Friday, 14 September 2012

Postcard from Paradise

During the halcyon days since mid August, when summer finally arrived, I have been  picnicking with my pals in the Tuileries, sipping fizz and nibbling smoked salmon salads.
One glorious Sunday, I was on my way to share an early aperetif with a friend who had just returned form a week’s fashion course in London. As we walked towards the gate, she carrying some artisanal goats cheeses and the boxes of sumptuous fruit salad that she invariable brings to our feasts, and I carrying the bottle and glasses, we passed a mother who was hauling up the pants of a toddler who had just been peeing against a lime tree.
“Oh,” she sighed, “There is something so hopeless about Paris.” She added that in London she and her fellow students had been whizzed all over the city and the suburbs. In trains and tubes and streets from Shoreditch to Knightsbridge, they had not failed to be impressed by the energy of the Londoners. “Wherever we went, rich or poor areas, they were all getting on with it,” she said. In Paris, a city still, in these hard times, more dedicated to pleasure than pursuit of professional priorities, there is a marked difference of pace and one cannot help noticing an apparent lack of motivation. While in London one overhears snatches of mobile phone conversations as the speaker strides past--usually all about business, in Paris, the mobile phoners are talking about their last meal or holiday. One constantly hears the words ‘manger’ (to eat) or ‘vacances’ (holiday). Well I’m not against it but the flabbiness of the atmosphere zaps one’s energy.
Recently, I was returning from London where I had raced from one dynamic meeting to another and was still exhilarated: but as I emerged from my local Metro on Avenue de l’Opera,  (the Mayfair of Paris) it was raining, and the street deserted. Two sloppily dressed girls, one pushing a pram, were waddling along in my path. Immediately all my London energy sprang a leak and I felt tired out.
It was that same hopeless atmosphere upon which my friend had remarked.
I can’t say its universal but it is prevalent and some of it may be due to the 35 hour week which floods the streets with people who have more leisure than they know what to do with, no ambition and no motivation except the next rendezvous with their friends.
My neighbourhood attracts tourists in large numbers. Rue St Honoré, around the corner form my building is usually congested with strolling groups of Italians (yes, they are still spending!) or other tourists. They slop along gazing at the shop windows.
My quartier is a former residential neighbourhood that has been colonized by offices. Lately an extraordinary number of those have had “To Let” notices posted on their windows. Is this a sign of the times? Rents are prohibitively high and the cost of office space often includes a year’s rent in advance as a guarantee, not to mention legal deposits and refurbishment.  Businesses that can function in suburbs outside Paris such as Levallois, Courbevois and La Defence, find it cheaper to do so.
Empty offices don’t make it any easier to find an apartment, but, they do diminish the crush at my local Monoprix in the early evenings, except when the tourists outnumber the remaining workers.
Perhaps this contributes to the sluggish atmosphere that pervades the streets as day shoppers, pram pushers and 35 hour a week leisured classes take over from the dark suited business workers (some of whom now jog off their suppressed energy in the Tuileries).
Yes, there is recession in France--hidden in Paris due to the fact that over 40 percent of the city’s workers are government employees. They may not have much spare cash, but their spending masks the private sector’s decline. They have jobs for life. But, that hardly creates an exuberant economic atmosphere.
As for the sense of hopelessness, I am reminded of a visit to Washington DC, long before I met my American husband and lived there. A student on my first US trip, I met a man from Brazil. He said he was Austrian (a euphemism for relocated Nazi). He told me, wearily, “South America is the Continent of infinite impossibilities and North America is the land of infinite possibilities.” He exuded an air of hopelessness.
In France even the most talented and energetic find it hard to move forward, to advance professionally, to create or build enterprises—reminiscent of the UK in the 1970’s when socialism suffocated initiative. The tax system limits ambition and enterprise.
Meanwhile, my small apartment is a powerhouse of projects in progress. And there is still the joy of  meetings with my workaholic lover, who finds solutions to every problem.
Pour me another one, please!