It is always a pleasure to return to Paris; sadly the city was wet, crowded and not as clean as it used to be.
We landed at Paris briefly, on our way to Berlin, amidst extremely heavy fog. The runway was practically “invisible” but the Airbus A340 made a flawless landing; even the descent was amazingly smooth. My colleague Shyam Chetty, who was sitting next to me, told me that the pilot had practically no role to play in the landing. “He’s sitting in the cockpit, just as we are, and will intervene only if he feels that something is wrong”. For me, it was the first experience of the magic of global positioning systems and instrumentation technology.
I spent more time at Paris on the way back from Berlin. Unlike Indian cities, where the visage changes significantly with every passing decade, Paris retains its charming countenance. Sitting inside a cafe at Boulevard St Michel, and watching the people go by, I asked myself what had changed since 1980. Practically nothing, I discovered. The dresses and pavements were the same – the only clue that we were in 2001 was the almost ubiquitous mobile phone. Everyone now has this urge to talk into the wretched instrument! The second clue, and this saddened me more, was that everyone seemed older and more gaunt. It is estimated that a family in Western Europe now has an average of just 1.3 children, and, of course, the seniors aren’t dying too quickly either.
I was also dismayed to learn, through various conversations, that a stable marriage is on its way out; more than 50% of all marriages in Western Europe break up within five years. And for the best part of these five years the couples are probably arguing!
Paris didn’t seem unduly concerned about the terrorist threat, although the entry points to all museums and markets are lined with security personnel and the Eiffel Tower had to be briefly evacuated after a crank call. “How many Frenchmen died at New York’s WTC?”, I asked a friend, adding that over 250 Indians were feared dead. “Try to guess?”, my friend suggested, and, even before I could do so, answered that the figure was “zero, or probably one”. “How could that be?”, I asked. “Which Frenchman you know goes to work at eight in the morning? He’s either still in bed, or searching for his croissant and coffee!”
Given French accomplishments, this remark is certainly unfair, but it’s a wonderful comment on the French attitude. To see French success, one must look at the splendid French railway or the French aeronautical industry or, lately, the country’s remarkable run in football.
It was also educative to browse through French newspapers and search for references to India. There are practically no reports about India although Pervez Musharraf (spelt differently) and Pakistan get a fair mention. French TV is also very different: while news, films and sport dominate, like everywhere else, there’s a lot of interest in “spectacle” (watching an obnoxious man swallowing 250 cockroaches with relish), game shows (“who can shoot down 50 targets the quickest?”) and fashion. The advertisements are also very stylish.
To my great disappointment, the Paris metro is seeing a decline. The coaches appear unkempt, timings are going awry, the stations aren’t as brightly lit and there appear to be many more tourists and foreigners. Thankfully, the French bread (baguette) is just as delicious, camembert cheese still retains its original flavour, wines are still smooth and mellow, and the champagne bottle still opens with its customary “pop”. It was very kind of my friend to uncork his favourite brand of champagne in my honour as I prepared to bid Paris farewell once again.