I See France

Blame the Parents

My French has improved to the point where I am able to live for hours in the subjunctive mood, but my moi profond remains in a shallow rut. I have tried to explain to my French teacher that I have never wanted to kill my father or sleep with my mother, and she has pretended to believe me. But from her knowing look I can see that she is dissatisfied with the depth of the material I haul into her apartment twice a week. “I will have to go very slowly with you,” she often says, to make me feel that I am an especially deep and difficult case rather than a lost cause. She’s been so sweet about my insistence on my happy childhood that the moment I leave her I go scouring my past for forgotten miseries, and my dictionary for the French words to express buried pain. Still, no matter how hard I try, I can think of nothing to blame my parents for, in any tense. They were, are, and no doubt will always be, almost perfect.

On the other hand, where despair is concerned, there’s always hope. This week my parents came to visit us, offering me a fine chance to inspect them for the cause of my psychological imperfection.

They arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport as they always arrive, in a great flash of red and green Michelin guides, and stars in their eyes. They really are just the customers the French had in mind when they wrote the business plan for Paris. For an entire week, my dear mother and father remained perfectly oblivious to the many signals sent to them by French people that they did not care for them. It does not occur to my parents to consider that the French people might not want them around, or even that the French people exist. The French people are just the stage hands for the show my parents have paid to see, which consists of an endless parade of Michelin-starred restaurants and monuments. My parents are tourism’s answer to the neutron bomb: They devour the buildings and leave the people intact.

Of course, parents—even bad ones—are impossible to neglect and so we spent the better part of the week chasing after them chasing after Michelin stars. Paris must be the most monument-ridden city on the planet; it is as perfectly suited to my parents as they are to it. Just when you think you’ve seen the last Michelin-endorsed sight, you turn the page and there’s another. In Paris, even the apartment buildings have the aura of great monuments.

People always say that Paris is beautiful, and it is, but its beauty is the beauty of a spectacularly dressed corpse. The impulse that gave rise to the monuments clearly was not a desire to provide a warm, comfortable place for loved ones. The impulse beneath the foundation of monumental Paris is the ceremonial desire to impress others. But who are these others, and what is their ceremony? They can’t be the locals. As anyone who has a friend with a mansion knows, it is futile to attempt to impress people who know you well with public display. People who know you just laugh at you behind your back when you try to awe them into submission. Indeed, the endless insistence of the French authorities on the monumental has led to a cultivation of its opposite within ordinary Parisians. There isn’t a grand building in Paris unscarred by spray paint and etchings. The whole city can seem like one giant monument with the words “Fuck You” spray-painted on its side. The mayor of Paris just set aside $15 million to clean the buildings. Fifteen million dollars is what the Parisian government spends each year cleaning up dog shit, which gives you some idea of the weight of the problem. They’ve hired 16 men to ride scooters to spot the graffiti and another 100 to wipe them off.

No, the builders of monumental Paris must have hoped to impress people who didn’t know them and were unlikely to hang around long enough to see through them. In other words, my parents.

At any rate, the grand illusion is in safe hands this week. My parents hit the ground in a dead sprint and haven’t paused for breath all week. Toward the end of their stay, just when it appeared that their daily yield of Michelin stars was falling, they took to the countryside. In a van shaped like an old milk truck, we set out for Chartres. There we were met by an Englishman named Malcolm Miller, who has been taking people around the cathedral since 1958. If they gave Michelin stars to human beings, Miller would have one. He’s a legend on the tourist circuit, a great mop of white hair atop two tons of arcane knowledge. He makes not the slightest effort to be friendly and treats questions as insults. “You are my fifth tour today,” he announced when we met him at 1:45 in the afternoon, in a tone that as much as said, “Don’t interrupt me with your stupid questions and we’ll get along just fine.”

The remarkable thing about Chartres—so I’m told—is how well-preserved it is. With the exception of a few statues that had their heads lopped off during the first French revolution and a few stained-glass windows knocked out by the clergy to shed light on an overvalued Baroque altar, the cathedral is a message in a bottle that has floated down from the first half of the 13th century. Inscribed on the side of the bottle is the message: “IT DOES NOT MATTER WHO WE WERE.” Thousands of craftsman must have worked to build the church, yet not one thought to write his name into the wall or his face onto a figure. Five thousand stained-glass figures and 4,000 sculptures got created without anyone ever demanding so much as a byline. “We know nothing whatsoever about the people who built Chartres,” says Miller. “They told us nothing about themselves.”

And so here is perhaps the most self-revealing graffiti in Christendom. Around the outside of Chartres and all over its gothic bell tower, tourists have scrawled their names. I blame their parents.