Springsteen in Paris, a Fiat 500 Hybrid in the Alps, and an America that no longer works

Sometimes, you can learn a lot about yourself, your country, and the world at large on vacation in what might as well be half a world away, but the lessons aren’t always positive. 

Paris in particular and France in general has never been high on my list of countries to visit.  This is not based on any prejudice or belief that Paris was not a great city in a great country, only that neither has really called out to me on an emotional level for whatever reason, perhaps simply my love of more simple food like good old fashioned BBQ.  My European list, in order, was always Germany, Ireland, Italy, England, and Spain.  I’d crossed the first two off my list and was working on the third until Bruce Springsteen announced his European tour last year complete with a Saturday date in Paris in mid-May.  Suddenly, the City of Lights became a highly desirable location, and as is often the case, I was proven catastrophically wrong in my prior opinion about the country.  It turns out that Paris and greater France could not be more suited for me and I for them should they have been designed by ChatGPT expressly for the purpose.  I came to this conclusion, again as I often do, with a beer after being in the country for less than 10 hours after a somewhat bumpy arrival.  The plane from Newark was delayed two hours, then one hour, then slightly more than two, and we arrived on a rainy day in a major airport unsure precisely where to catch an Uber.  Both of my wife and I are unable to sleep on planes, and we were exhausted beyond reason.  This did not prevent me from getting a beer within ten minutes of arriving at the hotel, but it did require a nap after a short steam and sauna to take the edge off.  Three hours later we hit the streets and walked up to the magnificent Arc de Triomphe and Champs Elysées, and I began to grow more aware of my surroundings.  The weather had improved and people were starting to come out and about on an early Friday evening.  The brasseries and cafes were open, most with tables right out front, and on those tables were ashtrays, calling out to all drinkers and (cigar) smokers to stop for a while and take in the scene.  Which, of course, we promptly did before continuing onward to the Eiffel Tower.

Me and my street beer by the Eiffel Tower.
Me and my street beer by the Eiffel Tower.

It was walking up the Seine when the beauty of Paris truly dawned on me.  The Eiffel rose in its old-school industrial splendor in the near distance on the left, the river flowed on the right clogged with boats in all shapes and sizes, and enterprising merchants were setting up blankets to sell light-bespectacled replicas, water, and bottles of beer right on the broad sidewalk.  What is this I said to myself?  Could it be?  Of course, I didn’t have any Euros on me, only American dollars.  Still, I was hopeful approaching the vendor.  Can you walk around with that on the street?  Yes!  How does $5 American dollars sound?  Sure, and I was off with a kind of warm but glorious nonetheless Heineken.   I understand that most will not be nearly so impressed with this turn of events, but try this in New York City and see what happens past the billowing pot smoke.  In an irony of ironies, pot is everywhere but booze is not these days. Friday evening took us from a cafe by the Eiffel to an Italian dinner in Neuilly-sur-Seine, but it was merely a prelude to the festivities the following day and the long awaited Springsteen in Paris performance.  In addition to the constant consumption of alcohol, I can rarely stop moving on vacation, and so we began Saturday underground at the catacombs where some two million bodies have been buried beneath the streets of Paris for hundreds of years.  Oddly, the bones are not simply randomly strewn about, but rather organized into what can only be described as artistic displays eerily lining the tunnels.  The tunnels themselves date back to the French Revolution, when they were constructed largely by accident.  Paris suddenly found itself sinking, literally buildings falling into the forgotten mines dug hundreds of years before.  Contrasting the dark with the light, we then headed to the gardens of the Palace at Versailles.  All I can say is the Sun King had some view from his backyard, a backyard in general big enough to get lost in, and they sell beer there as they do almost everywhere else.

The Sun King's backyard with a beer,
The Sun King’s backyard with a beer.

The Springsteen concert was up next after another nice steam and sauna to keep our energy properly up.  Before heading to Paris, my wife and I had an ongoing debate about how big Bruce Springsteen would be in France in general.  I, perhaps needless to say, assumed it was the same as the United States, reasoning that he was playing multiple sold out dates across many European cities, the same as here.  My lovely wife was a little more skeptical, and to be fair to her, New Jersey is Springsteen Central, where fans have been known to be more than a little insane in their worship of the Boss, myself included having seen over 30 shows with at least one more to go this year.  France is a world away, and exists in a completely different cultural milieu than graduation gowns thrown in rags at lover’s feet and burned out Chevrolets haunting dusty beach.  Springsteen grew up in a world of cheap squalor; row houses and seedy beaches.  Paris is a world of splendor, marvels hundreds of years old stretched everywhere you look, complete with food at times so fancy I wasn’t sure what it was using Google translate.  What kind of connection could he possibly have with people that grew up in the shadow of the Sun King himself?  The debate was over as soon as we left the Metro station.  There was a line of Springsteen fans well over half a mile long more than two hours before the show started, leaving us to wonder if entrance to concerts worked differently in France than America.  Moreover, the line was jammed with concert goers in Bruce gear, eschewing the normally high fashion of Paris for tour and album tee-shirts, the same as in the United States.  This was obviously going to be big, but since neither my wife nor I have any patience for lines, we retired to a bar overlooking the venue up until showtime.

La Defense Arena is located in a relatively new section of Paris, where the old word statuary and buildings have given way to a decidedly modern look and feel.  On the way from the Metro, you pass a striking office building designed as a thoroughly geometric arch rising some 30 or 40 stories before the arena itself is revealed.  La Defense is the largest indoor facility in France, with a floor the size of a rugby field and seating for over 30,000, dwarfing Madison Square Garden by well over 50%.  Our pre-party destination, Billy Billy, sat right across the quad with a second story open area for seating that provided an excellent view of the crowd along with dinner, drinks, and ample cigar smoking opportunities on a beautiful day.  The bar was as packed as the line, and we found ourselves seated next to a gentleman from the South of France who was at the show solo after his wife refused to endure yet another performance and three couples from Iceland there to see Bruce for the first time.  Two hours and many, many drinks later, we entered the arena, acquired yet another beer and were pleased to learn the prices were no higher inside than outside, marched or rather weaseled our way out onto the floor perfectly timed for Springsteen’s own entrance, and the show immediately began as if the Boss had been waiting on us.  The floor itself was overflowing, packed in right up until the entrances and exits.  We’d been on the floor before at Prudential, but La Defense is both much larger and France fills in a lot more bodies, almost all of whom were extremely fired up.  Between the roar of the music and the crowd, it was impossible to tell what country you were in.  We could’ve been transplanted from anywhere in the world, and it would have made no difference save for Bruce’s occasional references to Paris, Pariiiiie, the French subtitles on the big screen during a few songs, and the much less expensive alcohol prices.  The audience knew all the in concert parts of the songs, from the “Uh-oh, Uh-oh” that ends “Out in the Street” to the outro of “Badlands.”  Song wise, the set list was similar to Madison Square Garden with three welcome additions.  An interesting version of “Mary’s Place” with Springsteen hamming it up through a soft, whispered verse before the booming chorus replaced “Trapped,” and a rousing “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Bobby Jean” were added to the encores.

Exiting the show was unlike anything in the United States, however.  Rather than end liquor sales in the final third of the performance, the stands were pouring fresh ones for concert goers to purchase on their way out, which I promptly did to help wind down the evening.  Truly, beer is everywhere in France.  The next day we rounded out the Paris part of the trip with the Tuileries and the Louvre, only to discover a beer stand immediately across from the park entrance that was open before noon and so I found myself on the line for the museum drinking a cold one.  The Louvre itself is something to behold beyond anything one would normally consider a museum.  Put it this way, if you removed every single piece of art, many of which are absolutely priceless in and of themselves, and the building itself was left completely empty, the sprawling, magnificent structure alone would still be priceless.  Otherwise, I lack the knowledge and words to describe it, save that you can easily get lost for hours moving from exhibit to exhibit.  In addition to the legendary works like the Mona Lisa and Venus di Milo, there are rooms upon rooms of everything from 18th century French sculpture arranged in a stunning courtyard to the actual dining room of Emperor Napoleon III.  Well, that and there is a patio restaurant and bar overlooking the instantly recognizable pyramid entrance that serves beer and wine and where you can sneak in a cigar mid-day because who doesn’t need alcohol and tobacco along with their Winged Nike?  The Tuileries is a large park and garden facing the Louvre, running all the way to the Champs Elysées, lined on one side by cafes and brasseries, and about as fine a place to spend an afternoon as anywhere on the planet.  It is in places like this that you see the true wonder of France.  As one of our Uber drivers put it, Parisians know how to enjoy life. By late afternoon, the gardens were full with couples, families, tourists, and more, walking through the magnificent trees and hedges, lounging on the lawns, gazing at the fountains, and finding all the hidden treasures in every nook and cranny.

The next day we took a high speed train, once again with a bar, west to the Alps and Annecy, where a promenade (the French absolutely love their promenades) fronts a magnificent lake and snow capped mountains loom in the background.  Annecy is known as the Venice of the Alps because the old city was built around canals at the south end of the lake.  Close to Switzerland, the cuisine is French with a different flare, cordon bleu and fondue, a bit more suited to my palette.  Overall, it’s about the most ridiculous Lake George in the Alps anyone has ever seen, combining a huge park, boat rentals and tours, hundreds of year old architecture and tourist attractions.  Annecy is nothing like Paris, but certain details carry.  The promenade and park feature prominent artwork, sculptured trees, and hidden areas.  We must’ve walked it ten times and were still discovering something new.  Also like Paris, people are out and about, walking, relaxing, riding bikes, filling cafes, and drinking beers as the world wanders by.  The old town in the morning becomes an open air market with vendors lining the streets selling sausage, cheese, fresh vegetables, and more, turning block after block into a roving festival beside the canals and presided over by some of the most magnificent mountains in the world.  The lake itself is said to be the cleanest in all the Alps and has the distinctive blue-green color unique to the region; whether the sun is rising on one side or setting on the other, the water beckons.  To anyone with an interest in automobiles and driving, the Alps also beckon and so we were fortunate enough to rent a little Fiat 500 Hybrid with a six-speed and take off for Geneva, Switzerland via a rather scenic route (I now have the honor of having driven in four European countries).  Three immediate thoughts presented themselves:  The car definitely needed more power (it literally slows down going uphill in sixth gear at full throttle), driving through the Alps is not the same as looking at them, and the French allow passing almost anywhere, which I promptly proceeded to undertake much to my wife’s chagrin.  What would be a solid line as far as the eye can see in the United States, is dotted except around only the sharpest of curves.  Once an Alpha Romeo blew by me, I was off to the races myself. Also, mountains in the States tend to be remote save for ski lodges, but France being a much older country, everything is far more populated.  There were thriving towns and villages packed throughout even the highest passes, literally clinging to mountainsides, surrounded by cows who don’t much like intruders, at least American ones.

This cow in the Alps did not take kindly to Americans.

A cow did not take kindly to Americans.

Alas, it was almost time to come home.  We drove 300 odd miles across France without seeing a cop, marveling at the countryside, passing old capsules at times, and the quality of the French roads, and spent the night in Chantilly, where I was thrilled to learn parts of James Bonds’ A View to a Kill was filmed, one of my personal favorites although Roger Moore is looking a tad old.  At the airport the next day and upon our long delayed arrival back home, I really started to wonder whether America still has it or if we truly have become a country in decline, one that no longer works.  I say this with no little regret and a lot of irony considering Americans normally claim Europe is the one in decline, but that’s certainly not what we saw wherever we traveled.  The people in general were more active, thinner and better dressed.  They live far less uptight lives, enjoying themselves in public without worrying about getting a ticket for having something as stupid as a beer.  At Madison Square Garden, you’re lucky to get a drink half way through the show, even forgetting the exorbitant prices.  In France, they serve them on the way out the door.  Some might call it an insignificant matter, but it represents a fundamental difference in world view.  Governments in America believe people need to be controlled.  In France (and Germany and Austria), they believe people can control themselves.  Perhaps if it ended there, I would be more optimistic, but it didn’t.  The roads in France are far superior.  The police are less present.  Everything simply seems to work just that much better.  Out of dozens of flights, only ours flying a US airline was delayed by over six hours.  After landing in Newark, we spent an hour on the tarmac before hitting our gate and then another two hours in customs.  I said to my wife:  This is the first impression many people will have of the United States and it is absolutely terrible.  I had an easier time getting into India at 1.30 in the morning.  There is no excuse for any of it. While there is certainly time to right the ship as they say, it seems like something is seriously wrong in America and we have become a country that no longer works.


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