Mavis Gallant

       Paris is hot, Paris is polluted, the media are full of it and on news broadcasts good advice abounds. On one FM station this morning a man, identified as a doctor, said windows should be kept tight shut. The hothouse effect will cause one to sweat, and sweating is nature’s device for cooling down. I expected them to announce the name of a comic performer, but, no, he was indeed Dr. Someone. The faith people have in the thought of a white coat is boundless. During the Chernobyl disaster, when most of Europe was covered with pure poison, a man in a white coat, wearing a neat little beard, like a professor in a novel by Anatole France, appeared on TV, day after day, telling the French not to worry. True, a shifting, drifting toxic cloud was sailing across Germany, Switzerland, Italy, but the cloud never crossed the borders of France. So one was given to understand. He had an official title of some kind: I’ve forgotten exactly what. Some of us wondered why Monaco was announcing new levels of radioactivity, while on French territory, a few steps away, fruits and vegetables were safe to eat. The wake-up call came when truckloads of vegetables grown in Provence were turned back at the German frontier. Even the thyme was infected.

       About the air in Paris, there is nothing one can do except go on breathing. Its quality (terrible) made the front page of a couple of the morning papers. I bought them all, even those I don’t often read. In one, I was drawn away from the depleted ozone and the state of French cities to a headline about “an indelicate plumber.” What do you have to do to be an indelicate plumber, in Paris, or anywhere? Turn up naked, carrying a gold-plated kitchen sink nobody ordered? But, no, his indelicacy consisted of bilking old ladies, who did not know they ought to ask for an estimate before the work begins. If they sued, or threatened to, he would offer to return half the fee in exchange for dropping the complaint. This story takes up three-quarters of a tabloid-size page, while Diana, Princess of Wales, still shown gamboling on that yacht, gets less than half. It could be used to illustrate a lecture, “What Counts?” Turning away from Paris and pollution is not a sign of indifference. I am perfectly convinced that nothing much will be done. Telling Parisians to leave their cars at home would be a political decision and who, in office, wants to hang himself on a bright summer day.

       In the supermarket of the Bon Marché department store, which is our local salon, I run into a neighbor with her 9-year-old son. He is back from a holiday, looking healthy, eating a cone. I ask if he had any interesting dreams while on vacation. He remembers one: “I had to do a lot of things I didn’t want to and I did them and at the end I was a saint.” A lesson for us all.