THE BLOG
07/17/2006 02:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities: London and Paris before Haifa and Beirut

Just before war erupted in the middle east last week I was doing my own mini version of shuttle diplomacy between London and Paris, two places I love but whose citizens have always had an uneasy relationship based on centuries of royal enmity and conflicting political aims.

This time though, I felt more than ever that London and Paris were joined at the hip or rather in the bowels of their cities where stark evidence of the totally diverse and polyglot nature of their two societies, once chauvinistically prized for the purity of their lines and refinement of their language, is on display.

Each country has undergone enormous disruption and tragedy in the past year and is facing insurgency from within its own borders.

The English (and I) survived 7/7 with their typical stiff upper lips but their lower lips have been quivering under the persistence of their involvement in Iraq and the second big wave of Angry Young British Men, this round comprised of British-born Muslims who have been disenfranchised both by their parent countries and England. On the anniversary of 7/7, I watched as a previously recorded tape from one of the bombers was released indicating that this was just the first of a series of hits planned throughout the region. Though there were various commemorative events, and a day long television recap, nobody I spoke with seemed to want to revisit that awful day--but just to carry on in the typically British way, with a lot less of the angst and navel gazing than took place in the US a year after 9/11. Granted the magnitude of the events was hugely different. But the disaffection with the Blair regime (extremely evident amongst the editors, journalists and invited "friends" at the annual GUARDIAN summer party I attended) and with the war in Iraq and the US doesn't seem to have spilled over into self-loathing about the hatching of terrorist cells.

The French, too, withstood large scale disruptions this past year in the mostly Arab banlieux and in Paris. Unemployment is the common theme for second generation immigrant and French-born youth alike: the former want in, the latter want never to be allowed out. Though most locals in the gentrified sixteenth where I stayed at a friend's house were already on vacation or at their country homes, the local brasseries and bars were filled to the brim with immigrants avidly devouring the World Cup. I spent the night of the finals being fed French (that's French, not freedom) fries by a proud Algerian who was eager to make friends and whose generosity to all of us echoed the immigrant bonhomie of the team itself. Much was made in the world press of Zidane's repressed anger and the agression of the final head butt but in the bar that night I saw only solidarity and heard singing of the Marseilleise by all concerned.

But the best place to catch up with the polyglot nature of British and French society is indeed in the metro and in the tube: Parisian and London housewives and bankers stand cheek to jowl with Senegalese housewives and Arab workers in a state of coexsistence that almost gives lie to the "troubles" and makes me feel a tiny moment of hope. Of course in Los Angeles there is little bodily mingling since public transportation doesn't extend to the wealthiest enclaves (on the other end of the city they might experience more heart warming shoulder rubbing, but over here on the Westside, the busses carry almost exclusively domestic workers and the occasional car-less student or tourist). It's impossible not to be empathetic and somewhat collegial when you're all riding together. Signage reminds to be on the alert for packages but unlike New York where the recent train bombings in India caused the transit police to step up their passenger searches, a certain complacency seemed the rule rather than the exception. The British and French, in such proximate space with the manifest expression of Islamic radicalism have no choice but to carry on. While co-existence of any kind between Islamic fundamentalism and western civilization seems oxymoronic, (and this week's events in the middle east prove that with the least provocation, both sides cannot wait to fall back on violence), there's no doubt that to some extent, these two ancient countries have been able to absorb and change more than they are often given credit for.

The cities are in full summer artistic flower so there is ample reason to go underground to get where you're going or you risk fifty dollar cab rides to get to your destination. The impact of the pound, more powerful than the Euro against the dollar, packs a mighty ouch for American tourists. .

In England though, a full assault on "flower power" by UKTV in advance of the channel's series on The Beatles Decade pulls the rug out from under all the fifty-somethings who "embellish experiences in the 1960's to impress their children". Gradually, as the sixties have become the go-to decade for those currently undergoing their mid-life crises, hyperbole about how much you really inhaled has been codified by this new study of 3,000 British citizens. The study followed up a questionnaire which revealed that 27 % said they were hippies, 20 % had tried drugs (20 % say they did but only 8% smoked pot and fewer than 1% tried acid), 12% say they met someone from the Beat Generation and 9% claim to have seen the Beatles live.

I fall into all of these parameters (hippy scarves still in my top drawer, extensive drug experimentation though I minimized rather than dwelled on this when questioned repeatedly by four sons as they were growing up, six months living in Alan Ginsburg's former purple rooms in Paris though we never met, saw the Beatles at Shea and have my program and ticket stub to prove it) but mostly look back on that time as one of immense joy coupled with immense fear. Even my journals from 1969 complain that "because there are no limits anymore, nobody knows precisely what to do".

For those of you heading that way in spite of the holes in our pockets, a short list of things to do (and not do):

London:

1. REM KOOLHAAS'S BALLOON AT THE SERPENTINE GALLERY. Each year, the Serpentine commissions an architect to design a temporary pavilion which they then auction off and remove. They are always fun/iconic and useful and Rem's is no exception. Its simplicity and ingeniousness mark him at his playful best.

2. ANGUS MCBEAN PORTRAITS AT THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY. McBean was one of the most important British photographers of the 20th century. His charming and inventive surrealist photos of celebrities and his self-portrait Christmas Cards are worth a detour.

3. MODIGLIANI AT THE ROYAL ACADEMY. Not to be confused with the recent Modigliani retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, this show focuses on Modigliani's muses and models. Modigliani packed a lot of lovin' into a short life.

4. MODERNISM AT THE V AND A. Hurry. This closes on July 23rd and among its riches are video tours of private houses and structures not open to the public. Also, since I DID inhale, I can also stake claim to hanging out at Biba and at Mary Quant and just in time for all of us revisiting our swinging selves, the V and A has mounted a small exhibition of SIXTIES BRITISH FASHION the entrance to which is marked by paper mini dresses. I want one!

5. REBELS AND MARTYRS AT THE NATIONAL GALLERY. A beautiful show of late eighteenth to early twentieth century portraits with the idea of the artist as a tortured, misunderstood, rebellious genius. Companion to the Modigliani, Modernism and McBean show in its way, the exhibition is a permanent record of bohemianism amounting to something very fine indeed.

6. Though the queue is for Kandinsky at the TATE MODERN, I much preferred the spectacular SURREALISM AND POETRY show one floor below. Drawn from the heart of the Tate's amazing holdings from this period, the Tate trots out its miracles of Ernst, Dali, Picabia , de Chirico and those that followed. I spoke with the chief curator who assures me that most of this work cannot ever leave the building.

7. "EH JOE", THE BECKETT mini play staged by Atom Egoyan and inhabited by Michael Gambon, twice every night in the West End. This twenty minute play will either dazzle you with Gambon's acting technique (he doesn't speak a word) or remind you that Beckett is an acquired taste.

8. "ROCK N ROLL", THE NEW TOM STOPPARD. I spent much of my week calling in every favor to get a ticket to this hottest of plays at the Royal Court and gave up a fantastic dinner party to attend it instead when a ticket came through at the last minute. I disliked it intensely and was so disappointed since I had just re-read "The Real Thing and seen the "Jumpers" revival not long ago in NY and thus was still full of Stoppard's brilliant, intuitive way of making ideas into emotional constructs. This polemic about an anti-communist cell in Prague and the family of a Cambridge don interspersed (mercifully, but superficially) with cuts from Pink Floyd and the Stones doesn't get it nearly as right as Stoppard's own television play "Professional Foul" (1977) which said it better, shorter and smarter.

And across the channel,

Paris:

1. THE QUAI BRANLY MUSEUM. Chirac's attempt at leaving an artistic mark on Paris via Jean Nouvel. It's really a failure, both inside and out. Herzog and de Meuron did wonders with similar Asian/African collections in San Francisco and the two museums are a contrast in elegance of style and program. Nouvel's multi-colored boxes which project from the façade make for silly statements on the street and impassible vault-like claustrophobia in the galleries. A Disneyland-style fake dune wall studded with video of dancers and tribesmen was effective mostly in finding a place to perch for a second in the confusing galleries. The long allee to the galleries under a projected rain forest canopy meant to invoke the path to the forest (or savannah) a total waste of space. (One would never know that the country was in deep financial crisis. Vive la France for its subways, its dedication to art, its universal pre-school education, its fabulous soccer team and of course, its astonishing fried potatoes.)

2. THE MOVEMENT OF IMAGES: ART AND FILM AT THE CENTRE POMPIDOU. A film and video-based show on the ascendance of the moving image in art tries in the way that so many Pompidou shows do to fill the fabulous space. I'm always exhausted and addled at the end of a few hours at the Beaubourg and in spite of a re-do by Renzo Piano a few years ago, the curators still haven't figured out how to inhabit their glorious Rogers/Piano museum. Also the tail end of the LOS ANGELES show which clarified with precision that LA's major contributions to contemporary art have been in the realm of the conceptual and that almost all of the ideas (Ferus, Cal Arts, Pop, Performance) are being recycled (mostly with less élan and invention) by the current generation of artists.

3. Turns out the Devil should have been wearing BALENCIAGA instead of Prada. The retrospective of the Spanish émigrés work at the DECORATIVE ARTS MUSEUM ADJACENT TO THE LOUVRE was lovely and amazing. The Nicholas Ghesquierre collections at the end look sadly fussy and contrived next to the elegant lines and ingenious construction in the Christobal-filled vitrines that preceed. There are at least four ensembles I cannot live without and short of a Topkapi-like raid on the Louvre, I am trying to figure out why somebody doesn't just relax and knock this stuff off. It's more modern, more sculptural, more refined than any designer working today. H and M where are you?!

4. THE ORANGERIE. Though re-done, this building still houses the mostly insipid collection of Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume, whose wife Domenica sold off most of the good stuff. I used to love seeing Monet's Lilies at MoMA in the sixties and paid my obeisance then. The impressionists are looking rather the worse for wear, I'm afraid, though this is the stuff people think of when they think of French art. Yawn.

5. MARIE ANTOINETTE. Just in time for Bastille Day, Sofia Coppola's new film. Sumptuous and beautiful, minus the deft characterizations and soulfulness of her previous work. I wonder how Sony is going to market this since if I didn't get it (Sofia lover, Francophile), I don't know who will.

Now that I'm back tuned 24/7 to CNN --is it possible that Anderson Cooper is now the eminence grise (well, he is gris anyway) that is going to take us through this next television war? More importantly, can the Israelis dig deep and find a way to stem the Hezbollah incursions without seeding total revolt by all their neighbors in the region? Dickens tale focused on great sacrifices made in the name of principle during the time of the French revolution. Here's to a quick return to the unsettling, low frequency coexistence that passes for peace in the middle east.

Cheerio and Bon Voyage.