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At Last for Heather

photo, heather's birthday, o chateau

When Heather's guests were few enough to count.

Parking Ticket Ladies

Paris:– Saturday, 22. October 2005:– Life is tough sometimes. Here we are outside the Bouquet and uncle Den–Den doesn't want to go in for one for the road because he was 'on the road' until three in the morning last night, and our road tonight is supposed to take us to Heather's birthday party in a place full of wine, possibly women, maybe music, and almost certainly, no clocks.

On the Métro there's a Saturday night mob heading north and we miss our change at Réamur–Sébastopol. On the map the dark green line goes through it and the light green line goes through Strasbourg–Saint Denis. I think my home map has a mistake, because both seem go to Oberkampf. I guess maybe a million people a year mix up Sébastopol with Strasbourg, but it's not fatal.

Uncle Den–Den almost leaps off at République but I drag him back. At Oberkampf it's darkphoto, heather and friends and starting to rain and the streets are as confusing as I anticipated. Finding 100. Rue de la Folie–Méricourt is not for those used to the grid system, with the diagonal Avenue de la République being exceptionally confusing.

Heather and friends, ready to party.

We are inexplicitly in the right place and ahead of time so we retire to a corner café of the sort favored by street cleaners and have uncle Den–Den's drink for the road. Outside the rain stops, the streets glisten and red and green reflects from the traffic signals.

The Rue de la Folie–Méricourt is not wide or lively and has a few overhead lights. We find the address behind a new steel gate after popping in the code, and then we follow the instructions. Diagonal to the left across the courtyard to building 'D.' There's a party going on in an apartment to the left, partly out on its balcony, so we hit the buzzer on the most likely gate we find in the dark.

Part of the entry instructions caution against making noise. The party is making a racket so we can't hear what the monsieur leaning out the window is saying. Not this gate? Try the door to the right. Oops, it's full of green garbage bins. And uncle Den–Den has disappeared.

There's a passage going straight back that I didn't notice it in the dark and he's in there, with another Joe, both looking at another entry. But there's no 'D' in sight. Aha, there's a second courtyard beyond, and in a corner – yes, diagonally – we find entry 'D.' Now we are not to use the elevator and be quiet going up the stairs, polished wood, lots of steps, round and round the elevator shaft.

Counting the ground as zero, the reward is on the fourth floor, with a poster for Ô–Château. Olivier opens the door and we see an almost bare, large room with a bar at the end, with Heather fussing around it.

While I am pretending to kiss the cheeks of Heather and all of Heather's lovely friends who aren't guys, maybe I should mention what this is about. Heather was the first person in history to join the Café Metropole Club. She did this by signing the membership book first, before 600 other people, which was and is good enough.

At the time, in 1999, I thought Heather was 26. Over the years I would have thought that Heather became 25 except that she left Elle magazine and started her Web site, Secrets of Paris, and started her newsletter, wrote a great travel guide, and kept coming to club meetings except for the time she moved to the Riviera. So I was expecting Heather to turn 23 any moment now and was quite surprised to learn that tonight's fête is about the big 30.

If uncle Den–Den is my uncle then I guess I am Heather's uncle. I must say she's done a good job getting to where she is tonight, which is in Olivier Magny's world headquarters for his Ô–Chateau – a wine tasting lounge in his loft–like apartment in a former industrial area of Paris, one hop east of République.

Olivier is a Parisian of about 24 or 28 whose parents own a winery in Beaujolais, and Olivier is a business gradphoto, snacks plus a sommelier, plus a speaker of Italian and English with notions of Spanish, and Olivier lives in this space big enough for dancing but it is really for drinking wine and eating cheese, and everybody who makes a reservation is welcome. All visitors need do is find entry 'D,' which it probably easy in daylight.

I tell Olivier about arriving guests possibly making a bit of noise coming in if they are finding the garbage room first. I think he says he will put up another sign downstairs, out near the street, but the big room is filling up with yakking guests who like loud music.

We have also been told to please not trash his place and its white furnishings because it's his showroom and take our stale smoke out to the landing, and be quiet out there. There are, the instructions in French add, sponges for sopping up sloppy drinking.

Well, I think, if there's likely to be sloppy drinking, it must mean that the other warnings about noise are simply pro forma. Sloppy drinking happens when folks are relaxed, not when they are uptight. I, for one, am ready for the good times, and Olivier gives me an apple juice.

Although this is not a club meeting there are several members present. However because it's not a club meeting – this is Saturday night, not Thursday afternoon – I can't remember anybody's names, except for Claire who is probably member number six. There is a guy who I think is Scottish, but is really from Boston, and I try to talk him out of living in Versailles while failing to hear him telling me he's moving to Saint–Denis.

Another guy, not a club member, says he is from northern Virginia, in pretty good French. And some French guysphoto, bottles who lived in America, they speak pretty good French too. In fact, many of these are probably Olivier's buddies – tidy dudes none over 30, all from the biz school and many from interesting parts of France like Toulouse and the Auvergne, even if they don't look like rugby players.

More arrive and cluster around the sizeable bar with its snacks and bottles and some, like the mystery writer Roman Payne, bring bottles and cheese but not many bring a present for Heather like uncle Den–Den does.

But all good things come to an end sooner for us old dudes. There's really a big crowd of under–30s folks gathering out on the landing getting ready to burst in when uncle Den–Den wilts, running out of boom–boom in his tank so we go around and wave our lips around ears and necks and then get out the door, and I can't pass up a bit of argle–bargle with – what seem to be rugby players. These monsters, these French basketball players.

Coming away, after sneaking through the courtyard on tippy toes, loud party sounds all around pouring down from open windows and the other crew out on the balcony popping corks, we find the street where we left it. It is absolutely silent and deserted and glistening from the rain.

At the end of the street we are faced with the diagonal again and scratching our memories for howphoto, dennis to find the way back in reverse. Uncle Den–Den says, "Wasn't that great how they talked to us? They didn't seem to mind at all how old we are."

Yeah, there we were, the two of us as antique as any five of them. It's why people pay to go see the dinosaurs. There we were, for free, walking and talking, living fossils, helping Heather handle being 30.

Ô Château, 100. Rue de la Folie Méricourt, Building D, Paris 11. Métro: Oberkampf or République. InfoTel.: 01 44 73 97 80.

Parking Ticket Ladies

I'm glad I don't have a car because there is a 'circulation' shop with red tiles right around the corner between Fermat and Daguerre. A sign on the locked door with a code buzzer says, 'Public not welcome.' It's the Montparnasse headquarters of the parking ticket ladies.

There's nothing to see there. They are either in there tidying up their tickets or they are walking around sticking them on cars. There doesn't seem to be any pattern to the outside work, but they probably have some scheme. You see them working sometimes but mostly you don't see them, except if they are hiding around the corner having a smoke, waiting for quitting time.

I suspect the illegal parking fine might be quite a bit, especially now that they are in euros. For example, littering can cost 183 euros. In theory the parking ticket ladies can hand out tickets for stupid littering or for reckless dog poop. But nobody wants confrontations. Putting a ticket on a car with no driver around is safe as red roses.

France has a lot of laws. The bloody Romans started it, the kings took over, then the revolution carried on the kings' laws and added some more, and now administrators are trained in their own fancy schools – the ENA – and they've learned to add micro decrees, so there are laws piled on top of laws. This is not a big problem because few of them are enforced. Enforcing laws costs a lot of money and enforcement annoys people. If you get something stupid like Vichy in WWII, they didn't write a lot of new laws, but mostly enforced old laws. Even the Germans enforced fewer laws.

It's one of the reasons that so many – except Nazis – Germans like France. Germans like the idea of laws that aren't enforced; they think the French know how to live properly with bags of tolerance. Nazis think the French are degenerate and corrupt.

Actually, if you look at car dashboards, you'll see a lot of the tickets printed out by the parking metres. Most people pay, because no matter how much it costs, it's cheaper than getting fines, especially now that they cost real money instead of francs.

The presidential amnesty isn't guaranteed. If you don't pay parking tickets for five years, waiting for the amnesty, and it doesn't happen, then where are you? But some French like living recklessly. I guess there's a reason for all the casinos and racetracks.

The amnesty – it's an old tradition when a new president is elected. During the election campaign, when the candidates are making their promises – a newspaper or TV–news will ask the question – what is your amnesty plan? Considered to be chicken–feed, it might be a forgiveness for all parking tickets. The problem is, pedestrians vote too, and how do you give them a freebie? The president can't promise cleaner sidewalks after all. Sidewalks are run by the city, not by the Elysée Palace.

France and other European countries are having talks at the moment, inching towards having a continental registry – so French cops can ticket foreign cars and foreign drivers can't escape paying the fines by leaving town like Germans do. Our dynamic but short minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, has said foreign cars will not be immune after the beginning of 2006. Foreign drivers don't vote here.

The new measure will surely put a dent in tourism. How many repressed Europeans will pass up France now that there's to be no immunity for tearing around, breaking all the laws? For foreigners, being under Sarkozy's little thumb will not be amusing.

But parking fines are a great way to fill up the government's coffers. Chasing pedophiles over the Internet is not nearly as rewarding. I mean, French parents want to hear that Sarkozy isphoto, traffic, bike, leclerc chasing pedophiles – so he'll say he is – but parking tickets are a real money–maker in comparison. It's a form of tax after all – the city gets money from those who pay, and later from those who don't – and all it costs is paying for some parking ticket ladies. The city probably even makes them buy their own uniforms.

Some drivers suspect the parking ticket ladies get a commission but I doubt it. You would see them working a lot harder if they did. For what they are probably paid there's no incentive for German–style diligence.

I have to wonder what the plan will be if they ever figure out how to ban cars from Paris. What will they do with all these wide avenues and boulevards? I suppose the homeless could be stashed in unused parking garages, but what of the hundreds of kilometres of street parking spaces?

Nobody has mentioned it lately, but there are people around who are still burned up by Baron Haussmann's little urban project for Paris. But I don't know of any reason why wide streets can't be filled in with more office and apartment buildings. Without cars you could put a line of them down the middle of the Champs–Elysées, transforming the avenue from a ten–lane wide no–parking zero revenue fun–driving zone into a classy tax paying high–rent district.

But it'll never happen. The Champs–Elysées is also where the new president takes his, or her, victory drive, from the Etoile down to Concorde and whip, zip, around the corner to the gilded Elysée.

Let's face it – France has its exceptions. One of them is the crazy notion that there's more to life than making nothing but money. As far as the parking ticket ladies are concerned the Champs–Elysées is a total loss, for the sheer splendid hell of it.

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