I would have posted an update sooner, but the wireless internet in my hotel first went wonky and then went missing altogether. I had an excellent birthday, and thanks very much for all your good wishes, even if you didn't quite get around to sending them. After a rainy night the day dawned bright and clear, but almost wintry cold. It warmed up to about 10C/50F by noon, though, and after meeting up with some friends near the Champs Élysées I wandered along said avenue gawking at the many gawkworthy people and things, and thence into the Tuileries, one of the lovelier public spaces on the planet, and one which, I just realized, I hadn't visited in 28 years.
By the time I'd stopped to gape at a rather excellent juxtaposition of the Eiffel Tower with the Obelisque in the Place de la Concorde and then walked about halfway through the gardens, some black billowing clouds had spilled in from the north, creating a dappled, chiaroscuro effect that was all the more dramatic when splayed across the white marble monuments and buildings that lined the horizons. The effect was breathtaking, but then Paris often has that effect even when the weather isn't providing a supplementary light show.
I remember being impressed on my first visits to Paris over how old everything seemed, but at the time I was a very impressionable 20-something who hadn't traveled much outside the United States. In actuality, most of the city, at least the parts the tourists normally see, isn't that old at all, as France's heavily centralized government was able, when the whim struck it, to demolish pretty much anything it wanted and rebuild the city in a fairly uniform 19th century design. Despite London's having been bombed, burned, and urban renewaled by Soviet bloc-inspired housing engineers, you can still see more genuinely ancient buildings than you're likely to run into on a random stroll through Paris.
The difference is that London is a crazy patchwork of the classic, the post-modern, the stately and the hideous, the banal and sublime, whereas Paris hews to one remarkably consistent design. A magnificent design, a feast for the senses sufficient to make the heart sing out practically every time one turns a corner, but a design nonetheless. Can you imagine someone trying to rebuild New York City along similar lines? No, of course you can't, because you'd have several battalions of lawyers suing you for even thinking such a thought.
But however undemocratically Paris may have gotten the way it did, there's no disputing or quarreling with its undeniable elegance, an elegance which I've become convinced has a beneficent and uplifting effect on nearly everyone fortunate enough to live or work there. I'm trying to remember why, like so many Americans and Brits, I've been scornful of France, and for the life of me, I can't. One minute I'm voting for Obama, the next I'm turning into a full-on sympathizer with the fromage-munching surrender monkeys!
My mood might also have been enhanced by the precipitous fall of the euro against the dollar. I booked this trip just before the stock market crash left me feeling a lot poorer, but since it was already paid for, I didn't see much sense in staying home. I was expecting the cost of living to be shocking, but because the euro dropped about 25 cents in value, it turned out to be no worse than New York, and in a couple cases, even cheaper.
The Métro, for example: I don't remember it being so awesome (or shiny or clean) on previous visits, but if it weren't for the regrettable fact that it still shuts down at midnight, it could easily replace the New York City subway as my favorite public transport system in the world. Not only are there signs telling you exactly how many minutes (or on a couple lines, even how many seconds!) you'll have to wait for your train, the wait is very seldom more than 2 or 3 minutes. In New York and London people run like crazy when they see a train coming because they're afraid if they miss it they might be stuck waiting for an unconscionably long time for another. In Paris people stroll toward the train, because they feel confident there'll be another one along any minute now. And somehow Paris manages to provide this level of service at a price half that of London's, and, provided you buy a carnet of 10 tickets or a weekly pass, cheaper than New York as well.
I had a birthday lunch in an outdoor cafe/restaurant in the middle of the Tuileries. It was a little pricey - the equivalent of maybe $16 or $17 - but a week ago it would have been more like $22, and while the food was fine, I was paying more for the location. Later that night I had an outstanding dinner with some friends near the Arc de Triomphe for less than the price of a diner meal in New York. Speaking of the Arc, I'm sure I've been there before some time in the past, but I never remembered it being so all-fired in-your-face. That is one impressive piece of monumentry, but then nobody ever accused the French of being understated in that department.
Other observations: coffee is quite expensive, but in many cases you're really paying rent on a table for what might turn out to be hours, so you can't blame them. But despite Paris having thousands upon thousands of the best cafés in the world, Starbucks has proven to be a huge success here, with queues of people right out the door waiting for the opportunity to spend five or six bucks on a pale imitation of the coffee that's available on any corner for a buck or two cheaper. McDonald's is very popular in France, too, so go figure.
Also, despite nobody believing it could ever happen, France now has smoking laws similar to those in New York City and California, i.e., no smoking indoors at all. However, they've turned most of the outdoor seating areas into nonstop smokefests and played kind of fast and loose with the law by enclosing them with plastic or other materials to the point where they might as well be indoors. And in those areas that can't be enclosed, café owners are doing their bit for global warming by installing sidewalk heaters every few feet, to the point where even passersby can be tempted to strip off their coats and bask in the artificial summer.
But that was yesterday, and today I'm back in New York for a few hours before - this wasn't the best planning, I'll concede - jetting off again to Gainesville for the No Idea Fest, another thing I booked last summer before realizing that right about now I'd almost rather be staying home and enjoying my new apartment. But somebody needs to go down there and tell you all about the 18 million bands that are playing, of which I'll probably see maybe five or six or ten. And before you get jealous of me for running around in the Florida sun, I just checked the weather and it's currently 38 degrees in Gainesville. Roughly the same, if not a bit cooler, as it is in New York City. So I'll dress warmly, and if any of you have recommendations for bands I should see (or avoid), feel free to send them along. Hopefully I'll be back tomorrow night with a report from the front.