Diary

Rosemary Dinnage

Love: popular music, schmaltzy tunes, have always told us this was what Paris was for. But ‘en France maintenant, les intellectuels ne baisent pas,’ says Lucienne. She has four children by her French professor husband, nevertheless, and one by her English lover, and leads a busy commuting life. Husband and lover are friends and child care is shared. Is this the new pattern of life for the once so bourgeoise Parisienne who spent her time boiling up bones for stock and squeezing fruit in the market? ‘I’ll suggest it to my husband, but I don’t think he’d be keen,’ says my train acquaintance Josette; nevertheless, she is radiantly travelling back from a solo package weekend in Venice, leaving three teenagers with her husband. Liberation of varying degrees is under way among Parisian women. But it seems there is a Sloane Ranger stratum as well. The Figaro carries a piece about jeunes filles. At a ball they wear white tulle from couture houses to dance with uniformed boys from the Polytechnique. Bridge lessons, single-string pearls, Maman’s cocktail parties, engraved invitations, an engagement ring by 20 at all costs. The difference now, says the writer, is that the plain ones are not content to retire with their embroidery: they go in there and fight and win.

Englishmen: they are beautiful, says Lucienne. The most important one in Paris at present is Joseph Mallord William Turner, who has bowled the town over. Is it worth fighting to see the Turners at the Grand Palais through a six-deep screen of visitors saying ‘Tiens, que c’est beau,’ when we shall soon see them in one great permanent collection here? Yes. But the watercolours alone may make one forever dissatisfied with the delicate milk-and-water primness of the English mainstream. In the last rooms, with the late oils, the walls fall open into pale golden explosions. How did that fuss ever arise about Whistler throwing a pot of paint in the public’s face?

Translation:

II était reveneure; les slictueux loves,
Sur I’allouinde gyraient et vriblaient;
Tout flivoreux vaguaient les borogoves;
Les verchons fourgus bourniflaient.

‘Jabberwocky’ – it can actually be done. Another Englishman next, at the ‘Alice’ exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, displayed and dissected to the recorded sound of Great Tom. No end of literary Frenchmen, it seems, have been taken with Alice – André Breton, Antonin Artaud, Gilles Deleuze, Louis Aragon. Illustrators range from Mabel Lucie Attwell to Ralph Steadman (the two worst). Contemporary photos show the dreadful infants chosen to play Alice in Carroll’s day, and a later one shows Alice herself at 80, hearty and befurred. The nicest thing is a DRINK ME bottle that magically changes from pink to blue to gold.

Dogs: there is no sign in Paris streets of the counterparts of Dinah and her kittens, who must be sleekly comfortable at home, but everywhere are big, very big dogs. Obviously one can’t expect the French to call them Alsatians, and anyway chiens-loups seems much more appropriate for these terrifying hounds. One can understand cafés wanting something large and fierce to guard the till, but why do ordinary Parisians like to be dragged out at the end of a leash by something the size of a Shetland pony? On the pavements, it is a question of sauve qui peut, and no sign of New York’s little plastic bag system.

Transport: as well as overcoming caninophobia, a stay in Paris may be well spent just in acquiring one degree more courage in the face of its traffic (except for those lucky people who really know their right hand from their left and how to reverse them). It is a kind of hardening, Outward Bound training process for tourism anywhere. Once underground, however, a whole world of cheap speed and safety awaits you. Enough has been written about the heaven of the Paris Métro, no doubt. No waiting for the elusive Circle, no rare, quirky offshoots to Wimbledon or Putney, no ‘Marble Arch only – all change.’ If you are on one of the rare lines that branches in two, a voice actually comes through to the compartment telling you which one you are on, in time for you to change. French logic must be reality, not myth, because it is physically embodied in the Métro. (Châtelet, where you get lost changing lines, represents a single, disarming centre of unreason.) But should there be enough beggars there, some days, to remind one of Bombay? These are not the clochards, the tramps and alcoholics, nor ex-servicemen from some forgotten war playing the concertina, nor the slick importuners who operate in several languages, but young sickish-looking Frenchmen hunched on the ground against the wall. In front of them may be a piece of card saying that they have a job promised for next Monday but no means of eating meanwhile; or, simply, J’ai faim. French people are shifty about them, but admit that welfare benefits are complex rather than flat-rate and that without family support one can fall far and fast through holes in the welfare net. The Salvation Army’s soup run is worked off its feet, and deals increasingly with recipients who are very different from the ordinary down-and-out.

Suburbs: lucky for Parisians that their public transport is so good, for more and more commute from the suburbs. ‘In Paris itself, only the poor and the rich live,’ a friend says with some exaggeration. Vitry-sur-Seine, where 88,000 Parisians live, sounds like a place where the Impressionists used to spend their Sundays painting pretty girls and boatered beaux in rowing boats. In fact, though only a few miles from central Paris, it is a huge Communist-run industrialised area. It seems spotless, free of slums, provided with every amenity from créches to sports centres to old people’s clubs, and its 89 municipal statues and murals confront one uncompromisingly at every turn – by the Palais des Sports Maurice Thorez, in the Parc Pablo-Néruda, around the corner from the Supermarché Yuri Gagarine. Blocks of flats stand in serried ranks, and it is unblinkingly ugly. Vitry is twinned with Burnley, Lancs, and seems nearer to it than to Notre-Dame. It is all the more of a pleasure to find, around a corner, the occasional small, dusty, check-curtained Café des Amis left over from some old René Clair film; or to go round the weekly market in the aroma of a hundred different cheeses and to the sound of loudspeaker waltzes. At six o’clock in the morning a great clatter begins: it is not the engineering works’ early shift, but the bakery starting on the day’s breakfast. No left-over bread for the Vitriots.

Food: the Franco-American magazine Passion surveyed the great French baguette recently and came to the conclusion that it’s not what it used to be. Best bakeries were listed, all of them in arrondissements remote from anywhere the tourist goes. The current fashion for even the cheapest hotels to provide bed and breakfast rather than just bed condemns one to dryish bread and terrible little plastic tubs of jam instead of a fresh croissant at the neighbourhood café. Croissants at De Gaulle Airport are definitely inferior to Gare du Nord croissants – or is it just that at stations one tends to be hungrier and more tired than at airports? Fast food meanwhile – O’Kitch, La Maison du Whopper etc – marches on through Paris. A recent report from a food processors’ trade meeting praises the rapid evolution of the pomme frite in the past ten years. In 1975, would you believe, pre-cooked chips were not even heard of in France. Then they were produced ready cut and cooked, but perishable; now the deep-frozen chip is widely available for mass catering. Luckily it does not seem to have reached the ordinary restaurant consumer yet.

Water: is what you dare not ask for with your meal. Is what bubbles up from mysterious underground sources in Paris gutters and makes the street alive with lucent streams. Is what covers the end of the Seine islands in a wet season so that the trees seem to be growing out of the middle of the river.

Jews: an armed gendarme stands outside the Musée de l’Art Juif where there is an exhibition devoted to Kafka. ‘Why?’ I ask. There have been ‘des attentats ... Nous sommes mauvais en France!’ The building is a Jewish centre – children line up for classes in Hebrew and the Talmud – and upstairs is the exhibition. Photographs, letters, a couple of dozen original paintings and etchings inspired by Kafka’s writing. The photograph of a common tombstone shows that, appropriately, or perhaps dreadfully, Kafka lies interred in the same grave with those parents whom in life he believed he could never escape. Here is the invitation from Hermann and Julie Kafka to their only son’s bar-mitzvah, and here the black-edged card in Czech and German announcing his death. Here are the letters from Kafka, grandson of a Bohemian butcher, describing anti-semitic riots he has been watching from his window, and his dreams of a life in Palestine. Here is the plaque put up on his birthplace during the ‘Prague Spring’, taken down afterwards, and now replaced. Next to passages from The Trial and The Castle are excerpts from descriptions of Theresienstadt camp. Paris has its Front National which claims to see, behind an unholy alliance of Marxist, Freemason, Protestant and Jew, the powerful hand of international Judaism.

Death: in Père-Lachaise cemetery death has no sting. A small city on a beautifully wooded hill, it has more of the feeling of a park in the English sense than formal French parks. Those French vaults like little stone telephone kiosks somehow have no feeling of death, and though it is claimed that the place is not well tended and is used as a homosexual assignment quarter, it is wonderfully kept up compared to the wild parts of Highgate Cemetery. Among the tombs of the great the many family graves still have fresh flowers. Here is Edith Piaf’s, said to have produced miraculous cures, and here Proust’s in chic black marble with a single pink rose on it. The one Jewish vault that I saw had been vandalised.

Hope: in a magazine poll of over a thousand French people, 57 per cent believe there will be no nuclear war.