Suddenly find myself in Paris for 48 hours or so. I won’t tell you how long it’s been since I was last here, but that time we flew from London. I know! The olden days, eh? It’s all the same, and it’s all changed. It’s still a bit shabby round the edges, but the piss-and-tobacco reek is mostly gone. Just as many dogs, but fewer with explosive diarrhoea. Most noticeably, waiters and museum staff seem happy to speak English, which is something a culture shock akin to finding a Bangkok taxi driver with a legitimate licence.
Of course, we stumble on in French, desperate to prove we’re not tourists. To prepare, I pick up a copy of Le Canard enchainé, the French equivalent of Private Eye. My O-level grade B, plus a bit of guesswork, means I understand about 80 or 90 per cent of it; but at the same time, I don’t really understand it at all, in the sense of knowing who all these strange people are. It’s a bit like that time we had to translate an article on French pop music, and my teacher explained who Johnny Hallyday was, but we didn’t really believe him. Checking out the hand-chalked menus at the bistros around the Garde du Nord, I have better luck. Rascasse is fish, I know that. But which fish? My main problem is that I can’t read the writing.
On to the Boulevard Saint-Germain, and in the Café de Flore, haunt of Sartre and Simone, only one person is properly rocking the existentialist look; a young Japanese woman, dining alone, smoking very precisely, exhaling from the furthest corner of her mouth. But no leather-jacketed philosopher sees fit to make a move on her, so she pays up and walks away in the rain.