A mile or so up the Champs-Élysées and I’m the only one in sensible shoes. This is Paris. I’m an aging American tourist and can’t stop trying hard not to seem like one. But it’s a vain effort.
People on the street seem younger than before. They are still svelte as weasels and still favor tight black apparel. They come in a variety of ethnicities. They wear grayish scarves and chain-smoke cigarettes — walking behind any two Parisians for four blocks is equivalent to smoking a full pack of Gitanes.
Their shoes are also black, and invariably new. The glistening toes narrow to lethal points that would seem to complicate the navigation of rough curbs and cobblestone. It doesn’t. By American standards, everybody is remarkably well dressed and remarkably attractive. You’d think all that sex appeal would make Parisians look at each other, but these days they concentrate primarily on their phones.
Tourists like me are pretty much invisible. Even if I were skinny and clad in black and affected a languid disinterest in all things within a 10-kilometer radius, I wouldn’t fool anybody. Because at some point I would have to hoist my camera for the one-trillionth picture of some landmark in crappy light. When you show a camera, a telepathic pulse ripples through the Parisian hive-mind and your charisma quotient fades to about the same as the dog turds on the sidewalk — something to be ignored with just the slightest flicker of distaste.
I don’t blame them. And it’s not the worst thing, being nearly invisible. Makes it easy to people-watch. There are at least four sidewalk cafes on every block and you can sit at one of the little round tables and ogle passers-by all day and into the night. They don’t care. After two or three glasses of wine, neither do I.
I haven’t really added up every mile we walked in Paris, but counting Versailles it’s got to be nearly 100 for the week. My feet are still sort of achy. The heels on my rarely-used Ecco walking shoes (black, of course) disintegrated on the first day. (Apparently that’s a thing.) So for the rest of the week I wore my Merrell hikers, which are rarely seen on the stylish streets of Paris and, as a fashion statement, are about like wearing an NFL jersey and Crocs. No matter. My lack of Parisian style extends well beyond footwear.
We were last here in 2007. It hasn’t changed much, beyond the ubiquity of smartphones and the millions of love locks weighing down the Pont des Arts. We went everywhere and toured a lot of museums, but I like to say that the city itself is the best museum of all. It has a timeless quality, despite the occasional building-size ad for the iPhone 6. It looks great in the slanting sunlight, but it’s also pretty nice in the rain. No matter the weather, it’s a place best experienced outdoors.
Our second-floor apartment was only a couple of blocks from the Arc deTriomphe. Across the street was a posh restaurant that requires reservations a year in advance. At night it was interesting to watch the well-dressed clientele emerge from their Mercedes and Bentleys and press the button for admittance. Must be nice, I thought.
But then I noticed the offices just upstairs from the restaurant — a telemarketing operation of some sort. Each morning, the same chic young people I’d envied from a café table would arrive in the morning and sit with landline phones to their ears for eight or nine hours at a stretch. They were there when we left, and there when we returned. Sometimes I’d see them on the sidewalk for a smoke break, checking their personal phones as though some means of escape might be found there. It was an epiphany, I guess: Everything has its price. Even youth and style in one of the greatest cities in the world. You still have to serve somebody. Not that I wouldn’t trade with them for at least a little while.
We didn’t eat at a lot of restaurants this time. Maybe all the walking wore us out. Usually at the end of the day we’d just buy baguettes and pate and strawberries and cheeses and wine — all of those things for which France is justifiably famous. Let’s just say I have no regrets about the food. I’m pretty sure the restaurants will still be there next time.
We spent some time in Italy, too, and hiked a bit of the Cinque Terre. Maybe I’ll write a little about that tomorrow.