The runways at CDG run flat, as they should, among swells of rolling land. The terminals on this wavy terrain are of a circular construction. Inside, long travelators running from the gates to immigration fall off first, then run level, and rise back up in a long ramp. A second walking aid, a set of escalators this time, carry you steeply up to the exits. The escalators sway as you rise, surprising the first-time user of this variation of the device. In sum, this airport is different, which it has to be in the hands of the creative French. After a few visits you begin to like the airport, in the way that you develop a taste for their dry wines and their myriad makes of cheese.
Our first meal was at Cafe St. Andre, where they fulfilled our vegan needs with an assiette of vegetables and rice. On subsequent days, at the Cafe Paris on rue Buci, we picked a table inside whereas everybody else sat on the sidewalk, as they do in Paris, and the only vegan we could get was a pasta arabbiatta. A French business partner took us to dinner at Les Editeurs, off St. Germain Boulevard. The colour red ruled the place and its walls were lined with hundreds of books. They brought us a bowl of boiled potatoes and artichokes sprinkled with herbs, and a bowl of thick green cold soup, all of which tasted very good — the flavours coming out in full in the rich ambience.
A day later, a key customer hosted us at Le Procope, where earlier patrons have been Voltaire, Danton, Benjamin Franklin, and such. Here we ate grilled vegetables steeped in olive oil. I’ve been to this restaurant on a previous trip, and I’d asked then, at the door before they took me inside, if they can manage a vegan meal for me. “No,” I’d been told. It helped that we had a Parisian host this time, who got the folks to work something out for us.
Afterward, when we were altogether on our own, we settled on a corner restaurant in St. Michel with a view to the Scene. The vegan selection there was only a list of sides: "exotic" rice, mushrooms, french fries, cold quinoa, and beans and thin-sliced carrots. We ordered for them all, and they came in white china, each dish in a tiny bowl, the set of them on a curvy plate — in the fashion of the Indian thali. We ate with the gusto we take to the thali.
The Paris Air Show at Le Bourget
We were in Paris for the Air Show. The show was hot, the weather hotter. On the RER trains that we rode to the fairgrounds, the systems struggled with the cooling, whereas on the free shuttle from the RER station to the venue we received a twice-daily introduction to hell. We were all races and nationalities, crammed into those steaming buses. But everybody endured the ride with impressive forbearance, sitting in silence, working hand phones and speaking in low murmurs. As regards me, I held out a smiling face; and within, I cursed and cursed all the way.
Evenings, the western civilisation was put to the test. The minders were fewer than in the mornings, and ineffective, their energy drained by the day's toils in torrid 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. 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 end of order in the evolved western world?
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 St. 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. The men with rifles gazed with detached eyes, assessing everyone, engaging with none. Other policemen stood by, easy, but also watching. When I passed a van by a drinking fountain, the beats from a group of Afro drummers proved too hard for a young policeman to resist. He broke into a quick jig and stopped.
The most important thing, for me, is that I went to the Louvre. I went straight to the Denon wing, turned into the gallery of Italian paintings, made for the Mona Lisa. People milled before the lady, but I could stand undisturbed on the left periphery and gaze. She did not disappoint, holding composure and being herself despite this daily assault by thousands. Some visitors looked at her in wonder; most others shot away. A blue phosphorescence issued from the canvas on which she lives. She returned and outlasted my gaze.