Paris, September 2011

It’s interesting to take the TGV south from Amsterdam. You’re aware that you’re in Holland as you pass through Rotterdam, but the next step is Antwerp, which is in Belgium. There are no signs saying “Welcome to Belgium,” not even when the train passes through Brussels. There is no need to check passports or change money because the Europeans have unified their passport controls and currency. That’s a sharp difference from years ago. Then the train passes into the flat northern agricultural provinces of France, again without any passport or currency issues. At this level, European integration has been seamless.

We hit Gare du Nord at sunset and it quickly becomes apparent (again) that Paris is simply grand. However beautiful Amsterdam was, Paris outdoes it with its fountains and obelisks and overall pomp. We cross the Seine by the Louvre and head to to 6th arrondisement where our apartment is, on Rue du Cherche Midi. It’s a premier area, much like the West Village of New York. We have fish shops, vegetable places, a wine store, several cafes and all the accoutrements of urban living within a stone’s throw. It’s a second floor walkup, meaning it’s on the third floor in American terms, another challenge for Rita’s toe.

It quickly becomes evident that although the Dutch have a fine quality of life, the French have taken it all a step further. Paris seems to be a city of lifestyle extremists judging from the way people look and by the things they are buying. There are so many stores for clothes, handbags, shoes, lingerie, hairstyles, perfume, chocolate, tea, coffee, tobacco (that’s one of the first impressions of Paris—they smoke a great deal), cheese, water, wine, soaps and flowers. I asked one chocolatier who happened to speak some English, is French chocolate better than Swiss chocolate? “Oh, yes,” she said. As to why, she said it’s all about the French “savoir faire,” which literally means “to know how to do” something. The French are big believers in their savoir faire.

All these items and services strike me as expensive, but they appear to be of the very highest quality. It seems the French prefer to buy smaller amounts of finer things than loading up at the equivalent of a Wal-Mart. The American impulse seems to be to fill up the shopping cart and fill up the SUV. But the French have to be more sparing, and perhaps intelligent, about their consumerism.

In Paris, we’ve clearly arrived in a whole different cultural prism, much like we experienced moving from Korea to Japan to Taiwan. Unlike multilingual Amsterdam, where waiters and hotel receptionists switch quickly to English when they realize you are American, it’s surprising how many French will continue to speak in French even if they know it’s not your language. There’s a presupposition that one must speak French. At most news stands, the only English-language publication is the lonely International Herald Tribune. The culture is so thick you can cut it with a proverbial knife. My half-serious comparison between the Dutch and the French is that the French once had the illusion that they could conquer the world and are seriously pissed off to be playing second or third fiddle. The Dutch never had that illusion and are content to play a more modest role.

It’s interesting to compare and contrast how the French manage their immigrant population versus the Dutch. We have only superficial impressions. The foreigners in the midst of the French are more African than their counterparts in Amsterdam, but they all speak fluent French, as best we can tell. Whereas the Dutch go to pains to teach everyone Dutch, it is simply impossible to function in the Parissiene culture in anything other than French. I have the sense, without being able to document it, that the French have not done as careful a job trying to incorporate the foreigners. Paris is a tougher city, with many more homeless people on the streets and beggars, many of them gypsies. The banlieue, or suburban concentrations of Moroccans or West Africans, are notorious for their isolation from the rest of society. As in Holland, there are particular tensions with Islamic immigrants. About the time we arrived, the French were imposing a ban on street prayer, which, according to Reuters, highlights their difficulty in assimilating their five million Muslims. I suspect that the United States does a better job assimilating Muslims than any European country.

Paris is much more auto-centric than Amsterdam, which comes as a bit of a surprise. Cars charge through the narrow streets along with motorcycles, and there are no lanes for bicycles. There are traffic jams at many times of the day, with some vehicles cutting across entire lanes to make turns. So it’s clearly far more hazardous to venture out on a bike, and there are far fewer bicyclists as a proportion than in Amsterdam. The Dutch have done a better job trying to move past the automobile.

We see a great number of Citroens, Peugots and Renaults in France. Some are very cute and others are merely functional. But the French have maintained three auto companies under French control (even though Renault is in a joint venture with Nissan of Japan.) They also have very strong companies in the form of St. Gobain, Air Liquide, Rhone Poulenc, etc. They also are key partners in Airbus. So the French have done something right in terms of remaining competitive in the world. They are the 8th or 9th largest economy in the world, depending on who is doing the ranking.

One other economic observation, this one related to agriculture: the French appear to have done a better job than we have in maintaining the vibrancy of family-owned farming. One result is that the food available at Au Bon Marche or in street markets or in restaurants is all very fresh. I’m certainly no ag expert but it would be fascinating to know if Americans had more smaller family owned farms, rather than giant corporate operations, whether we would be eating better quality food with fewer additives and chemicals.

Even though the French are not always popular in the United States, they have every right to be fiercely proud of their culture and history. We took the hike to Notre Dame, on the Ile de la Cite, in the middle of the Seine. Even though both of us have seen it, it never ceases to impress, some 850 years after it was built. We also visited nearby Sainte Chapelle which is a stunning smaller two-level chapel where Louis IX sought to house the last remnants of Jesus, including the crown of thorns. The magnificent stained glass soaring toward the sky dates back to the 13th Century. It somehow survived the French Revolution, which sought to smash many vestiges of royalty.

Also on the cultural front, we opted to skip the Louvre because of the crowds, and chose the smaller Musee d’Orsay, which was totally stunning. Aside from great sculpture, we saw works by Monet, Manet, Van Gogh (the French claim him because he did his best work in France), Gauguin, Renoir and Degas. Rita snapped a few pictures even though the museum guards (whom we called the Gestapo) were constantly on the hunt for rule-breakers like her!

It’s no surprise that so many writers, intellectuals, painters, artists and others have flocked to Paris for inspiration. Hemingway comes to mind, even Woody Allen. Not to mention “The Last Tango in Paris,” with Marlon Brando. Entire books have been written about all the creative people who have been attracted to Paris. The French sensibility is so powerful as is their worship of beauty. We Americans, in some senses, are anti-historical, anti-high culture, anti-intellectual.

The so-called Euro crisis that is driving financial markets wild can barely be perceived in Paris. No great fear is evident, only the pursuit of the finer things in life. It’s easy to see how Paris could have pretended the Germans weren’t invading, and also why armies on both sides of the war spared Paris from the kind of block-by-block destruction that befell Berlin or London. Let them eat cake!

So on the basis of many superficial observations, I can offer these sweeping conclusions:

–The Europeans are still fundamentally different from each other. Their cultures and mindsets are too distant for them to ever consider becoming a “United States of Europe,” as many financial pundits are urging.

–With such long histories and great concentration of wealth, they are not going to allow the Greek crisis to destroy what they have achieved. They will muddle through.

–They have done a better job of buying things from each other rather than importing huge quantities of Japanese cars and Chinese electronics, as America has done.

–Even though the Europeans are not as fast-growing as China or India, there are still things for Americans to learn from Europe. Among them: less wasteful consumption, better energy policies, higher quality food, and strong emphasis on culture and knowledge.

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