Letter from Paris

With all those lovers of rugby football around, the city of light and romance is living literally in rugby mania. Up to October 20, Paris is hosting the Rugby World Cup 2007. Therefore, it is not quite so easy to get a hotel room here these days. Sure, if you have tens of thousands in the bank, you can always book yourself into the George V, one of the world’s greatest (and most expensive) hotels. But even if you can’t afford that kind of extravagance, Paris has something for everyone. Even in these critical days, with some effort, you can get a room. Forget the traditional walk along the Seine and the Latin Quarter and instead head up to the 10th arrondissement, which is fast becoming the new place for lefty creative types. Thanks to www.cheap-hotels.net, I found the Hotel Milan in the neighborhood of Gare du Nord for less than 80 euros. Not bad at all. With a simple breakfast buffet without, thank God, the smelly, oozing French cheeses that you can find in the chic new boutique hotels in the center. The exact price was an amazing 65 euros. It was like I «ate a baby.» A rugby fan from New Zealand I met at breakfast instructed me that «Eat babies» in rugby slang means to kick some serious ass on the pitch. Can one use it in that context? I wonder. Anyhow, I also wonder if one finds anything on that scale in Athens? Of what I know, there are places in Athens where a rugby fan can watch the Paris World Cup, including the French Institute in Athens, Kolonaki; the Bulldog pub, Maroussi; the Flying Pig, Piraeus; JJ’s, Glyfada; and Mike’s Irish Bar, Ambelokipi. Back to Paris where a revolutionary «velorution» is taking place. At least that is what the French call the new bicycle scheme. The bikes are free to ride (well, for the first halfhour. An additional 30 minutes costs 1 euro). It is now a month that city is into the Velib («freedom bike») and everyone has gone bike bonkers. Typically for Paris, their free bikes are rather chic. They come in gray, camel and black. So you can now explore Paris by saddle. Yesterday (with splendid sunny Sunday weather after some days of rain), several main arteries were closed to traffic. Bravo for a mayor that welcomes cyclists. Recently Mayor of Athens Nikitas Kaklamanis sent a letter to new Transport Minister Costis Hatzidakis asking for consent for sommuters to transport bicycles on the subway, as well as to prolong the underground circulation until 2 a.m. There has yet been no answer. Here in Paris, tipsy ravers leaving bars and nightclubs can in theory cycle home instead of getting ripped off by exorbitant cab drivers. I used to live in Paris long ago. That was before Greek children imagined it as the city of glittering castles run by big-eared mice. Has Disney beaten out the Louvre and the Centre Pompidou? Last weekend there were masses of young people outside both museums. At the time – the 70s – the Greek intelligentsia – Nikos and Roussos Koundouros, Vangelis Papathanassiou, Yiannis Tsarouchis, Melina Mercouri, Marios Ploritis, et cetera – met in the cafes of St Germain and the Latin Quarter smoking Gitanes and drinking strong petit cafes and, sometimes, playing backgammon in the Tuilerie Gardens. Happy memories indeed. Yet Paris is a fast-paced, changing city that gets on without you. Yesterday I saw some young Greeks lounging on a Starbucks sofa sipping coffee from American cardboard cups. Oh yes, I also saw a Greek pizzaria on Rue St Denis. It was named «Marmara,» and was run by a Turkish family. Nostalgia makes you feel you know the place. Being a francophone, I sure loved Paris then. Coming too often from Berlin where I was studying, I felt the hard-to-disguise tension and rivalry between France and the then pre-eminent Germany. It was a time when France was rethinking its international role, but did not know how to reorient its self-esteem away from a notion of singularity. Older generations must recall the so-called Gaulist Grandeur, which almost obstructed a New Europe. Now that Europeans have had time to digest the experience from the French presidential elections, the slightly bedazzled first impression from the new French leader has given way to the asking of a sober, puzzled question: Is Mr Nicolas Sarkozy’s main aim to become Europe’s new leader? «Cassandra’s Notebook,» a column in the last issue (September 23-29) of New Europe, a newspaper published in Brussels, bore the significant title «A new leader is emerging and his name is Sarkozy,» which gave an affirmative answer. «We live in hard and difficult times and Europe is in desperate search of leadership. With climate change and global warming threatening the future of our children, the growing gap in the standards of living between the West and the Third World, with the constant threat of pandemics, the growing threat of terrorism and energy crises becoming part of everyday life, Europe needs a strong and determined leadership. It seems that Mr Sarkozy is the only candidate for the job.» Thanks, Cassandra, for the suggestion. It’s almost like a scrum – a scrum in rugby occurs when the ball is put back into play after an infraction, my New Zealander coached me at the breakfast table. But can rugby – or Sarkozy – be dangerous ? «Well, it looks dangerous because there is a lot of contact, but if you learn how to do it right and execute it safely, you are home free…»