So you might as well go to Paris.

I mean, why wouldn’t you?The city has been, for some time now, the most visited in all the world.At least, since the Prussian Wars.Or since Disney built a park on its perimeter.Or maybe since France last won the World Cup.Either way – a very long time.

And you might as well rent a car.Preferably a breathtakingly tiny one, like Renault’s Twingo, into which you’ll have difficulty jamming your American suitcase that seemed to be the paragon of light travel back home but in this city has turned you, along with your unfortunate white socks, into what you now recognize as the blundering jackass version of an American you impersonate as a lark to close friends.

But you shoehorn your Samsonite in somehow and you pull your pants over your socks and you carefully intone the words “merci beaucoup” to the guy handing you the Twingo keys, responding in near-perfect English in a sign he’s either trying like you, or rather hoping you will please cease to try.

But it doesn’t matter, you’re new in town.You get behind the wheel and follow the petite signs and traffic lights placed on posts along the side of the road and you drive and drive.

You turn down the first side street you find named after a French writer.Be it Avenue Victor Hugo or Rue Balzac or Passage Voltaire, you see the loveliest things, like an old brasserie where diners sit before plates of oysters across from a small, finely manicured park surrounded by soaring architecture of century old stone.

You would linger further here, but by now you’ve noticed the heat.

Hot July air steeped in several millennia of urban summers hangs over the city and has seeped in through your open car windows.You attempt futilely to find out if your rental offers air conditioning.You make do with the choked breeze as you roll on, wondering if maybe you’ve taken a wrong turn into Cairo.

You haven’t but, nonetheless, come upon an obelisk covered in hieroglyphics.This is your first famous Parisian monument:The Obelisk at Place de la Concorde.This needle-like monument was a gift from the Egyptians to calm French imperial nerves and was welcomed as less conspicuous than the guillotine that it replaced.Years later, with new imperial nerves needing to be calmed, the spot on the other side of the fountains was selected to house the American embassy.

Having no need for compatriots, you then swerve onto the Champs Élysées, the boulevard as wide as an airfield, with the café tables five deep across the sidewalks and the Hermés and Louis Vuitton stores like their own kind of museums where the suggested admission price is steeper than the Eiffel Tower staircase.

But you don’t linger here either.You head to the arc.You take this grandest of grand boulevards all the way to its logical extension.L’Arc de Triomphe is encircled by possibly the world’s most famous roundabout (rond-point, si’l vous plait) called Place Charles de Gaulle or alternately, Place de l’ Étolie – Place of the Star – from which all other boulevards in the country emanate.

Here it turns with vexed but fearless drivers in taxis, Smart cars, motorcycles, motorcycle taxis, graffiti-tagged delivery trucks, Eastern European charter buses and an older man riding his antique bicycle in a wool suit.Once you reach the arc, you realize this is where all the Parisians and all the tourists have either been trying to get to or get away from.Possibly all their lives.And it’s where you will no longer be able to avoid taking at least one turn.

The white-gloved policeman with a shiny whistle waves you into the swirling, honking mass ringing the colossal monument to French glory.You grip the wheel and accelerate toward the history.

At all roundabouts in the nation of France, the rule of the road is that motorists entering the roundabout must yield to those already inside of it.It makes sense, in a way.However, this rule doesn’t apply to France’s most famous roundabout.At the Place de l’Étolie, the cars inside the roundabout must yield to the oncoming traffic.This is convenient because there are twelve points at which you must stop, or at least, cede passage, as you turn counterclockwise around the star.

The Place de l’ Étoile also offers another exception.A special clause written into French car insurance agreements states that if an accident occurs while driving here, both insurance parties agree to cover their individual client’s damage.A sort of let’s-call-the-whole-thing-off agreement while at the same time representing a vehicular free-for-all usually reserved for Demolition Derbies or Thunderdomes.

So for starters, you’d do well to remember the phrase bordel de merde.It translates neatly into whorehouse of shit.It’s a greeting. It’s a proclamation. It’s a term of endearment.It’s a catch-all.It’s also what the driver behind you is bellowing out his window because you’re too busy gazing up at the ornate trim of the top of the arc.

So you merge further with the death-defying flow.There are no lane delineations, just cobblestones.Cars are attempting to pass you on your left and right.They converge together in front of you, in an unimaginable near miss.Later, if you make it out alive, you may go to the top of the arc, where you can take pictures of the vehicles jammed together at all angles, like a collection of toy cars all being radio-controlled by a blindfolded three-year-old boy.

Henry Miller called Paris the cradle, or as he specifically described it “the cradle of artificial births” from which you rock and “dream back to Berlin, New York, Chicago, Vienna, Minsk.”He goes on, “Vienna is never more Vienna than in Paris.Everything is raised to apotheosis.”

You realize this is true.All the same, you wonder as you pass a bewildered American couple in their own rented Twingo and giftshop Monet waterlily shirts, if they are currently dreaming back to Rochester.Then you consider shouting over to them if it would be possible to follow them.But they soon get cut off by a Vespa.

This reminds you that you’ll need to get off somewhere, but for the moment it’s simpler just to keep going in circles.

The first street you pass leads up a long hill to Montmartre where you’ll never find Amélie Poulain.

The next one leads to a restaurant your tastebuds aren’t yet ready for.

This next is Avenue de Wagram, named after a battle with the hope that Napoleon can still be a genius.

This one leads to Neuilly-sur-Seine where Nicholas Sarkozy used to be the district man in charge and where everyone is a good Catholic and just about to leave for vacation en masse and à la mer.

This one goes to La Défense, the sequestered business hub where the father of the family from Neuilly works and where a larger, scarier arc looms.

This one goes to the Bois de Boulogne park where the prostitutes come in and out of the woods and still believe in fishnets.

This one goes to the 16th arrondissement, where you’ll be able to afford nothing.

This street leads to the Eiffel Tower where English-speaking men hawk Eiffel Tower miniatures with the words “Made in Hong Kong” etched into their undersides.

This one goes to the modern art museum, the one from which a genuine art thief recently relieved curators of several Picassos and Matisses.

This one will get you back on the Champs Élysées, but by now you’re enjoying veering left.

The next street is a cliché, a full-blown stunning cliché where each building looks like a world heritage site and one wrought-iron balcony alone could be a work of art, though this particular avenue is lined on three stories with a balcony like this at every window as far as your eye can see.There’s an opening in traffic.You could go this way.You could take the road directly out of the city past all the history, past the larger modern orbit on the outskirts known as the Périphérique, and all the way to the Atlantic.

But you might as well take another tour around the circle.You might as well stay, because it’s Bastille Day and because the French don’t call it that at all and because it’s summer and because you are not the first or the last American in Paris and because it might be a cliché and the Google ad said you might meet a French girl here and fall in love and live out the rest of your life on this soil because this city swimming in clichés has managed, once again, to remind you why a cliché becomes such in the first place and why, because there’s no viable substitute, this might as well be the center of the world.

You take the star in full once more as the lights twinkle on and you’re only able to keep going.

 

TAGS: , , , , , , , , , , ,

NATHANIEL MISSILDINE lives in Dijon, France with his wife and two daughters. He is the author of the 2012 travel memoir SAVE FOR FIREFLIES as well as a recently completed novel. Online writings, by turns comical and puzzling, are on display over at nathanielmissildine.com.

19 responses to “Driving the Star”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    Nathaniel,

    Is there really a car called a “Twingo?”
    Sounds to me like walking, even in that heat, is a better idea.

    • nmissildine says:

      Oh the Twingo is real alright. And yes, walking is an infinitely better idea, unless you need to add a little more adventure to your visit. Thanks for the comment, Irene.

  2. Zara Potts says:

    Terrific piece, Nathaniel! You captured everything so well!
    I could totally relate to the crazy driving -having just had an experience of driving through Manhattan. But this was lovely. Lovely turn of phrase and lovely colour palette you used.
    Oh and ‘Whorehouse of Shit’ may now be my favourite phrase.
    P.S – I’m with Irene – A Twingo?? seriously?

    • nmissildine says:

      Driving in Manhattan deserves its own piece, as well as its own expression akin to ‘whorehouse of shit’ though I’m sure the locals there aren’t lacking for creative expletives either. Hope your experience wasn’t too hair-raising.

      Anyway, thanks for your kind comments, Zara.

  3. Andrew Nonadetti says:

    I actually laughed out loud at “…in a sign he’s either trying like you, or rather hoping you will please cease to try.” And the idea of insurance companies adopting a “here there be tygers/shit happens” attitude about a given landmark? Awesome.

    Actually, the whole damned thing was awesome. I will be spinning counterclockwise in my head all day :). Thanks, Nathaniel.

    • nmissildine says:

      Glad I could add a little laughter and awesomeness to your day. I like to think that ‘here there be tygers/shit happens’ is the exact wording in the insurance agreement fine print. In fact, that phrase should generally just be employed more often. Thanks, Andrew.

  4. Joe Daly says:

    Nat-

    Hilarious, insightful, and very fun to read. When I think back on Paris, I remember it more for the dog-shit-smeared sidewalks than the methamphetamine-like driving that occurs on even the quietest of rues.

    One thing I’ve noticed about American tourists is that the vacation is not complete unless and until you arrive home and tell somebody about a random cafe that you found while there. The key is to describe this cafe with terms of heightened endearment, as if it holds a very special meaning to you, such that you always make it a point to visit this cafe while in Paris. Even if this was your first visit there. Even if said cafe was located in the lobby of the Marriott in which you were staying using points from your Marriott Rewards program.

    “Oh, whenever we’re in Paris, we always go to ‘The Big Apple Cafe’ for coffee in the morning.”

    Good stuff, Nat- thanks for the morning travelogue!

    • nmissildine says:

      Yes, that tendency to proclaim whatever spot the tourist happened upon as the quintessential place to see is an especially acute problem in Paris. Even the zillions of guidebook authors seem to fall for this, telling people where the Best Espresso is or what’s the Best Kept Secret of the city, based on where they first stumbled out of their taxis. I’m quite sure if there’s a Big Apple Cafe in Paris (and likely there is) it’s currently got a line out the door and couples asking the servers to take their photos to show friends back home.

  5. Matt says:

    Damn, Nat, this was hysterical. Though I imagine if I ever make it to Paris I’ll stick to bicycle and public transport to get around. Or just let you do the driving.

    • nmissildine says:

      Yes, if your nerves can take it, stick with the bike. And if they’re really made of steel, I’d be happy to do the driving.

      Thanks for your comment, Matt.

  6. Greg Olear says:

    This is fantastic. We were in Paris on our honeymoon for a few days, and wow does this make me want to go back. (Which, with any luck, I will, when my book comes out in French in the spring.)

    We thought the Louvre was kind of dull — our theory was the Mona Lisa is famous because it’s the only painting in the whole museum that isn’t a crucifixion scene — but that the Eiffel Tower, for all our New York-style intent to snub our noses at such an obvious tourist trap, was breathtaking, like a roller coaster almost.

    Anyway, I loved this. Really nailed Paris.

    • nmissildine says:

      Thanks, Greg. Yeah, I recently took my kids through the Louvre for the first time and found myself forced to explain in each room the endless fascination with a guy being tortured to death by Romans. But like the Arc, the view from the Eiffel Tower, no matter how jaded a visitor may be, never ceases to astound.

  7. Simon Smithson says:

    “bordel de merde.”

    C’est magnifique, m’sieu!

    In all my imaginings of Paris, I’ve never considered the fact that it might get really hot.

    And I don’t know why.

    I guess that’s never been represented to me in pictures.

    • nmissildine says:

      I think it’s precisely because the weather in France is assumed to be forever balmy, that any amount of summer swelter becomes almost unbearable.

      Thanks for your comment, I find bordel de merde magnifique too.

  8. dwoz says:

    bordel de merde…

    I have a french question. In theatre, the actors say to one another, “break a leg.”

    The ballet dancers, however, say something that sounds very much like “merde.”

    Is there some other word very close to merde=shit, that means “luck?”

    because bordel de luck would seem much more…I dunno…like a tourist slogan?

    • nmissildine says:

      I had to check with my wife about this one. Apparently, they do indeed say ‘merde’ and it’s bad luck to respond thank you. When I asked why anyone would say ‘thank you’ to the word ‘shit’ in the first place, she said, like so many things with the French language, ‘that’s just the way we do it.’

      The bordel of luck I think is in Pigalle…or else Amsterdam.

  9. But Napoleon was a genius! At least three times. I wasn’t previously under the impression that the Obelisk was a “gift” so much as it was dragged by horse for a very long way under dubious circumstances… “it’s where you will no longer be able to avoid taking at least one turn.”…great line.

    • nmissildine says:

      For the Obelisk, from what I understand, some say ‘gift,’ some say ‘war prize’ and Mitterand tried to call the whole thing off. I personally wish they’d just bring back the refreshing frankness of the guillotine. Thanks for the comment, Sean.

  10. Marni Grossman says:

    I went to Paris when I was 15 and I was in awe. But now the memory is fading a bit. Time to go back, no?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *