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Paris brings out the superlatives
by Jake Highton
Aug 30, 2008 | 586 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
PARIS — This is the greatest city in the world. It overflows with priceless art. It abounds in fine museums and famous and historic landmarks.

But August is a terrible time to visit. Many Parisians shutter their businesses then, leaving the city to the hordes of worldwide tourists who rob Paris of much of its pleasure.

Contemplation of the “Venus de Milo” and the “Mona Lisa” in the Louvre is impossible because of the swarms of people with their constant photographing.

Nevertheless, Paris is worth enduring such a pestilence.

Père Lachaise, for instance, is the best cemetery in the world. It houses the famous like Molìere amid the thousands of nonentities buried in a jumble of graves.

The city of the dead has streets, avenues and boulevards lined with trees. One street leads to the tomb of Oscar Wilde. A sign warns visitors not to deface it. But they do, smoothering it with lipstick kisses, scrawling messages in many languages and sullying it with graffiti.

A must visit at Père Lachise for leftists is the wall where 147 Communards were slaughtered by French firing squads in 1871. Not everyone has forgotten the noble socialist Commune. On the day I visited a fresh pot of deep red roses was placed before the wall.

You can spend hours looking for the graves of the celebrated but one section not to be missed is dedicated to the dead in the Nazi concentration camps. A particularly moving memorial is a bronze skeleton twisted in the agony of a frightful death.

Another celebrity buried in Père Lachaise is Edith Piaf, chanteuse who wrote “La Vie en Rose.” She once said: “I don’t believe in God but I believe in St. Teresa.” Worldwide believers in St. Teresa of Lisieux included the saintly Doris Day of Catholic Worker fame.

Paris is full of those detestable McDonald’s and Starbucks, global capitalism having spread its ugly tentacles. No self-respecting Frenchman goes into such places. … The Michelin guide to superb dining in France is now global. It lists 66 three-star restaurants in 10 countries. Namely: 26 in France, 9 in Germany, 8 in Japan, 7 in Spain, 5 in Italy, 4 in America, 3 in Britain, 2 in Switzerland 1 in Belgium and 1 in the Netherlands.

Paris is indeed the city of love. Lovers embrace, kiss lingeringly along the banks of the Seine, on park benches, under arcades and in Métro stations. … Cellphones are as ubiquitious in Paris and as annoying as they are in America. Anyone yakking on a cell is not a serious person.

The International Herald Tribune reports that President Bush has approved the execution of a soldier convicted of rape and murder, the first such action by a U.S. president since 1957.

Bush is retrograde by only 175 years. Lamartine, poet, politician and historian, denounced capital punishment in the French National Assembly in 1833.

Le Monde is France’s best newspaper, going into depth as only the New York Times does in America. But Homer sometimes nods.

Le Monde reported twice in one story that Teddy Roosevelt was re-elected in 1904. He was not, first gaining office through assassination. The same story referred to Walter Lippmann, newspaper guru of yesteryear, as Lippman. Hardly federal cases. But once an editor always an editor, even in another language.

Balzac, great French author of “Le Père Goriot,” was addicted to coffee. His sole objection: “Coffee only makes boring people more boring.” Which is another way of saying that teetotalers can be bores.

Napoléon, still a hero in France because he brought it la gloire, lies in a beautiful sarcophagus in Les Invalides. But the truth is he sold out the French Revolution. And, as poet Alfred de Vigny wrote, “He sacrificed his country to his personal ambitions.”

It’s a truism that you can’t go home again. Another might be that you shouldn’t visit the same place again. I didn’t mind the one-hour wait to climb the 400 steps of the tower of Notre Dame. But at the top I was enclosed in wire netting and could not walk among the wonderful gargoyles as I did years ago. Ditto at Stonehenge. Decades ago I was able to walk among the monoliths. Today, alas, you cannot.

At the west end of the Isle de la Cité where the Pont Neuf crosses the Seine stands a fine statue of King Henry IV, le vert galant (ladies’ man). He’s astride a horse, bearded, smiling.

He switched from Protestanism to Catholicism in 1590 to secure the French crown, remarking: “Paris vaut bien une messe.” (Paris is well worth a mass.)

Indeed it is.

Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno.
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