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Monday, August 24, 2009

How a Paris Carnival differs from an American one

There are certain things I expect when I go to a carnival: The gnashing of gears mingled with the exhilarated screams mingled with that creepy music. Diesel fumes intertwined with motor grease mingled with cooking grease. Funnel cakes, neon snow cones, cotton candy. The prototypical carny, his hands smeared with grime, his teeth blackened with rot, his smell soured by a string of Thunderbird-filled nights, his leer enough to make David Lynch shudder. And a low lying fear that one of the clamps on the 40-year-old Graviton wasn't clamped down tight enough this time, and the whirling orb will soon rip itself and all its nauseated occupants free and sail into the crowd and crush us all into the dusty ground.

When Wendy and I stumbled upon a Paris in May, it seemed, at first, to fit the bill. The nauseating colors were there, and the music and screams and whir of gears, too. A few moments of wandering around, and getting over our surprise at being in a carnival in Paris in the first place, revealed that this was a much different place. The ferris wheels were gigantic, which was a good thing. We needed a good vantage point to figure out where the hell we were, so that we could find our way back to the hotel. We had started out in the city's center hours earlier, our bellies full of a lovely lunch and wine and cafe creme, and began walking along an abandoned rail line that had been converted into a trail, park, and green space. And we didn't stop until, quite disoriented, we reached the end, way out at the Boulevard Peripherique in the city's fringes. There, next to the Bois de Vincennes -- a gigantic park replete with a boat-filled lake -- was the carnival and its towering ferris wheels.

The scarf-wearing, beautiful people of Paris were mostly absent here; this was a place for the working class, the immigrants. The carnies, if you can call them that, were meticulously arranged: Each a distinguished -- at least by rural American standards -- looking man in his 40s, often working alongside a young woman, probably in her early twenties. Most memorable, perhaps, was this: In one food tent, one could order not only German beer on tap, but also soft-served ice cream. And it wasn't just vanilla, or chocolate, or some tasteless swirl, but was cassis, citron, banana, pineapple.

It's these tiny, perhaps insignificant, differences that I love about Europe. Yes, one is dazzled and overwhelmed when the plane lands, and one finds himself in another country struggling to speak and understand another language. It is both remarkable and scary to step onto an airplane in Grand Junction, Colorado, a place that, to be charitable, suffers from aesthetic anemia, and end up less than a day later in Paris, where every person and every baguette and every little planter in every apartment window is infused with some sort of beauty and history. And yet. After one stumbles through ordering that first jambon de Paris, that first cafe creme, that first vin de rouge, and he is sitting there taking it all in, he starts to notice those small things, be it the curbside, automated bike rentals, or the way the waiter allows a patron to linger for hours and hours on end without hassle.

It is these small things, I think, that matter the most. For it is in the most mundane acts that we make the most significant statements about our attitude toward life. I'm sure it says something that Paris has the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, and New York does not. But I think we can find much more significant clues to how one lives in the smaller things, whether it's the cassis ice cream in the Paris carnival, or the way things are presented and packaged in a little store. That's why I could spend hours in a corner grocery in Paris, poring over the selection and noting the quirky-seeming things they sell. Yes, it can be embarrassing for those around me: More than once, Wendy has had to drag me out of a little shop as I picked stuff up from the shelves and exclaimed things like: "Look! They sell Campari and soda in a bottle, like it's soda pop!" as dismayed Parisians tried to steer their way around me in the narrow aisles.

I like the big differences, too, of course. For example, if one of the Parisian carnival rides were to tear loose from its pivots (which seems less likely, since the equipment appeared relatively new), and then mangle me and my fellow carnival-goers, none of us would have to worry about being turned away at the hospital because we didn't have health insurance. Which is a wonderful thing.

But those little things are important. Like this, which was emblazoned on the "Family Fun Hall" at the Paris Carnival. I have to say, I've never seen this at an American fun house. I wonder why?

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