American in Paris
In Paris, we look at beautiful buildings, beautiful paintings, beautiful sculptures, but mostly we search for the very beautiful shade. Like vampires, we view the sun as lethal. The temperature has routinely reached the upper 90s here, and I'm talking Celsius. So we hug the narrow shady strip along old buildings at midday. We dash from tree to tree, like burglars in cartoons. When we go into cathedrals, we drink in the darkness greedily, and we avoid, as much as possible, even the dim light from the stained-glass windows.
My sources back home tell me that it has been scorching there as well, but the difference is that America has discovered such technological marvels as ice and air conditioning. The French have a highly technological society -- most of their electricity comes from nuclear power -- but they believe that the answer to heat is to run away. Evacuate, don't collaborate.
We try to go to the public pool, but the rules require that ladies wear bathing caps and men wear briefs, like Speedos. No "boxer" swimsuits allowed. We're not even permitted to look at the pool unless we don such silly garb. It is like being told that we can't step into an art gallery unless we wear a beret.
There is, of course, something authentic about living without AC. And it is surely important to vacation correctly, in the spirit of the place, emulating the customs of the natives. But the truly authentic option would involve not being here at all. The cheese shop closed soon after we arrived, on Bastille Day. Then the butcher started to look antsy, loitering in his doorway as his customer base dwindled. Every day he had less inventory. Four chickens, three chickens, two chickens. He got a look on his face, a look that can be seen in every culture on Earth, and it was the look that says, "I'm one chicken from vacation." Then he was gone.
The wine lady left, too, a tragedy, since she was fluent in Wine English -- "You like dry? You like oaky?" Her shop got hotter by the day, baking those fine bordeaux. I did not have the nerve to tell her that, when it comes to wine, I don't like hot.
And so there is no one left in Paris but a few silly Americans, the Japanese in the tour buses, the lizards and the statues. Though I think some of the statues have gone to the Riviera.
Also there are pigeons. We are housesitting in a charming place on the Avenue de Suffren, and in the heat the best spot to hang out is the little patio in the courtyard. France doesn't have much in the way of mosquitoes; perhaps they are intimidated by the language barrier. But the space is always inhabited by turkey-size pigeons, so huge it's surprising that the butcher hasn't made a full sweep of the place. Then at dusk the bats appear. They flit overhead, harmless but still a bit unnerving. In my ideal world the pigeons would eat the bats, or vice versa.
Of course when you travel these days, you can always pretend you're back home, thanks to the Internet. The kids instant-message their friends as though they're next door. As I write, we're planning to rent a car and explore the countryside, but I feel a twinge of unease, akin to the sensation one gets of being in a boat in deep water. No doubt we'll find some charm-saturated inn with wisteria-covered stone walls, a crumbling tile roof, a vineyard out back and cats purring by an ancient fountain, and we'll discover to our horror that the place is uninhabitable because it has no WiFi.
One day the Internet connection at the house goes on the fritz, so I go with the laptop to a cafe and ask if it has wireless. The waiter looks confused. A patron repeats my question and uses the correct pronunciation: WeeFee. The waiter looks slightly exasperated and points across the street. "McDun-Neld's" he says.
This means either that McDonald's does, indeed, have the WeeFee or that, as a stupid American too rude and ethno-centric to bother to learn French before showing up for an extended stay in Paris, I should get the heck out of his cafe and back to my burger chain.
It is to my inestimable credit that, at McDonald's, I do not order the Oeuf McMuffin. Instead, I order three little pastry-like things that are hard for me to describe, other than to say that one was the French equivalent of a croissant. Thrillingly, I find myself online. Box scores from America! E-mails galore! And the air, in flagrant violation of French custom, is wonderfully conditioned.
McDonald's in Paris: Trust me, it's charming.
Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.