Empty Paris, full Louvre – it would be better the other way around

Yesterday I saved €38, which is more than I can say for my sanity.

The sum in question is the cost of a day’s parking at Vinci, the Paris chain of underground garages.

What none of my French friends knows but I’ve found out is that Vinci forfeits the charge on one’s birthday, which for me was yesterday.

Call me a penny pincher, but this is one of the reasons we always spend 10 August in Paris, less than two hours away from our summer hiding place.

Another reason, actually a more important one, is that Paris empties out in August, with Parisians fleeing for more bucolic locales. Toute la France est en vacances, in the ridiculous jargon the natives use to frustrate linguistically challenged outlanders like me.

A recent US commercial, for the Cadillac if memory serves, mocked that civilised custom. It showed a well-heeled middle-aged American walking through his prole-heaven house towards the driveway where his prole-heaven car sat.

As he walked, he was pontificating that he had been able to buy all those wonderful things because, unlike some people, he doesn’t take all of August off. The words ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ weren’t spoken, but they were clearly implied.

Personally, I’d rather take the whole year off than live in an antiseptically tasteless house like his – or, as a matter of fact, drive his car, which has to roll almost to a stop before one can turn without the risk of spinning off the road.

Moreover, most Parisians I know own bigger and infinitely better appointed houses (along with large Paris flats) than the ad’s protagonist’s – this in spite of their being less dysfunctionally single-minded about turning a buck.

That they, along with millions of others, rush out at this time makes August the best month to visit Paris. Strike half a mile away from the herds of Nikon-snapping tourists and you’ll have the place all to yourself.

Yet if force majeure drives one closer to the very centre, with its museums, shops and galleries, then August is the worst time to visit Paris.

The Nikon-snappers overrun the place, creating an awful contrast between their vulgar selves and the elegant surroundings. They rush, they shout, they jostle, they munch revolting street food, drink disgusting treacly muck – and they keep on snapping their ‘here’s Shirley and me at the Eiffel Tower’ pictures.

Suddenly one feels that, on balance, one would be better off if Parisians were to reclaim Paris from the stampeding herds. The city would be better off too, more harmonious, more organic, more of a piece.

Yesterday was wet, with gusts of wind driving burger wrappers along the pavements and us into the Louvre, where one can be aesthetically elevated and, more important on a day like that, dry.

Picture-snapping grex venalium were all there, at least a million of them, though that number might have been an optical illusion. However, since perception is the ultimate reality, if Plato is to be believed, I insist on my off-the-top head count.

Suddenly we found ourselves in a maelstrom of humanity, or whatever passes for it at times. They were running through the Louvre’s 60,600 square metres at an Olympic speed, bumping into one another and, more annoying, us.

Few were looking at the paintings, most were photographing them with their mobile phones. To personalise the images, they’d place their polyester-clad wives and overfed children next to Géricault’s lively scenes and Ingres’s lifeless portraits.

It took us 10 minutes to elbow our way (in my case literally; in my wife’s case figuratively) anywhere near the two Vermeers besieged by Japanese visitors. Those in the front row of the art lovers were shooting snaps point-blank, those behind them were holding their mobiles above their heads.

I doubt this is the best way of capturing the master’s subtlety, but that’s not what the descendants of the samurai were after. Their sole aim seemed to be keeping those who can appreciate such matters as far from the canvases as possible.

Until recently photography was banned in the Louvre because flashes damage the paintings. However, democracy, with all its technological advances, trumped elitism yet again.

The advent of miniature mobile phones with built-in cameras has made a museum the size of the Louvre almost impossible to police. The CRS riot busters at full strength could possibly do it, but they’re otherwise engaged containing crowds of Muslims screaming ‘gas Jews’ and trying to do to Paris what Nero allegedly did to Rome.

Venus de Milo was densely surrounded by photography buffs, but one can step 10 yards away and still see the sculpture well, provided one isn’t trampled by the tourists procuring evidence that they actually did go to Paris.

The Mona Lisa demands a closer proximity, something that can’t be secured without the benefit of fully automatic weapons, and I didn’t have one on me. Hence we didn’t even try to see the painting, with my wife, a much kinder person than me, commenting “It’s hard to love the human race in a place like this.”

After a while we decided that, on balance, rain would be a lesser irritant and left. The rain had stopped though, as if God had approved our choice. A short cab ride later we left the hideous Pyramid far behind, sat down on a bench at Luxembourg and watched tennis players sliding all over the still damp courts.

How does one restrict attendance of great museums only to those aware of the difference between chiaroscuro and Kim Kardashian?

(For those who don’t know who Kim is, she’s some sort of celebrity whose attainments exclusively consist of extra-human endowment in what Americans call T&A, and they don’t mean the Territorial Army. Kim could have made a perfect model for Rubens, whose idea of beauty was a combination of porcine physique  and bovine expression.)

The Ebola pandemic may solve this problem by restricting air travel, but one has to be evil to wish for that. Barring such cataclysms, I’m afraid this is a game long since lost.

At least the next time we go to Paris most of the tourists will have gone back to their prole heavens, and the Parisians will be back. Popular misapprehensions notwithstanding, they aren’t at all rude if one speaks their language – even as badly as I do.























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