mardi, décembre 13, 2005

Xmas Marches to La Marseillaise

I can't let EUROCHINO just languish while I'm at work on the archives (and Xmas shopping, mainly for myself), so here is a little photo log of our around-town rambles for the last two days.

Xmas, as you can see, is everywhere.

Two of the most prominent and visited department stores in Paris live but a block from each other, just behind the famous Opéra de Paris Garnier: Au Printemps and Galeries Lafayette. They are like the Gimbel's and Macy's of "Miracle on 34th St." Eternal rivals.

(You can just see nemesis Galeries Lafayette in the distance behind Au Printemps)

It was around Halloween when they put up the Xmas lights at Galeries Lafayette. Dear Wife and I were surprised, and we wondered if this wasn't a departure from the usual French approach to Xmas (an approach I did not and do not claim to know, but that I'd imagined would be less, uh, enthusiastic than America's). Perhaps Gal-Laf was stooping to this level because of desperation, we theorized--maybe they needed sales, and weren't above a little Yuletide Razzle-Dazzle to gain same. But then Xmas lights began blinking on all over the city. Public workers were stringing nets of blue lights in avant-garde designs between the buildings on the rue du Fauburg St. Honoré, right in front of Hermès. Shop windows were sprouting holly and pine. Our own Xmas Faire arrived in the place St. Germain-des-Prés. Ads with Pere Noël began appearing in the Metro stations. Clearly, Christmas was coming.

Two weeks ago we visited Fed Ex, and across the Boulevard Haussmann we saw Au Printemps, all done up in its Holiday Jewel Tones, clearly excited to be at the party--as every retailer, large or small, now seems to be. Perhaps the beginning of the Xmas season starts slowly here because the French (and everyone else, come to think of it) are without the helpful starting block of Thanksgiving; the decorations and ads began struggling into the public eye after Halloween (or All Saints'Day) here, and initially nobody seemed very happy to be reminded that the year is almost over and the cold weather is coming.

Well, the cold weather is here.

Tonight we again went to FedEx (anymore, this seems like the only thing that'll get us riding the 7 Metro line up to Opera--'though this time we refined our route by jumping onto the 3 at the Opera station instead of exiting there, and then we rode the 3 west northwest to its next stop, Havre-Caumartin, where we emerged practically at FedEx's doorstep) (cold weather is a remarkable engine for ingenuity). This time we'd planned to do some Xmas shopping after our shipping duty, (67Euros for a letter to be sent to PA, USA). We started at Au Printemps, but as it was already 7:30PM, and they had just closed.

So I began snapping pictures of their incredible lights with Dear Wife's still-new camera--and promptly lost Dear Wife. Or maybe she lost me. There were crowds on the sidewalks, it was dark, and everyone was in black, just like Dear Wife. Just like me. Standing there, turning around and around like Marlo Thomas, I strained for a glimpse of her, but she was nowhere to be seen. We had just decided to walk to Galeries Lafayette before she vanished--had she walked on? I could've sworn she stopped next to me when I pulled out the camera... I began moving forward in the chaos, up the Boulevard, toward Galeries Lafayette. What was she wearing, I tried to remember, and the image of trying to describe her appearance to a Gendarme flashed hot under my frantic brow. I remembered what she was wearing (that says more about living in Paris for three months than it does about my attentiveness as a husband, I'm afraid): most distinctly, Dear Wife was wearing her white wooly cap. I pressed on, focused on finding fuzzy frost colored bonnets bobbing at a height off 5'7", 5'10" in her boots. I was beginning to panic--"How am I gonna find her?!". Soon I was hustling up to every white-topped figure moving away from me, hoping it was her; I felt like a cop from North by Northwest, in the train terminal scene where they are trying to apprehend Roger Thornhill/George Kaplan/Cary Grant by grabbing every Redcap and spinning them around violently. North by Northwest: did you know this referred to the Airline?

I didn't spin anybody around violently. And I didn't find Dear Wife.

I felt completely spun by the time I reached Gal-Laf without a sign of her. "She must be looking for me on this same stretch," I thought, "Better go back again to where I lost her." Of course I was irritated by now--pissed, fuming, truly frightened, whatever, but on the walk back I recognized it was probably all my fault, and dammit I was missing her. I resolved to be nice about the whole thing and take responsibility for it, and I recognized the real scare I was having, losing her in such an impossibly congested, crazy area. When I got back toward the spot I'd started from, there she was, of course, sensible one she is, standing right where I'd decided I'd lost her 15 minutes earlier. She looked just as worried as I'd felt. I apologized.

We should put a plan in place: if ever we get seperated again, meet at the nearest Paul.

I could take their delivery buggy, illegally parked here on the corner of Boulevard Haussmann and Place Diaghilev.
She had been watching the window animation at Au Printemps, and with good reason--it was the funniest, cleverest display I'd ever seen. Spectacularly good.The little characters you see are automated marionettes, controlled by wires attached to overhead robotic puppeteers. Ingenious.

I marvel at something like this here in France, and then out comes the ugly worry that what I'm seeing was in the windows at Macy's New York for Xmas, 1999. A worry that the innovation took place in America a while ago, and has since been dumped for something newer, better, even more cutting-edge, so let's sell this old stuff to the French. The same way we'll gladly sell slightly out-dated military hardware to allies (and not-so-allies, sadly). It probably is not true. But this suspicion, this myth of the migration of American innovation, which creeps out and blows a little black cloud over every clever idea I've seen here, ideas that initially may seem to represent the best of 21st Century France--this suspiscion is insidious, and comes from American dominance (both perceived and real), and I wonder if French people feel this too. The problem is that on the one hand they want to defend and promote their French innovations, and claim them; and on the other, the disbelief that, in the face of such seemingly overwhelming American superiority, they can really create anything meaningful. It's a less shockingly toxic version of the oft-cited, popular Arab contention that the hi-jackers couldn't be Arab because they did such a great thing (perhaps many mean "great" in the sense of "evil enormity"), and look at how inept we Arabs are, how incapable we are of doing anything "great."

I'm not saying this perception of French uncompetitiveness, at least in the realm of ideas, is correct--I think people probably have it all wrong, because I think the genuinely original and the genuinely French do exist--look at films like "The Triplets of Belleville," or the truly well-done "Red Lights,"or "With a Friend Like Harry..." (all movies, I know--I'm trying to stick to what I know). But this feeling of's cancerous, and I feel fearful. Afraid France will be made to suffer. Not by America, but by life. The beautiful sister doesn't glide from triumph to triumph in order to insult her ugly sister and make her life a hell, but that's what happens. This may explain the rivers of schadenfruede over here at the American misadventures in you-know-where....


CLICK ON that picture, would'ja, and appreciate just how much WHIMSY is at work here. Distinctly French whimsy, (if they didn't in fact buy the whole rig from WalMart). The guys on the ground are actually WALKING around the tub in circles, with a hilarious step movement. Just too cool. Au Printemps also devised a little raised gantry directly infront of the window so the junior set can step up and see everything up close.

And for the non-junior set, they provide this adjoining window:
I feel like a Tex Avery-style narrator should be announcing, "And now, something for the tired business man." There is something wonderful about a country, or perhaps just the mindset that would lead to this window being placed next to the Salle de Bain Muppets. And this pattern continues down the whole block-long row of Xmas windows: alternating displays of stag party and kiddie puppet show. Is it a truly foreign aesthetic at work here, something exotic and praiseworthy; or is it just a distillation of Xmas demographic demands, and what works for Au Printemps' bottom line: "sex and puppets sell"?

This window had mishappen monkey puppets cheering as their baboon-butt brother holds onto a rat's tail and gets pulled back and forth across the room at speed--truly, wonderfully bizarre.

There's a carbonated up and down movement to their simian hysterics. Look at how freaky those monkeys look! They are holding rolling pins!

Our carefree stroll through this consumer Christmasland took a sour turn. Guess who's moved into the BNP bank just off the Place Opéra? Weezbees, 9 o'clock.

Dear Wife and I decided to live a little and dine here in the Opera Quartier. We settled on a decent looking restaurant purporting to serve Italian food, a "Bistro Romain." After sitting down, I noticed that the restaurant name was written in a script that would look unsettlingly comfortable branded across a box of frozen food. Then Dear Wife's lasagne came out looking like it should have been served on a trans-Atlantic flight (coach-class, of course). "They just can't do Italian food over here," Dear Wife said after the first bite, obviously in a pique. But my veal parmagiana was good, even if the accompanying "tagliatelle" had been headed for that same coach cabin service cart as Dear Wife's dinner. Hey, we're still in Paris, man!