An article? A "think piece"? An indulgent journal of an LA cinephile? It's all part of my non-reviews in 'Wide Angle'
There used to be a dress code at the Chateau de Versailles, in the days when French statesmen from Louis XIV to Louis Napoleon to Clemenceau paced its opulent drawing rooms. These days it is host to hordes of tourists who crowd the barriers to take pictures of chairs and mouldings and murals. They come in their Dockers shorts, their sleeveless shirts, their baseball caps. They buy tricolor umbrella hats sold by the African immigrants just outside the gates and ward off the sun while standing in line to enter the estate. They traipse around in those ubiquitous neon rubber clogs that resemble a hunk of Swiss cheese co-designed by Nike and Lisa Frank. Not all of the wearers are American.
I am the type of overseas traveler who looks at a foreign country and doesn’t consider it so much exotic as, well, foreign. The roads in Paris are choked with automobiles, but with Audi, Peugeot, and Citroen replacing the familiar Ford, Chevy, and Toyota. The use of the car horn as a method of communication is happily – and loudly – universal.
You don’t get a menu when you go to a café. If you do, then you’ve been outed as a tourist. True Parisians will decipher (or memorize, if it’s a favored brasserie) the scribbles on a chalkboard leaning against the building’s façade and squeeze into the tiny glute-shaping chairs on the sidewalk in front of tiny tables. This is another strategy for exposing tourists – even if you are a svelte American, you will nonetheless be caught off guard by chairs that would make more sense crammed into the bleachers of Fenway Park or the eighth row of a 747. I’m assuming that the question “Table or booth?” does not have a French translation.
This practice is wildly discordant with French culinary traditions, where cheese fondue with roasted duck and creamed potatoes qualifies as a light lunch. And dessert is not merely an upsell in France – it’s a delicious, delicious art. The waiters will largely ignore you while you eat, but that’s the point. The check doesn’t come until you ask for it. At some establishments you may have to apologize for not having exact change (the customer is most certainly not always right in France), but any culture that considers giant cups of hot cocoa a year-round staple passes my hospitality litmus test.
A long line for an art museum is unthinkable in the States, yet occurs with regularity in Paris. As I queued up for the Musée d’Orsay, I noticed that there was no wait to enter the Legion of Honor museum directly across the plaza. Access to the National Military Museum was similarly expeditious. Perhaps Paris is an eminently conquerable city, but it does have plenty of historical treasure to match its cultural treasure thanks to a 16-year winning streak that ended only when Napoleon’s half-court heave clanked off the back of the rim.
I’ve always assumed that there were more barriers than I could see in travel, perhaps because the physical proposition seemed so exhausting. But once you beat the jet lag, you realize that the world has spent centuries making itself more accessible to more people. Paris is like that. It’s rather friendly once you have a map and a few poorly-pronounced French phrases – and even if you insist on wearing Crocs.