How can you tell when a beloved, elegant aunt is starting to lose it? When she starts fussing over trivia? Losing her jewellery? Switching off lights on some neurotic economy drive?
Welcome — oooh là là — to Paris 2012.
Once upon a time, if you were celebrating a birthday or anniversary or got engaged in Paris, you could call up the town hall and ask them to make the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe sparkle just for you, and they would. Magique, non?
And now? Well, now the City of Lights has fallen victim of that old recession joke: “Would the last person to leave town please turn off the lights?” After basking in its Roman sobriquet, la ville lumière, for a whole millennium, it’s not so much marching as stumbling its way into the twenty-first century, searching for the light switches that it can, apparently, no longer find or afford.
Under the blanket excuse of an economy drive — cunningly disguised as an eco-drive – the celebrated illuminations are dwindling to virtually zero. Yes, the Eiffel Tower still sparkles on the hour, but its bright white lights are fading to yellow, and there are rumors of bulbs not being replaced. The Arc de Triomphe glows so faintly you’re nearly under it before you can see it; the Pantheon sulks in a grim haze, the golden dome of Les Invalides is just a gloomy shadow of its former glory, and Victor Hugo would be astonished if he could see this new interpretation of Les Misérables. Indeed, at night Paris now looks much as it must have looked in Hugo’s time. As a lifelong lover of Paris, I am aghast at its decline.
In the city center, the wattage has been turned down by stealth over the last year or two, so gradually that — well, maybe we’ll get lucky and no one will notice? (Wrong – I’ve noticed, and am furieuse.) In the suburbs, en route to nearby towns such as St Germain or St Nom, it’s even more radical. Miles of autoroute lighting — recent, expensively-installed lighting — have been cut off as if the wiring had been guillotined. Beyond the capital, France has always been parsimonious with light, and the shuttered houses meant you never could see a chink of nocturnal cheer; but now the landscape is totally, eerily dark. It is, frankly, creepy.
It’s counter-productive, too. People visit Paris for the illuminations, oui? We want it ablaze with glory, dazzlingly beautiful! We want it uplifting and inspirational, not shivering anxiously as if the war had been resumed. We do not want to grope our way along the park railings at night like characters in some wretched novel, wondering whether a cutpurse might spring from the shadows to slit our throats with a good old-fashioned swivel razor. Do we?
Mayor Delanoe, come to your senses! Let there be light!
Let there be all those other little comforts visitors crave, too, before we forsake Paris for Singapore or Dubai. Last time I travelled to Gare St Lazare, the train was so cold everyone’s teeth were clattering like castanets. On arrival, I found that my trusty old hotel had almost doubled its room rate — not attractive in this city of traditionally affordable accommodations, especially not when the shower is merely eco-tepid. The heating has been turned down to last-penny level in public buildings too; if you’re visiting a museum, gallery or church in winter, dress for Siberia. As for the bistro menus; sorry, messieurs, but it really is time to lose that weary old egg mayo, that threadbare steak-frites and that île flottante in nostalgia. Yes, the food remains fabulous at top level, but at mid-market the menus in my native Ireland are way prettier and livelier. Paris, you are resting on your laurels and should be ashamed of yourself. Wake up, chèrie, smell the café crème, you’re not Miss Haversham!
It’s as if Paris actually has gone wrinkly. Once as beautiful as Isabelle Adjani, now, well “bag lady” might be more apt, especially since the black iron street bins were replaced by plastic bags. Plastic bags! Yes, we know, we have to be able to see the bombs terrorists might plant in them, but those transparent bags are also a symbol of defeat. When you replace your lovely street décor with plastic tat well, you’re surrendering, n’est-ce pas? Letting yourself go, non? Essentially, you’re letting the terrorists decide what make-up you wear. They can just as easily plant their bombs elsewhere, so what is the point of those hideous disposable bags? Especially when the reduced light levels mean that terrorists can work under cover of dark now, pretty well at any time of day in winter.
What else is the old dear doing, to annoy us little cherubs who’ve loved her all our lives? Well, she’s come up with a new wheeze that’s as irritating as losing her hearing aid. She now wants us to buy our metro tickets by smartphone. The good old carnet of paper tickets, so handily available in any station or tabac, will soon be no more. While the culling of paper tickets is (like so much else) touted as an eco-drive, it’s costing ticket-sellers’ jobs while harassing foreigners and natives alike. Not everybody has or wants a smartphone, and we’re not going to buy one just to humor you, lady.
What you should be doing, madame, is taking a good hard look at your shopfronts. Shopfronts such as that of the candy store, La Mère de Famille, with its beautiful old script lettering, gleaming windows and polished wood façade. We certainly don’t see too many of those any more, do we? Ah, non, elegant façades are just another fading memory. Nowadays it’s all hideous plastic signage, garish neon lights such as the new one above the lovely old store Samaritaine, and steel shutters that make Paris look increasingly like Birmingham, Lagos or just about any other low-end town with a security problem. It makes a grande dame look as if she’s developed a tragic, extremely unattractive, taste for nylon tracksuits.
Yes, we all adore Paris. We cherish and worship at her shrine and we’re not about to have a blazing row (since nothing is blazing any more). But if our love affair is to continue, Paris is going to have to perk up. After all, when you go to the trouble and expense of visiting your favorite, most stylish aunt, you don’t want to find her huddling in the dark, shuffling around in shoddy slippers, munching milksop and counting the pennies in a contagiously worrying way. You want her putting her best foot forward — proud, elegant and gorgeous, still strutting her stuff, exuding that little hint of hauteur that makes you feel privileged to be in her aura.
So get with the plot, old lady. Rise to the challenge, hit the beauty salon, shine up your Louboutins, dig out the diamonds and switch all that glamour back on pronto, before we put you in Shady Pines!