Continental II

Fayes T Kantawala got civilized in Paris

Continental II
My week in Paris has taught me how exhausting touring can be. I have taken to the siesta way of life and am dead to the world for an hour in the afternoons because otherwise I would have keeled over by six while crossing a road. I think it’s the sheer volume of things to do.

Take the Louvre. The first time I went there many years ago I didn’t know what I was in for. I don’t think anyone ever does. The place is massive, crowded, overwhelming and magnificent. I stood in line for an hour in the rain waiting to get into the glass pyramid made famous by the Da Vinci Code (indeed, the books enthusiasts can be seen trying to plot out the movie in the galleries, a task greatly hindered by the fact that no one wants to give way to nerds with Tom Hanks posters). But a rainy Paris is still Paris, and I found myself unable to lose my good mood, which I bolstered by sitting down wherever I could. I’ve studied the Louvre’s ridiculously star-studded collection of art, and despite my keen interest and new walking shoes, at the end of three hours I found myself panting and crawling on the floor, my hand outstretched to the “Sortie” sign like a sculpture of Adam reaching for the Heavens (all this while Chinese tourists were making road-kill of me).

The big rush is in the galleries around the Mona Lisa, and my advice would be to skip them because, firstly, you’re going to be jostling for space with fat Americans in ankle socks shouting “I can’t see the damn thing!” and lots of Japanese tourists, silent but lethal with their photography equipment that looks positively space-age (I didn’t even know half the stuff they carried had been invented yet, who needs a selfie tripod? WHO?).

I’ve been doing the usual things here – long walks by the Seine, thinking about Life as I cross bridges, thinking about Fat as I eat pastries. (Timing is everything: one of the bridges, which was covered with locks left by lovers trying to commemorate their apparently unbreakable bonds, collapsed a few days after I crossed it.) But mostly I went to lots and lots of cafes. It seems the thing to do in Paris. Everyone eats out here and they make the experience more pleasurable than any other place. Sit around enough, and the city introduces itself to you. During one of my first meals out, for instance, I was having a lovely dinner with a friend in a small restaurant in the fashionable Marais area. Next to us was a couple in love, all doe-eyed and touchy-feely. During dessert I heard this awful heaving sound and was compelled to briefly abandon my crème brulee. I looked across at the couple: the woman’s face was blue, and she was clutching her throat and thrashing herself back and forth. Time slows down in cases like these, but even by those standards her lover was slow to react. He looked at her, then at me, then at the time on his watch, and then at the woman again. Terrified that he would use this opportunity to break up with her, my friend and I shouted for the waiter. The woman was positively choking now – clutching the table, pounding her fists on it – and eventually her boyfriend conceded to smack her on the back (I thought it would be bad manners if I gave her the Heimlich maneuver myself). No other diners bothered themselves with any of this, however, and I found that both enchantingly civilized and viciously mean. Eventually she recovered the air in her lungs and began to calm down. (She was drinking water and wiping her tears away.) The waiter regaled everyone with a boast about how many people he had seen choke and then brought the couple their bill.

[quote]My hand was outstretched to the "Sortie" sign like a sculpture of Adam reaching for the Heavens[/quote]

There is, I can attest after my week in Paris, an etiquette to life in the cafes. I’ve noticed the women are far more ritualistic in this case than the men and I have deciphered a four-step procedure, in many ways not different from society girls in Lahore.

Step one: the Arrival

The Parisian woman will get off her own Vespa, or be dropped off by a burly and leather-clad biker with a three-day stubble. She will shake her hair voluptuously but not turn back and say goodbye to her partner. She is too busy anticipating her next step to get involved with petty sentiments.

Step 2: The Entrance

Sunglasses are to be kept on until she identifies one of her party at a table, but she must not look like she’s looking. Instead it must appear that she just happened to be coming in to use the phone to call her aristocratic boyfriend on his yacht, or borrow a hanky and just happened upon her friends waiting with a bottle of wine. Sunglasses can now be removed for…

Step 3: Ritualistic Kissing

I don’t have it quite down yet, but I think it’s two pecks on the cheek for acquaintances and three for friends. Perhaps there are more for a particularly close relative or someone you’re sleeping with, but it’s safe to say that no matter what your relationship, you’re gonna get at least one kiss.

Step 4: Seated Judgment

Our Parisian woman will now, having greeted everyone and shown her outfit, sit down with another flourish of her hair as she cackles at something her friend has said. She will barely peruse the menu but eventually put her sunglasses back on so as not to be caught staring at her reflection in the window, making sure her scarf, hair and sunglasses are all pristine. Once satisfied, she can now look around at her audience with a beautiful sneer.

I met up with some friends who live in the city and noticed that they too have acquired an air of sophistication, a surprise since the last time I saw one of them she was sucking on a tube attached to an upturned keg of beer while at a frat party. But it’s nice to think that Parisian sensibilities are infectious and I think it’s what every tourist secretly hopes for.

I am now in Lyon, the gastronomical capital of France. It’s true. Every single thing at every single meal has been mouthwatering. It’s mainly an old medieval town, and you can exhaust the tourist attraction in a day (or a few hours, if you speed-walk and don’t try to pretend to care about yet another statue of the Virgin Mary).

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