From The Sunday Times
Motormouth: John Aizlewood
Down and out Paris
Ah, Paris. The Arc de Triomphe. The Eiffel Tower. The Seine. It’s the city of love, the Saigon of Europe, a modern yet timeless First World city that functions more efficiently than any other. It’s a place so devoted to its inhabitants that, apropos of nothing save joie de vivre, it constructs an urban beach in the summer. Paris is a byword for chic sophistication, for romance and for a certain je ne sais quoi. There was even a season invented for Paris: spring. Paris in springtime? It’s like fall in Vermont. Why don’t we all go and live there?
Well, chiefly because Paris isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But try mentioning this at any social gathering, from a chic dinner party to a rowdy evening at the dog track, and you will be mocked. To not like Paris is, apparently, to be clubbed by the cudgel of uncivilised, unaesthetic ignorance. But let’s say it anyway: Paris is a ghastly place.
Approaching the city via the Eurostar gives clues as to what lies ahead. There are the evil high-rise estates that hug the Périphérique, where the Algerians whom the pieds-noirs didn’t annihilate during the war of independence were dumped. Today, when not burning cars, these apparent barbarians at the gate strike fear into the heart of those Parisians who assume the 8th arrondissement will be under sharia (Islamic law) before the week is out. And then you arrive at the Gare du Nord, a terminus so unremittingly seedy it makes King’s Cross seem like Buckingham Palace.
We’re there now. And what do we see? Unspeakably beautiful lovers gambolling in the sunshine?
Smiling moustachioed men in hooped shirts shaping croissants? We do not, but we might see an elderly prostitute plying her trade and if we’re really lucky we might flee the station concourse without being offered class-A drugs.
Let’s not beat around le bush here. Paris sucks. Its food is mostly vile. The natives are shockingly surly. It is too crowded, except for those two whole months in high summer when sentient Parisians head out, leaving the city to platoons of nouveau riche Chinese tourists, the only ones who can afford the gross overpricing.
Paris also smells. It’s a foul aroma, part drains untouched since Napoleon and part meat left out in the summer sun. It was present in the city’s finest hotel, the George V, when I stayed there and it was there in a grim budget boutique hotel I foolishly spent a night in somewhere in the bowels of Montmartre. It’s there in the restaurants and it’s there atop the Eiffel Tower (estimated queueing time one hour; estimated percentage of available lifts in use 50). Nowhere on earth smells like it (that’s not praise by the way).
And then there’s the food. I’ve eaten high and low in Europe’s theoretical gastronomic capital. I’ve had stale croissants, I’ve had unidentifiable fatty meat and I’ve had sauerkraut when I asked for fish. I’ve also had lukewarm pasta and scalding snails and I’ve had fusion food that managed to fuse the least edible cuisines of three continents. But I’ve never had a great meal and Starbucks invariably does a better coffee.
But, say the sophisticates, isn’t Paris beautiful? Doesn’t it stir your innermost passions? Not really, no. For a start the pavements are too narrow. And the buildings are brutally tasteless. In fact the hideous mansions of Avenue Foch are so tasteless that Mobutu Sese Seko, the former Zairean dictator, who had one at No 20, didn’t choose to alter the decor.
No matter. As they say: we’ll always have Paris. More’s the pity.