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.