The New Indian Express, Chennai, 22 May 2009
Sunday morning. Weather was a bit cold and occasionally drizzling. Many locals and foreigners already queued up below the Eiffel Tower. As with any other tourist sites, scores of vendors were selling or trying to sell souvenirs. With most costing just a euro, how many they will sell or make at the end of the day? One thing was striking. There were Africans, Arabs, South Asians, East Europeans or anyone one can possibly think of. In two hours of wandering there I did not find a single white hawker at the Tower.
Why be different
Jay walking. Both French and tourists are in perfect harmony in jay walking. Right in the heart of the city hordes of people are crisscrossing the busy streets while traffic signals warn them not to. They have stretched pedestrians first to new heights. After waiting at a couple of crossings, I quietly decided to join the main stream. Who likes to declare oneself to be an outsider?
Clouds of smoke
The Parisians are fond of smoking and most restaurants have no restrictions on smoking. Like many other western capitals that have tough anti-smoking laws, front gates of multi-story buildings are occupied by people hanging for a quick dose of nicotine. But the departure lounge at the Charles de Gaulle airport takes the cake. Denied of smoking inside, both those who arrived and cab drivers who were there to pick up passengers converted the open area into a smoking zone. With heavy clouds hanging over the airport, passive smoking was unavoidable.
Eating out is of the Parisian culture, leisure or even lifestyle. Cafés at the street corners spread out dozens of rattan chairs and entice customers. Sipping a drink and watching the moving crowd is not just relaxing but gives you a peep into daily Parisian life. Unfortunately the weather decided to conspire against me and I had to settle for sit down service at enclosed cafés.
Perhaps they are the signs of the riots that rocked Paris in late 2005. Or the new landscape in western capitals. Paris also has its share of graffiti. They are not confined to underground or rundown downtowns. A few pickup vans were painted in graffiti not just in French but also English, Russian and even Arabic. A beautiful glass door of designer apparel was not spared either. Another Rolex showroom reflected this. It had price tags of over two-dozen latest watches but not one was on display. Another graffiti along the scenic Seine River claimed: Israel criminel. As I was taking a picture a bus passed by. A travel company was aggressively selling package tours to Tel Aviv at €299.
If the healthy, well-fed and big pigeons at the Norte Dame Church are an indication, recession has not touched Paris. Cafés are full; long queues in the two nearby movie multiplexes; malls are open, though not many customers; major designers have not shut shops, at least not in the heart of Paris. Tourist sites are full of people. They speak all languages one can possibly recognise. Thanks to Nicholas Sarkozy and his charm offensive, Americans appeared to have stormed Paris and you see, hear them and smile at them all over. There are no empty buildings at the heart of Paris. Compare this with Washington. There are many ‘Available for Rent’ displays just a few blocks from the White House. But everything in Paris is not rosy. There are a few immigrants scavenging for leftover food in dustbins. An odd family, with their entire wealth, one unwieldy torn suitcase and a couple of large polythene bags, was resting on a bench; just a few yards from the Eiffel. The most breathtaking scene next to harsh realities of life.
The Indian connection
Paris without politics? Those clamouring for the Indo-Pakistan friendship would be delighted to find many Restaurant Indien Pakistanis. I was happy that at last somewhere people were less bothered about politics. This was until my French friend let out the business secret. All are run by Pakistanis but they needed to add India to attract customers. There were a few Tamil shops along the way, selling the DVDs of the latest blockbuster Ayan. My friend informed me that Tamil community in Paris is largely from Lanka and not to be confused with Indian Tamils. As I passed through a dozen of Tamils were holding a protest vigil at one of the crossing. This was a couple of days before the Sri Lankan government announced the death of LTTE chief Prabhakaran and none could have missed the prominent LTTE flag.
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