Is there any escape from the Clinton scandal? Joe Tyburczy spends his hard-earned cash trying to find out if the legendary sophistication of the French can provide some relief.
THE PARISIAN EFFECT
by Joe Tyburczy
For months now, whether there's any new development or not, my TV set has featured a single program called "The White House in Crisis" comprised of endless blocks of ad-nauseum discussion devoted to the Clinton/Lewinsky affair. It's as if every television, radio, print, and Internet outlet in the galaxy have taken a solemn oath to provide me with exclusive coverage of the subject. 350-something days of this kind of saturation gives me, along with most Americans, a sickening familiarity with stock phrases appearing again and again in the mouths of burnt-out commentators with too much time to fill: "abuse of power"..."impeachable offense"..."high crimes and misdemeanors" and my personal favorite, "moral leadership".
I can't take it anymore. If I see the glare of studio lights refracting from James Carville's burnished scalp one more time I'm going to do an Elvis impression on my TV set. I examine my bank account and decide that an airline ticket is cheaper than Prozac and more effective in the long term than a year of cognitive therapy. A day later, I'm firmly wedged into seat 27C of a British Airways Boeing 767 hurtling down the runway at LAX, bound for France, a country who's idea of moral leadership is to prohibit honking your car horn within city limits unless you're about to hit a pedestrian.
Tabloids & Smoke. (Heathrow Airport, London)
In contrast to LAX, where international passengers were gripped in a photographic frenzy (star-struck euros flashed their Canons and zoomed their Sonys through every available window to capture images of the idle taxiways), London's Heathrow is a repository of the sullen layover crowd, shuffling zombie-like amidst a disturbingly glitzy shopping arcade.
I drift to a news stand to sample Clinton-Sex-Scandal headlines. Monica beams her Marlo Thomas smile from half a dozen tabloid covers. The British rags are acknowledged experts at this kind of stuff, favoring the use of 'Bill' over the more formal 'Clinton' or even the decidedly sassy 'Pres' for headlines. Deleriously free from the constraints of factual reporting, they feature quotes like "BILL: 'I TOUCHED HER QUIM'" and "MONICA: 'I SAVED BILL'S LOVE JUICE".
No one seems to be in any rush to buy this stuff, though. The few portly Colonel Blimpie-types and trench-coated business drones are gathered over in the more rewarding skin-mag rack studying detailed gynocologic centerfolds. Over in the paperback section, I note that Kansas native Bill Bryson dominates every paperback shelf in the room. Indeed, the "Travel Narrative" section (my favorite category) is bursting with Bryson stock. Master of adventure-travel-irony Tim Cahill is also well-represented, but his works sport a day-glo sticker that toots "writes like Bryson!".
Anyhow, I'm glad to see the Brits still know how to smoke up public buildings. No one (except the few Americans in attendance) seem disturbed in the least by the heavy cumulus formations of tar and nicotine floating on the ceiling of the terminal. Even though I'm sagging from the nine hour flight from LA, I dutifully light up the raunchiest stogie I can muster and paff noxious clouds skyward with everyone else.
Menaced By Thugs. (Gare St. Lazare, Paris)
The Roissy bus has dropped me off five blocks from the Gare Saint- Lazare train station. Normally it might be a pleasant walk, but today the sky opens up and pours buckets of cold, stinging rain on the city. Welcome to Paris. I am soaked to the skin and miserable with no sleep. I look bedraggled. An easy target. This is probably why I arouse the attention of the station's resident hoodlums who lurk in the abandoned platforms at the outer edges of the tracks, which I now traverse. They mutter indistinguishable phrases to me. Perhaps they feel that America's reputation has been diminished of late, and wish to point this out to me. Whatever it is, I don't really need French to translate their intentions. Like thugs the world over, they call out some meaningless diversionary question to me, like "Got the time?" or "Got a match?" in order to get me to stop and linger with them in the shadows. I shake my head and keep walking in the direction of the light, towards noise and people.
A massive ceiling of Victorian ironwork and dirty glass vaults high above a cement floor bustling with people. This is the same Gare Saint-Lazare that was transformed by Monet into an impressionist masterpiece more than a century ago. Today it's just a source of irritation to me. In the washroom I pay either one or one hundred dollars (I don't know which) for the privilege of entering a small toilet jammed with silent old men standing motionless at urinals. Outside, a quick scan reveals that there are no seats in the entire train station. No place to sit down.
A few people lean against the thin railing surrounding some advertising kiosks. I'm headed for the Normandy coast on a fool's errand. I figure if I go to the beaches that US citizens fought the last noble war on, then perhaps my delicate relationship with American culture will be restored. But the train to Bayeux won't leave for another 2 hours. I watch French women with noticeably thick calves and ankles pass by. I've gone 20-something hours without sleep and I suddenly dislike the French nation. "We should have let the Germans keep your country". I mentally beam this thought at passing French people, and somehow, it soothes me.
Johnny Halliday. (Normandy Coast)
Sunday morning in the little Bar-Tabac on Rue St. Jean, the main street of the village of Bayeux. It's cold, like winter in New England, and I badly misjudged the climate, packing only thin, Fall clothing.
I sit in one of three booths with a cup of dark, potent coffee and watch the rain slant down through the open doorway . The two teenagers working the counter exchange rapid-fire French with the customers that drift in and out, buyingGitanes and today's issue ofLe Monde. The French phrase for "oral love" and an appropriately cheery photo of Clinton appear on it's cover. The French kids are musically bilingual, shifting effortlessly from Tommy James and The Shondells to Parisian disco lyrics, singing along with a stack of CD's fed into a boombox. The music brings to mind last night's cultural experience, as I watched Johnny Halliday (who is the French version of Neil Diamond, as far as I can tell) in concert on the hotel room TV for lack of better offers. The sedulous Halliday is pushing 50, and showed it, his bones creaking in an ambitious display of stage gyrations.
So far during my stay in France, I dine only in selected delicatessens (charcuteries) and cafes (brasseries), buying sandwiches, bread, cheese, fruit, and light snacks, washed down with bottled water and Diet Coke. It's a complete accident that this turns out to be a very inexpensive meal plan never totalling over 40 or 50 francs per episode. By now, I've mastered the quick calculation necessary to convert dollars to francs and back again. (Roughly 5.5 francs to 1 US dollar. Divide by 5 and then add 5%. Or is it multiply by 0.150? Never mind).
The day before, I rented a bike, an old, one-speed clunker with nearly flat tires, and gamely pumped its pedals the five miles (I don't know from kilometers) to Arromanches, the site of totally unopposed D-Day landings by British and Canadian forces, to whom are dedicated several comically emotional monuments and an equally silly museum. I walked the tidal flats, trying to imagine what it was like to come ashore in this general neighborhood in a damp, smelly uniform over half a century ago and be greeted by other people in damp, smelly uniforms who were desperately trying to kill you.
Before I could thoroughly explore this profoundly engaging scenario, black clouds swept down from the horizon, unleashing staggering torrents of water on the beach town. I fled for shelter in one of the gift shops lining the main street, where I killed time by feigning a buying decision that teetered between a rusted Nazi bazooka (275 francs) and a D-Day Commemorative Cheese Wheel (117 francs). After another hour of unrelenting rain, I was forced to hire a taxi back to my hotel, dodging horrifying flash floods at every turn. Exhausted and wet, I collapsed into bed and woke too late for restaurant dining, but I was not very hungry in any case, having stuffed myself that morning with a type of sticky bun from a local bakery filled with chocolate, curdled goats milk, and dried figs. I surrendered to Johnny Halliday and a deep, flatulent sleep.
The Sepia Postcard. (Bayeux to Paris)
In Bayeux, my hotel is called "Hotel Churchill" and sports an idiotically grinning likeness of Sir Winston above the desk. In order to escape the incessant, chilling drizzle this morning, I consent to breakfast in the hotel's mini-dining room. There, a jewelry salesman and avid Marlboro smoker named Neil from Santa Monica befriends me. Neil has been traveling Normandy via rented car on his own personal Private Ryan Tour. So far, he's been to Deauville (for the premiere of the Spielberg film) and Omaha Beach, and is headed for Dunkirk, Bastogne, and other famous Discovery Channel battle sites. Neil appears in need of English-speaking companionship, and offers to drive me anywhere (as long as it's to a battlefield). After some discussion, we go over to the town center and pay the 40 francs to see the Bayeux Tapestry, a 50-foot-long medieval cartoon-strip depicting William The Conqueror's travails and the Battle Of Hastings (1066, of course), which I hadn't intended to visit, but enjoy the experience despite this, heightened by a helpful English-accented narrative from the rented (3 franc) headset.
I decide to head to Paris a day early. Normandy is much too wet and depressing. Neil drops me off at the village train station where I buy a ticket and wait and read a Steven Millhauser story calledThe Sepia Postcard, coincidentally, about a depressed, solitary man wandering a rainy foreign town.
Earlier, Neil told me that he refused to speak French and demanded his inkeepers and waiters address him exclusively in English. Insulated within his rented car, I think he is missing out somehow by fleeing actual contact with the culture. Then it occurs to me that maybe I (in my method of taking trains, avoiding tourist spots, and trying to speak the language) am the one doing things the hard way. The issue is clarified for me later on the Bayeux-to-Paris train, when one of the two little old ladies sitting nearby addresses a long comment in French to me. I reply in her language that I'm sorry but don't really understand what she's said. "Ah. You are an American" she says, in perfectly reasonable English. It turns out that she and her companion are returning from Deauville and the American Film Festival. We talk about homeless people, French films, and Bill Clinton. "We don't understand the American obsession with this business" she tells me, "It is just sex". In France, she says, "it is nothing. Our Minister has sex, but we don't care".
I mention my morbid fascination with French singer Johnny Halliday. Yes, she agrees, the geriatric Halliday is an oddity, but he is "how do you say...a national institution". The talk turns to who the French like and dislike. The Normans are fond of Americans (naturally), but are decidedly cool to the British, I suspect because Montgomery acted like a pompous, conquering ass during the Allied occupation. And the Germans. Boy, do the French dislike the Germans. She tells me about her daughter's involvement with a German boyfriend during her university days. The boyfriend's family once came to France on a visit, and both sets of parents were forced to sit through a mutally uncomfortable dinner scenario. "What could we say to them?" she shrugs, "'so, what did you do in the war?'".
The Parisian Effect. (Paris)
The city smells wonderful, really. The women pass you on the street, leaving a subtle perfume in the air. The sweet odor of the French cigarettes reminds me of a particularly pleasant strain of marijuana. The parks and avenues emit a vaguely eucalyptus scent. It's cold and rainy here too, but at least there's the Metro to whisk me around, and the ancient, narrow streets with their rich brocade of shops, cafes, and the canopies of 17th century apartment buildings to take shelter in.
I couldn't be more pleased, situated on the Rue Cler, a tiny pedestrian street in the 7th arrondissment jammed with fruit vendors, flower stands, and a small, friendly cafe utterly devoid of tourists like me.
My 600-franc hotel room is small for the price, but adequate and squeaky clean, with a charming view of the Eiffel tower to the west. I note that French TV Channel 3 fades to white in between program, not black. The weather woman is an elegant blonde in a perfectly tailored pink Chanel suit. Clinton appears occasionally, but only as an amusing sidebar among the other goings-on of the world. I am lulled to sleep by a French gangster film that features lots of elaborate cigarette-lighting punctuated by profound silences.
With television relegated to it's rightful place, the remainder of my visit is effortessly divided between pilgrimages to cultural highlights of the city (Eiffel Tower, Arc De Triomphe, Notre Dame, Musee De Orsay, etc.) and a lazy soaking-up of atmosphere, food, and supplementary French phrases. And then, one day, without warning, it happens. At a table in the very cafe where, ironically, Voltaire once drank 40 cups of coffee a day while drafting Candide, I suddenly discover that I can no longer ponder anything more demanding than the choice between an almond and butter croissant.
Will the Republican Party use a legislative majority to force the issue of impeachment? Maybe, but who cares? What matters more is watching diminutive French poodles led by elderly dowagers take a crap on the historic banks of the Seine. It's true, I've become a willing victim of The Parisian Effect and I don't care who knows it. The compulsion to make cultural comparisions fades, along with my Southern California tan. My notebook lies unopened, its fevered observations abandoned in favor of cafe menus and museum catalogs.
And best of all, I haven't heard the name Lewinsky in several days.