Friday, January 04, 2008

Through a Glass, Brightly

Yesterday was my first foray into a Parisian eating establishment since the new no-smoking regulations have been in effect. It was an odd sensation.

The air seemed so pure and crystal-clear, as if suddenly the restaurant had moved to the Alps. No haze, no gauzy, filtered view across the dining room. It was like taking a Monet or a Toulouse-Lautrec painting and sharpening it into a bright digital photo of the real spot. Pure ozone and clarity. It was not unpleasant by a long shot, and I'm happy for the greater health of residents of France. But it was emotionally unsettling. I felt depaysée, as if I were visiting a different city.

I love the subtle quality of the soft gray in Paris. Last winter I wanted to write an ode to gray, to capture all of the myriad grays that we witness on a daily basis. Last winter we had uncharacteristically sunny weather, and I was out of luck. (Summer was rainy and gloomy, and by the time August reared its cold, gray head in Paris, I didn't want to write about gray any more.) But now the habitual interior gray of public Paris has vanished, forever, overnight.

Today, in an afternoon walk along rue Monge and then returning along rue Mouffetard in the 5e arrondissement, the change was startling. With the briefest glance I could see all the denizens inside the cafés remarkably clearly as I strolled down the sidewalk. I felt uncomfortable, as if I were intruding on their intimacy. Then it dawned on me. Paris has become a fishbowl! It was as if Mr. Clean had polished every window of every café to let us see inside. Whereas before there was a smoky haze swirling around, giving some vague notion of discreet privacy to the café dwellers, there is certainly none any more. Just like that. People holding hands, having little tête-à-têtes at tables, jump right out at passersby.

Mark my words, I'm willing to bet that pretty soon the café owners will start putting some frosted glass or other screens along the lower front windows of their establishments. No privacy any more!

13 comments:

GoingLikeSixty.com said...

Part of the allure of spending time in a cafe was to watch the women smoke. Such aplomb.

eclat said...

I don't find the fact that restaurant workers make up the greatest number of cancer victims and fatalities charming at all. I'm happy that patrons and employees won't be victimized by the selfishness that is second-hand smoke when dining or working anymore.

Second-hand smoke is a killer and there's no charm or allure in that.

anna said...

Hurray! Comments! At last we forced-to-be-lurkers (hello everyone!) can express our fondness for your blog: it's one of the first I look at. (BTW the house-guest post gave me the biggest laugh ever in my blog-reading history.) I want very much to move to Paris (from UK) and I'm trying to dream up some sort of income-stream-by-laptop scheme so's I can get outta here... All ideas welcome.
Anna

Polly said...

I'm glad to hear from all of you

* eclat- Of course no one would extol the health dangers related to first- or second-hand smoke. But it is undeniably the end of a long cultural era in France, a passage worth noting, for better or worse. And it is truly weird to be able to see so well inside cafes! (Like the Hopper painting) Not better or worse necessarily, but surely different from anything I've ever known here.

Chris Late said...

Me, I'm just jealous that you were on Mouffetard and Monge.

Polly said...

CL --Yeah, I have to admit - it's a perfect Saturday afternoon outing -- even though my first stop was totally unenchanting-but-practical Office Depot on rue Monge!

isabella said...

Office Depot on rue Monge? What's next - McDonald on Champs-Elysées? ;-)

Privacy issue notwithstanding, I am exctatic about the new law! If I think of all the fantastic Paris restos I never visited because of my asthma...

Now, if you could do something about that high euro ;-)

GoingLikeSixty.com said...

@eclat: I agree that smoking should be banned in restaurants. No argument, but just agreeing with Polly that the change is socially significant.

PeakVT said...

In the end this isn't a big social change at all. Just compare it to the changes the Internet brought.

Polly said...

In terms of socio-cultural shifts, this is more on the level of WiFi in cafes, Velib, and cell phones.

Anyway, it will be interesting to follow -- it's still the honeymoon phase, only 5 days old. I'm still blown away by the new visual element. I had anticipated the social, respiratory, and olefactory changes. But clear view - the "sharper image" -- is what took me by surprise.

Anonymous said...

Erm... there is, and has been for years already, a Mac Donalds on the Champs Elysees! In fact, one of the very firts MacDo's in Paris was the Champs... we're all used to that by now, but what about the rash of Starbucks popping up all over the place?!

Polly said...

Yeah, I think isabella was joking about MacDo. So, how many Starbucks are there in Paris now? Unbelievable that the first one arrived 4 years ago. I haven't been in one (yet) in Paris. I save my Starbucks fix for the US. Because I don't know how to say triple-grande-no-foam-non-fat latte in French.

The Late Bloomer said...

That, and we can't get gingerbread lattes in Paris either. I'm with you, Polly: I save the Starbucks visits for the U.S., like I did this time around when I was home for the New Year. So goshdarn pricey anyway!

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