The other day I met a friend I hadn’t seen for a long time. The occasion was not a happy one. We were in the Parisian apartment of a recently deceased friend where we had been invited to choose, if we wished, a memento, something material by which to remember her.
These moments are always a mixture of sadness (why am I standing in this place when its occupant is no longer here?) and fond memories. Mine were of parties at my friend’s wonderful apartment right on the Boulevard Saint-Germain where she lived for many years, and later, after she moved, strolls in the nearby Jardin des Plantes. We also lunched, slurping down Phos in Chinese or Vietnamese restaurants near the Opera or, moving upscale, enjoying good French food and wine at more upscale establishments. Even when she was being treated for lung cancer, we would meet at a lovely restaurant near her place for an elegant meal. I admired that. I admired her.
My friend was the Paris Bureau Chief of Life magazine when I first met her some 40 years ago when I was a stringer at Time and we worked in the same building. When Life bit the dust, my friend became a freelancer, something she had never bargained for nor desired. She worked both as a writer and an editor – and as the editor of European Travel & Life, a prestigious glossy that no longer exists, unfortunately) dreamed up articles that suited the interests and specialties of her journalist friends. In fact, the articles I worked on with her were the genesis of my first book, French Toast. She had a sharp eye and sharp wit and was kind, but she wouldn’t tolerate missed deadlines (I never tried her on that) or sloppy work. When she sent her writers out on travel assignments, she checked to see that all was well but never hounded us in any way. She respected our work and brought out the best in each of her writers. Her name was Judy Fayard and all who knew her miss her optimism, high standards, sense of hard work and fun and joie de vivre.
But I digress.
Standing in her soon to be emptied out apartment, our mutual friend, a well-known food writer, smiled at me and said “I really enjoy your posts on Facebook and agree with you entirely.” I admit I didn’t know what he was talking about. Which posts? I’m not exactly a Facebook fiend and post sporadically.
Seeing my blank expression, he added: “the ones on Paris and how awful it’s become.” He paused: “I’m even thinking about leaving, going down to the south of France. Paris has become just another city, large, noisy, polluted and dangerous with all these cycles and scooters on the sidewalks.”
I froze. Were we really having this conversation? Then I remembered my latest Facebook post in which I observed that Paris was “eminently elegant but barely liveable”. It was illustrated by pictures showing the torn up streets and plazas as extensive renovation takes place in every part of the city. I was/am sincerely upset at seeing “my” Paris become one big “chantier” (construction site). Not all the results are good: one of my posts showed the redone Place de la Pantheon, one of Paris’ most emblematic sites, with its new “benches” – basic wooden planks that are ugliness personified and spoil the beauty of the site. I’ve seen those same benches pop up in other places in the city and can’t understand the logic: they are so uncomfortable you can’t even sit on them!
So, yes, we really were having this conversation and the reason I froze is that at least two other longtime dear friends who have been in Paris as long as I have (almost fifty years) are currently saying the same thing: “Paris isn’t what it used to be! I don’t want to grow old here. The sidewalks aren’t safe. The air is polluted. The noise is unbearable!”
We came, you see, as young people with vim and vigor. So of course when we remember the Paris that was, perhaps we are also remembering our youth, which is gone. In our defence, though, I have to say that none of us are blasé or bored. We still love this place – but we’re disappointed lovers. Some of us grin and bear it, others are making plans to leave or have already left.
One friend, who has a charming apartment in an ancient building in front of a square in the Marais that attracts tourists like flies, simply can’t stand the crowds and the noise. At one point the apartment above him became an AirBnB with renters on holiday noisily pounding up the stairs late at night and turning on the washing machine at 4 am. This friend now rents his place and divides his time between southern France and Italy. Yet another friend, who was as starry-eyed as I was when she came decades ago, then met and married her French husband, has rented a place in Brittany so she can get out of Paris as often as possible. For those two, and for many others, the solution seems to be to own and have something in Paris but get away as often as possible. I wager that even if my food writer friend makes good on his plan to leave, he’ll buy a tiny place to stay in when he comes “up” to Paris – because truth be told, no one who has lived in Paris can entirely abandon it.
My personal take on this? There are days – many days – when I curse the trash bin laden, electric scooter strewn streets of Paris as I try with difficulty to navigate them. I’ve even basically stopped taking the long and wandering walks through Paris that I once so enjoyed. Will things ever get back to normal after the construction binge ends? We all wonder. In the meantime, I too flee to the provinces as often as I can.
And why not? As Henry James wrote more than a hundred years ago in his classic book, A Little Tour in France, “France may be Paris, but Paris is not France”.