It was December 14 in Paris almost fifteen years ago, cold and dark at dawn, followed by heavy rain, and I was bleary-eyed from staying up all night watching CNN-International in the hotel room. Somewhere in the middle of the night there was Al Gore on the screen, conceding the presidential election to George Bush.
So that was that. And a few hours later I was across the street at the Café Bonaparte doing that French breakfast thing – lots of black coffee and smoking my pipe, and leafing through Libération and Le Figaro and Le Monde, trying to get a sense of what people made of the whole thing. Now and then I’d glance up and stare at the old church next door, where Descartes is buried.
But you can only do so much coffee, and sitting and watching, so it was walking, as the rain started.
Walking the rainy December streets of Paris, with the pipe, is fine, in a Hemingway sort of way or something. The city has its winter smells – wet leaves and bread baking somewhere, and a whiff of burnt diesel from all the odd little cars. And there are the sounds – strange chatter and distant up-and-down silly sirens. And what E. M. Forster once said about winter in London was just as true in Paris – the air did taste like cold pennies. But by noon it was time to find a clean, well-lighted place, and there, in the warren of small streets behind the Odéon, was 16 Rue des Quatre-Vents, the Moosehead – everyone’s favorite Canadian bar in Paris. It would do.
And then the conversation started – with the old fellow who walked in, who claimed he ran a wire service but looked like a bum. We were about the only two customers that afternoon, so we ended up buying each other beers and talking about international politics. It was better than walking in the rain. And he was a good sort – not French, but not exactly a Brit, and certainly not an American. He’d lost it all. He wasn’t anything in particular any longer. He’d just knocked around Paris for decades on the edge of the news business, a go-between, a forwarder of this and that. But he knew things.
Of course we covered the current American political madness, and the French stuff, de Gaulle and Algeria, de Gaulle and NATO, and the nuclear weapons – the whole idea of France’s independent force de frappe and all that. We were appropriately cynical. It was all madness. But the thing I remember now is that he turned to me and said something peculiar – “You know it’s over for America, don’t you?”
The talk that followed that had to do with George Bush, as you would expect. The American electoral system, never very sensible, had broken down, and the guy who had fewer votes was appointed by the Supreme Court, which was bad enough, but the guy was clearly a dim bulb with a nasty streak and a way of invoking God to avoid having to think anything through. No good would come of this.
But that’s not what the old fellow was getting at. He wanted to know just what it was Americans did. He liked the going-to-the-moon thing, and the gaudy junk movies, and rock and jazz – but American cars were crap, and everything we’d invented was now made better and cheaper elsewhere, like the electronics, and Airbus was well on its way to eating Boeing alive, and so on and so forth.
What is it that we did, really, that was so cool? As far as he could tell we were a nation of consumers, producing nothing really fine – just sitting around watching television. France had the extraordinary cheese and wine, and then he pointed up to the television on the wall – the Simpsons, dubbed in French, was on. He said if we were in Germany it would be Bay Watch. And then he muttered a few things about empires in decline.
The only thing to say in response was something like wait – you’ll see. Amazing things will happen. And he smiled and bought another round of beer.