Last Week, In Paris

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The runways at CDG run flat, as they should, among swells of rolling land. The terminals on this wavy terrain are a circular construction. Inside, long travelators running from the gates to immigration fall off first, then run level, and rise back up. In the stretch to the exits, another set of travelators climb steep to the upper level, the belts shaking beneath the feet as they work upward. This airport is different. But then, there's the fact of French achievement in art and architecture, and one develops through repeat visits a taste for this airport, like the drinking type who develop a taste for French wine.

Our first meal was at Cafe St. Andre, where we were served an assiette of vegetables and rice. On subsequent days, at the Cafe Paris on rue Buci, we picked a table inside whereas everybody sat on the sidewalk, and the only vegan we could eke out there was an arabbiatta. A French business partner took us to dinner at Les Editeurs, off St. Germain Boulevard. The color red ruled the place and its walls were lined with hundreds of books. They brought us a bowl of boiled potatoes and artichokes touched by herb and a bowl of thick green cold soup, all of which tasted good with the flavors coming out in full in the rich ambience. A key customer hosted us at Le Procope, where earlier patrons have been Voltaire, Danton, Benjamin Franklin, and such. Here we ate grilled vegetables dosed with herbs and olive oil. Looking later for vegan-focused joints, we were pulled into a nice-looking restaurant on the corner from our hotel, with a view to the Seine. It had large splashes of green on the menu displayed outside. Inside, the handed menu ran several pages, with many organic references, but the only vegan on it was a list of sides: "exotic" rice, mushrooms, french fries, cold quinoa, and beans and thin-sliced carrots. We ordered the entire list, and they arrived in white china, each dish in a bowl and the set of them on a curvy plate — in the fashion of the Indian thali. We ate with the same vigor we approach the thali.

We were in Paris for the Air Show. The show was hot, the weather hotter. On the RER the systems struggled with the cooling but the ride was still okay, whereas on the free shuttle from the RER station to the fairgrounds we received a twice-daily feel of hell. In the morning most folks lined up for the buses, and those who jumped were graciously ignored. The minders sent into each bus a first batch to fill the seating, a second batch for standing, and a final few to fill spaces left. Then making sure the bus had no room for a mouse even, they waved it on and called the next bus. Like this we traveled in universal brotherhood the last mile, black and brown and white and strong and weak and man and woman and rich and poor and Christian and Hindu and Muslim and atheist all pressed together for a torturous half hour for the short jammed distance to the fairgrounds. Everybody seemed to endure the ride with impressive forbearance, steaming people in a sealed bus, working hand phones and speaking in murmurs, doing perhaps what I was doing, being calm outside, cursing within.

Evenings, the western civilization was put to the test. The minders were fewer than in the mornings, and ineffective, their energy drained by the day's heat. Visitors crowded the bus stops at the fairgrounds, many smart ones edging and sneaking through to the front. When the bus arrived people forced their way in, rather like in our India, even if not so badly. One evening, a man behind me, squeezing in with the others, said, "It's happening, it's happening, I'm going to vomit." Did he mean the demise of order and the consequent decline of the evolved west? Grand line, but thoughts like these roiled me in the heat of Paris.

There was time in the week to go about Paris a bit, to watch Parisians enjoy Midsummer's Day on June 21, and listen to music by buskers who'd taken every available public space. Each had an audience, some a half dozen, some even a hundred. While we lingered in Saint Michel the police arrived in six opaque vans. Doors opened and men in blue jumped out and took positions under the trees, by the bus stops, at the fountains, and whereas the men with rifles gazed with detached eyes, assessing but not engaging anyone, their other colleagues stood by the vans, alert to calls to action. When I passed a van by a drinking fountain, a youngish policeman broke into a gig, lured by the Afro drummers before him.

The most important thing, for me, is that I went to the Louvre, and went straight to the Denon wing, to the gallery of Italian paintings, to the Mona Lisa. There was a constant throng before the lady, but I could stand undisturbed on the periphery to her left and gaze. She did not disappoint, holding her composure and being herself in spite of this daily assault by the thousands, by some who look, and some who look and shoot, and others who come to shoot only. A blue phosphorescence issued from her direction, and through it she returned and outlasted my gaze. I'm shaken by her still.