Fifty seven years ago, 17 years after the end of World War II, when as a young Army Intelligence officer I first arrived in Europe, Paris was still Paris, very French, very much itself.
Today, it has become a Paris struggling to retain its own identity under an American social avalanche. No, that’s a bit unfair. For much of the not so subtle American influence on Paris is shared with the World War II victors Canada and the United Kingdom.
The influence of these World War II victors requires some explanation. First, the ancient Paris still dominates by its architecture. The old buildings, usually four to six floors tall, retain “the look” of Paris.
The Seine is a wide, rather dirty brown river flowing to the Atlantic, an eternally enticing river that sets the style of Paris. The Eiffel Tower still commands respect, the various gardens and many tiny neighborhood parks are islands of sanity.
No giant New York City skyscrapers have been built in Paris. For that we may remain thankful. But, beneath that initial reminder of old Paris has emerged a far subtler Victors’ Paris.
This Victors’ Paris is identified not by architecture, but by the emergence of the American trait of frantic rush. Paris too has become a place in a pressured hurry toward who-knows-what?
The street cafes may appear unique, but they now under the surface are far too similar to our American fast food places: the meals are too neatly packaged, the prices almost all the same citywide.
It takes a few days to catch on. Then it begins to dawn on you: Paris has become an International playground for those with enough money to seek in among its old architecture the old Paris.
From every corner of the globe, it is filled with affluent people: Japanese, Chinese, Western European, American, Eastern European, Russian, African. They fill the streets, and the streets have coagulated into a marketplace meeting the evolving tastes and demands of their visitors.
It is a Capitalism insuring that the world’s citizens may continue their orgy of over consuming. It is all done with a panache that is uniquely Parisian, but the Victor’s mark is indelibly superimposed.
For example, Café au lait used to mean an actual carafe of hot breakfast coffee and one of warm milk, which you could yourself mix on your outdoor street side table at a local Bistro. Now, a machine in every tiny restaurant produces the coffee and milk combination.
When my first day I asked at breakfast for café au lait, my young waitress asked if I meant Café Crème or a Latte? Today’s young Parisian has forgotten what café au lait used to be – a human touch presented with style and class.
Not today. Now it’s a digitally efficient drink created by a machine and placed on the table by a smart-phone-distracted waiter or waitress, so the buyer can quickly down it, pay, and make room for the next consumer.
Paris seems to have morphed into the frenetic speed trap that identifies every city in America. Rush is pandemic. Car horns are king. Bravado and aggression rule the day. If you stroll casually, you get bumped aside by the crowd.
Ahh, progress! Adjusting to its pandemonium is absolutely vital to simple survival. There are still rewards, however. Paris is still addicted to art. Original paintings fill all the streets in tiny gallery after tiny gallery.
The variety of incredible art is astounding. But more astounding to my stored memories of Paris is the enlarged art of consuming. Saved by the profound good taste of the French, the wild profusion of shops sells everything imaginable.
French women’s fashion is still without doubt the ultimate in simplicity and good taste. Nothing America produces come near it. Men’s clothing too is so fine, so alive with clean design sense.
No man dresses like Donald Trump in Paris. That, I assure you. Baggy blue pen-striped tents and mile-long ties are not considered good taste by the French.
But suddenly, I notice I have written of shallow impressions, rather than what I intended this to be. I thought I’d start with a view of America and its politics as seen from Paris, but the atmosphere of Paris obviously took away my breath and led me astray.
I still sense that the French are holding onto their historically-inherent curiosity and intelligence, plus their long-range vision for what constitutes, at the end of all fleeting fads, a belief in the concept of civilization.
I imagine they are putting up with the essentially planet-wide consuming invasion, assured in their minds that things will eventually return to more normal, that they – if no one else – will eventually be able to reestablish an inclination to strive for a better reason for being than just acquiring luxury.
Either that, or I have become in my maturing years an incurable fool, who still holds out hope that the human race really holds within itself the capacity for judging that its existence on this tiny planet has more meaning than – in an uncontrollably-insane rush – just buying the next new thing.
My next report will explore the Parisian perspective of the current lives of the Central American Refugees experiencing incredibly painful circumstances in the Mexican border towns. Not commonly front-page news anymore.
All due, of course, to the incredible lack of humane vision on the part of Donald Trump and his thirty-three million fanatically-near-sighted, self-absorbed followers.