On my first day back in the city after a spell in the US, I needed to take care of some banking business. French banking is bizarrely awkward. The place is over-banked, a bank on every corner it seems, but one cannot go to just any branch of your bank and, with the right account numbers, take care of things; one must go to one’s branch, where one opened the account. It strikes me as being about as ridiculous, inefficient and irrational, as the American health care system. My account, purely by accident, had been opened at the Champs Elysees Branch, so off I went, on the #1 line to metro station Franklin Roosevelt.
On the Metro, I stood next to a seated Arabic-speaking family. They were not strict Muslims, however, because the mother, in her 30s, was not wearing a headscarf. Their daughter, around seven, was wearing an English-looking tweed overcoat and a Japanese “hello kitty” knit cap: a child with a wonderfully eclectic cultural menu on her plate. The mother offered me her seat, actually rising from it. How gracious! And how discouraging. I don’t feel that I need a younger person’s seat on the metro, but I must look it. I declined.
I walked the several blocks to my bank. It was 5PM and the branch was closed. Three months ago, this branch regularly closed its doors between 1PM and 3PM, so everyone could go to lunch, and it stayed open until 6PM. Now, the sign said, it would stay open “sans interruptions” until 4:30PM. So much for taking care of business. But, one says to oneself, this is France. It is the kind of thing one gets used to.
And indeed, I was so glad to be back, that I forgave my bank and went for a promenade, joining the crowds flowing easily along the broad sidewalks of the Champs Elysees; Christmas shopping without the crush one experiences on Fifth Avenue in New York, or Oxford Street in London. In the distance, at Place de la Concord, I could see the lights of the Ferris Wheel. It is becoming my Christmas Day tradition, to ride this Ferris Wheel on Christmas Day. As I stroll along Champs Elysees, I hear a “clack a clack a clack’ sound. Two Police Nationale officers on beautiful horses are threading their way through the crowds.
Back in the Metro, I note the train’s female voice announcing the stops. “Champs Elysees-Clemenceau.” Spoken together, the words are polished smooth, a pleasure to not just to hear, but to savor the associations, the mythic and the historical. The Elysian Fields of Greek mythology, where the shades of the dead strolled and conversed, combined with the name of Georges Clemenceau: a wonderful mix of antiquity and the near past.
Clemenceau was to France in World War I what Winston Churchill was to Great Britain in the Second World War: the backbone. Clemenceau interests me, a man of great moral courage and indomitable will. When he was in his eighties he fell in love with a married woman, forty years his junior, who was struggling with the death of a child. Together, they produced an enormous quantity of letters; Clemenceau’s side of the correspondence has been published. In one of these letters, early in the relationship, he writes to her that if she will help him prepare for dying, he will help her learn how to live. I was very moved by this. And so, reminded of “The Tiger,” as Clemenceau was called during his lifetime, by passing through the metro stop that bears his name, I resolved to dig the book out my piles and read a letter in it each night before sleep. A good example he sets. I am sure no one ever offered him a seat on a public conveyance. In the Elysian Fields I imagine Clemenceau, Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill, great men, the likes of whom we no longer see, strolling in the shadows, discussing times gone by. Roosevelt has recovered the use of his legs.