The more it changes . . .
Despite some reports to the contrary, Paris - I am happy to say - is still Paris. I have been staying here for a week, and the weather has been unusually hot. The Parisians act as if it were still summer. They shed their clothes, as they would in July. It is only the traveler in his autumn suit, or the banker in his coat of customary black, who suffers. The Luxembourg gardens are filled with young people hungrily drinking in the last of the season's warm sun, while inside the nearby Senate, in fabulous rooms built for Marie de Medicis, grave senators congratulate one another upon their success in the recent elections, or commiserate with their confreres who have been defeated.
Dogs are everywhere. In the restaurants I have seen at least one sitting at his own place at table, ironically contemplating the human scene. On another occasion one sat scarcely visible beneath the table, so that I caused a scandal when I stepped on its tail. The dog took the insult more calmly, I may say, than did either its so-called owner or the attendant waiters. In America, I have found, the number of dogs in a city or a neighborhood indicates the prevalent degree of loneliness or fear among people. But in Paris a dog is taken for granted as another member of the household, a sort of hitherto unacknowledged distant cousin.
Besides dogs, Parisian restaurants are frequented by incredibly chic French women, and by solitary old men dining in a silent dignity that casts its spell over surrounding tables. One such I found seated near me the other day, frail, bent, feeble of step, but still unmistakably dapper. He had once lived in the quartier and, though he had moved to the other side of Paris, he still returned on Saturdays, making his way through the crowded Metro to lunch in this familiar place.
A waiter who had been notably cool and formal, warmed when I asked him about this distinguished habitue. He still went daily to his office in a famous research institute, I was told. ''Oh, I will not say that he is as effective as he once was,'' the waiter continued, ''but no doubt he exercises a good influence upon the young.''
The old bureaucracies persist, reinforced by a plethora of new rules created by a Socialist government. It has been determined, for example, that if in a bus there is a quarrel as to whether a window be open or closed, the one favoring the closed window has the benefit of the doubt. If the quarrel degenerates into hand-to-hand combat, the advocate of the open window is penalized for breaking the peace. A logical solution, considering the peril an open window may impose - but one that might have been arrived at by common consent rather than by decree!
The museums have their own complex and arcane arrangements. My wife had conceived a desire to visit the galleries of the Louvre containing Sumerian art. In the Metropolitan in New York she had been repulsed. There the Sumerian art was inaccessible, having been closed to the public because of the need for guards at the Vatican exhibition - a situation, by the way, that raises doubts about the appropriateness of such big, blockbuster exhibitions. At the Louvre, my wife thought, things would surely be different.
Having got herself across the town in the heat I have already mentioned, she found the museum closed unexpectedly by a strike. The day she returned, having been assured the museum was open, it was indeed - but the galleries of Sumerian art were not. After much telephoning a letter to the director was secured, and we were promised that on the following day we would be received by special arrangement. Alas, those good intentions came to naught, for on the third visit it turned out that, owing to some work going on in the galleries, we could not be admitted until the following week.
The story has a happy ending, as most stories about Paris do. Ultimately we beheld the Louvre's great Sumerian collection, these relics of civilization that flourished some 3,000 years before the Christian epoch, the first to invent writing, the first to establish a formal legal code. In the light of these eternities, and these verities, what does it matter that one is delayed a few days? What if a little inconvenience, a minor bureaucratic tangle, intervenes?
Art is still art, Paris is still Paris, and the more the world changes the more these two overarching entities keep their value amid the flux.