of Notre Dame Cathedral, have some kind of lookout point at the top that you, the tourist, are encouraged to climb to via a dark and scary medieval stone staircase containing at least 5,789 steps and the skeletons of previous tourists (you can tell which skeletons are American, because they're wearing sneakers). If you make it to the top, you are rewarded with a sweeping panoramic view of dark spots before your eyes caused by lack of oxygen. Meanwhile, down at street level, the Parisians are smoking cigarettes and remarking, in French, ``Some of them are still alive! We must build more medieval steps!''

Of course the tallest monument in Paris is the Eiffel Tower, named for the visionary engineer who designed it, Fred Tower. The good news is, there are elevators to the top. The bad news is, pretty much the entire tourist population of Europe is up there taking flash pictures of itself. There are so many people crowded into the smallish observation area that you get the feeling, crazy as it seems, that the whole darned Eiffel Tower is going to topple over. Ha ha! In fact this has happened only twice since 1991.

Paris also has many excellent art museums, the most famous being the Louvre (pronounced ``Woon''). If you plan to visit it, you should allow yourself plenty of time to see everything -- say, four years -- because the Louvre is the size of Connecticut, only with more stairs. The museum contains 30,000 pieces of painting and sculpture, and as you walk past these incredible works of art, depicting humanity through the centuries, you cannot help but be struck, as millions of people have been struck before you, by the fact that for a whole lot of those centuries, humanity was stark naked. To judge from the Louvre, until about 1900, everybody on Earth -- men, women, children, gods, goddesses, horses -- basically just stood around all the time without a stitch of clothing on. There's one gigantic painting of a bunch of warriors getting ready to go into battle, and all they're wearing is swords. You expect to see a comics-style speech balloon coming out of the lead warrior's mouth, saying, ``Fight hard, men! If we win the war, we can afford pants!''

I think the reason why the Mona Lisa is so famous is that she's just about the only artistic subject in the Louvre who's wearing clothes. On any given day, every tourist in Europe who is not on top of the Eiffel Tower is gathered in front of the Mona Lisa, who gazes out at the crowd with the enigmatic expression of a person who is pondering the timeless question: ``How come they keep taking flash photographs, even though the signs specifically prohibit this?''

I enjoyed the art museums, but for me the most moving cultural experience I had in Paris was -- and you may call me a big fat stupid low-rent American pig if you wish -- visiting a gourmet food store called Fauchon (pronounced ``Woon''), which contains two-thirds of the world's calorie supply. In the great art museums, I eventually reached a saturation point and found myself walking right past brilliant masterpiece paintings by Van Gogh, Renoir, Matisse, LeRoy Neiman, etc., without even glancing at them; whereas after a lengthy period of browsing in Fauchon, I was still enthusiastically remarking, with genuine artistic appreciation: ``Whoa! Check out THESE éclairs!''

In conclusion, I would say that Paris is the most beautiful city in the world, and its inhabitants have an amazing sense of ``savoir-faire,'' which means, literally, ``knowing how to extinguish a fire.'' I say this because one Sunday afternoon I was in a crowded café when smoke started billowing from a cabinet into which waiters had been stuffing trash. It was a semi-scary situation; I stood up and gestured toward the smoke in an alarmed American manner, but the French diners paid no attention. In a moment, a waiter appeared carrying some food; he noted the smoke, served the food, went away, then returned to douse the fire with, I swear, a bottle of mineral water. And you just know it was the correct kind of mineral water for that kind of fire. So the meal ended up being very pleasant. It was also -- I state this for the benefit of the Internal Revenue Service -- quite expensive.