Shankar's Weekly24 June 1973
Jaunt to Paris
I should have heeded the warning, I suppose, but I didn't. And I paid dearly for it!
I had read earlier that Paris is no longer the City of Light, and is in the process of losing its soul. Quoting from the voluminous survey made by a study team in the French Ministry of Planning, the Press report had indicated that Paris is now run for the sole purpose of economic development.
Somehow I didn't take the news seriously. My travel agents had already made all arrangements for my jaunt to Paris , and I didn't do anything to cancel it.
My good friend Louis Larousse, who was the Director of the Alliance Francaise in Madras ten years ago, met me at Orly airport. I had a room in the Hotel de Veloppe, and we drove to the city in my friend's car.
"Let us see some interesting places on the way!" I told him. "As you know, Louis, this is my first visit to Paris, and I am not in a hurry to get to the hotel."
"What interesting places? I do not understand!"
I was surprised to hear this, for my friend used to speak very good English when he was in India.
"Interesting places" I said, "mean des lieux interessants. Let us drive straight to Notre Dame, s'il vous plait!"
"Oh, I haven't forgoten my English!" Louis smiled. "You did not understand me! There are no interesting places in Paris now!"
"What do you mean?"
"Just what I say! You will soon find out. There is no Notre Dame now!"
"Oh, it was razed to the ground two months ago. One is building a skyscraper in its place, to accommodate the Ministry of Planning."
"What a pity!" I sighed. "Here I am, dreaming about Paris for 25 years, and you say they razed Notre Dame to the ground two months before I arrived!"
"I am sorry, my friend," Louis said. "It is tragic, but true! Shall I drive straight to your hotel?"
"Oh, please don't do that, Louis!" I begged. "After all, Notre Dame is not the only landmark in Paris! Allons au Louvre! I hope they haven't demolished the Louvre also!"
"No, they have not!" Louis said. "But I am afraid it will be a waste of time to visit the place now."
"Why? What happened?"
"The Louvre no longer accommodates the Museum," Louis said. "The Ministry of Industrial Development now occupies the whole building. All the objets d'art have been taken over by Christie's in London."
"Mon Dieu!" I exclaimed. "I remember reading something about Paris losing its soul, but I didn't think it would be so bad! But never mind, Louis, just take me to the Eiffel Tower!"
"I am sorry to disappoint you again, mon ami," Louis said. "But the Eiffel Tower has been dismantled and shipped to San Francisco. One is using the site for constructing a 60-storey building for the Steel Corporation of France."
"In that case, let us go to the Opera! Let me see the place where Moliere's spirit still lives on!"
"Impossible, my friend! Everybody's spirit is dead in this city! The Bureau of Foreign Trade occupies the Opera building now!"
"Can we at least have lunch at Maxim's?" I asked, not without hope. "After all, it's not a national monument, and they're bound to have left it alone!"
"I wish you were right, mon ami," Louis said, "but you are not! Maxim's were evicted six months ago, and they have merged with Rosati in Rome. Oil France now occupies the place."
"All right, then, let us go to my hotel!" I said in disgust, and we drove on in silence.
As Louis Larousse took my leave, I invited him to dine with me in the evening, and suggested he might like to show me the night life of Paris.
"I presume the Lido will be open tonight?" I ventured to ask.
"No, it will not be!" Louis declared. "The place now houses the Ministry of Tourism. The Lido people have shifted to Copenhagen!"
Postscript : 2013
Of friends and fancies
I closely missed seeing Paris twice in 1979, when I drove along the Ring Road on my way from London to Geneva, Rome and back. But the next year I stayed for a couple of weeks in the heart of the city, not far away from the Eiffel Tower. Of course, I found that Paris and its legendary landmarks were more or less what I had expected them to be. And those included the universal street-corner bistros, where the ordinary visitor could feel the true pulse of the ordinary Parisian!
The name of my imaginary friend in Paris, Louis Larousse, was derived from the famous French lexicographer Pierre Larousse, and his encyclopedic dictionaries which have imposing titles but are informally referred to as just 'Larousse'. It also echoed the name of a real-life former Director of the Alliance Francaise de Madras, Monsieur Robert Labare (pronounced Rowbare Labahr), with whom my old buddy Rangarajan had picked up a really close friendship 50 years ago (which I believe survives strongly even today, though they're living as far apart as Falls Church, Virginia in America and Amiens in France). Yes, that's the same old friend I had mentioned a few days ago in Teach Yourself French, Italian, Spanish!
By the way, did you notice anything amusing about the name of my hotel in Paris? Hotel de Veloppe, of course, is Hotel Developpe! It was in my Shankar's Weekly articles in the early 1970's that I de Velopped my flair for playing with words and names in fanciful ways, which too has survived till today!