Carnival of light and terror

IMG_6059You’ve been warned. Signs at every major tourist destination indicate Paris teems with pickpockets. In case you don’t read French, the signs are in English. In case you don’t speak English or French, a drawing of a figure with one hand in another person’s pocket and a big red X over that activity spells it out for you.

It’s clear you’re about to fall prey to Parisian thieves. Sly, slender French fingers with incredible itches twitch nervously between victims who mill innocently about at the Louvre as they try to get the perfect angle for a selfie with the Mona Lisa using the full extensions on the ultra nerdy extender arms attached to their cameras. Nimble hands work deftly through taut back pockets at the top of the Eiffel Tower as visitors cranes their necks to make out a cathedral down below. At the top of the Arch D’Triumphe, the Eiffel Tower glitters in the distance while stolen purses recede quickly down the Champs Elysee.

There’s something about unruly cities. Edgy. Scruffy places. It lends them a mystique. A sheen of mystery and romance. Anything could happen at any moment. We felt that way when we lived in New York City for two years, but only for about the first two months of that time. The feeling faded quickly as we kept not getting stabbed, raped and robbed as we roved all over the city. And it seemed lower Manhattan had gotten incredibly dull and boringly secure before we got there and no one had bothered to tell us. The real danger zones and fierce artistic creativity had moved to Brooklyn. But Brooklyn was already starting to lose its edge with gentrifiaction. So was Harlem. You had to go to The Bronx to feel like you’d been somewhere really off the map where dragons prowled the dark and the next big creative thing was boiling to the surface under the pressure of poverty and desire.

Coming into Paris from Charles de Gaulle Airport, I noticed graffiti lined the roadway. Graffiti is a sign of urban unrest. Recent graffiti artists in New York City making the transition to respected artists making money from their craft are just another sign that the City that Never Sleeps is losing its edge.

On a segway tour of Paris, we learned that most of Napoleon is buried at the Cathedral of Two Domes. But a vital part of him was taken by an English doctor who performed his autopsy and eventually sold at auction. It now resides in New Jersey. Say what you want about Napoleon, but he never lost his edge. You can’t remove his mojo postmortem.

We like Paris this way. A little edgy. Dangerous. Of course, we don’t want anything bad to happen to us. Just the possibility that it might is enough. After working our way up ten thousand steps to the top of the Arch D’Triomphe, we took in the magical view. Then I stopped inside a gift shop. (There is always a gift shop. Even the 911 memorial had one.)

The book I bought in the gift shop was “Paris, the Secret History,” by Andrew Hussey. In the introduction, he noted that the English artist Ralph Rumney likened Paris to the “corpse of an old whore.” That seemed harsh. Hussey summed up the beauty and danger of the city saying, “Paris has always been a carnival of light and terror.”

The worst that happened to us during our brief visit was that we paid way too much for mediocre food at an outside cafe on the Champs Elysee and overtipped the waiter who lied convincingly about service not being included on the bill when it definitely was. We felt a pang of regret when we realized our mistake. But the incident left no lasting scars.

I picture a thousand frustrated French pickpockets cursing our plane it leaves the runway for Amsterdam. “Zut alors,” they shout. And “merde.”

Carnival of light and terror

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