Will Self: PsychoGeography #107

We'll always have Paris
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The Independent Online

AT THE Trocadero, under the disconcertingly shabby façade of the Palais de Chaillot, a group of demonstrators are coagulating into a clot of protest. They all have a certain monumentalism about them. Men and women alike are broad-cheeked with heavy-lidded eyes and jug heads. I suspect a tribal affinity. They're carrying flimsy homemade placards: "A Bas Gbagbo!" the slogans cry. A man hands me a flyer detailing President Gbagbo's perfidy. As far as I can tell, he has hung on to office despite UN Resolutions calling for him to step aside so that free and fair elections can be held. A large BMW comes stuttering round the roundabout and the anti-Gbagboists gather in its train. Bluey exhaust fumes lift and curl in the sparkling wine light. They head off down the Avenue Kleber towards the Arc de Triomphe.

I wonder if the Côte D'Ivoireans' protest is going to make any waves in Sunday afternoon Paris? They've acquired a couple of police cars, and the drivers held up by their surprisingly chipper shuffle are, naturally, honking, but beyond this the city goes about its business of relaxation. On the terraces of cafés, tourists form cat's cradles with the soft cheese toppings of their onion soups. The steps down from the Palais are the proscenium for an astonishing display of football control by a man in the Brazilian strip. A boom-box skitters and flumps as he flicks the leather globe on to the back of his neck, rolls it along his outstretched arms, whirls it into the air, catches it on his boot.

The long, ramp-like roads that run down to the Seine are coursing with inline skaters, who wiggle in between a row of cones so fast that their legs blur like the those of stridulating insects. Up ahead the Eiffel Tower scoots into the sky. The closer we get to it the more preposterous it seems. I've been coming to Paris once or twice a year for a long time now, yet I haven't stood beneath the Tower since I was a child. It is, quite simply, too iconic to be neared. It has spawned a billion model knick-knacks - and so its scale is problematic. It isn't until we're right beneath its Pantagruelian legs that I'm moved to consider quite how deliriously useless this jangle of iron is. This isn't a signature building - it's a signature coat tree or newel post. The Eiffel Tower pinions the map of Paris like a paperweight, preventing the pop-up apartment blocks from blowing clean away.

I've been tormenting the 15-year-old with an Oxford "mini-school" French Dictionary. He's a glutton for travel and style, so he couldn't refuse a trip trans-Manche. "We'll put up in Saint Germain," I told him airily, "and have cocktails each evening at the Café Flor, discussing existentialism and the semiotics of haute couture." He looked at me as if I were a cafard - and I was driven deeper into one. True, we have done the Rive Gauche thing, but everywhere we've gone I've called upon him to translate signs, speak to waiters and even essay the leader articles of Le Monde.

He maintains that while French may be a beautiful language, it has little relevance to his MaciPod lifestyle, and that far from asking him to expatiate on Contre Sainte-Beuve in his GCSE oral exam, the questions will be more of the "Where did you go on your holidays?" type thingy. He sees the French exam as a portal into the joyous and undifferentiated realm of the globalised monoglot, rather than a cultural milestone to he hugged to his breast.

I began the weekend determined to challenge his apathy. However, the more I've wielded the mini-school dictionary, the more disorientated I've become. Like many lackadaisical English Francophiles I labour under the delusion that I can "get by" in French. I've worked hard on my accent so that I can enunciate a few key phrases and demands with sufficient clarity for them to be heard. Beyond this, I now realise, my French consists of strings of nouns that I haphazardly combine. Basic grammar, verb tenses and even conjunctions are, in truth, quite beyond me. My France is a country jumbled up with things happening at once.

I've always been pleasantly surprised by how complimentary the French are when I rip out their mother tongue. "All you have to do is make an effort," I say "and they aren't in the least patronising or huffy." Why the hell would they be? What can confirm someone in their innate superiority more than listening to a poltroon say: "Va. Boit. Bar. Train. Moi. Et. Vous. Avant?" No wonder they nod sagely, then reply in perfect English with a pleased expression.

By Sunday evening I'm considering letting the 15-year-old in on this devastating insight into paternal frailty, either that or sending him to the Ivory Coast.