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Sunday, September 18, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sunday Punch

Doing Paris -- Just Remember: This City Thinks Jerry Lewis Is A Genius

AIRLINE DEREGULATION HAS made Europe affordable to almost everyone, even those who usually satisfy wanderlust's call on a bus. Lucky Europe. My first stop? That City With Lights: Paris, which is in the French part of Europe. I have visited many cities - New York, San Francisco, Chehalis - but Paris is unique. Not only is it the world center of wine appreciation, it's the largest city in which Jerry Lewis is considered a genius. Coincidence?

My visit was hindered only slightly by my rusty high-school French. At my first Parisian restaurant, I ordered orally. The waiter nodded and brought me a live goat wearing open-toed pumps. From then on I just pointed.

In that same restaurant, I met a family from the former East Germany making their first trip to the West. Their English was about twice as good as my rusty high-school German and we had an interesting conversation using both.

They were very curious about life in the U.S.A. I told them I am a typical American: I have a house, two cars, three pairs of Levis, 35 TV channels, a computer so high-tech it could not legally be exported to the former Soviet Union, machines every few blocks that dispense money, 24-hour stores packed with goods and free checking with a minimum balance. Their eyes popped out of their little former-communist heads. "THREE pairs of Levis?!" they asked in unison.

Five years ago, after 14 years on a bureaucrat's list, this family was able to buy a car: a used Lada (a Russian-built Fiat clone; fahrvergnugen it's not). They have been waiting eight years for a phone. When I told them I had three phones in my house and another in my car, they laughed heartily. "Good one, Wilhelm! Ein Auto-Phone ha ha!"

We all agreed that Paris was a mighty swell town. They, because of wonderful things to see, eat and buy plus the chance to talk to gregarious Americans with their wild tales of microwave popcorn and Elvis Presley bourbon bottles. Me, because you can get wine from a vending machine. Good wine. And Parisian vending machines seldom mock your pronunciation, although it would not surprise me to learn that the French are designing a machine capable of doing so.

The thing that struck me most on my visit, aside from waiters, is that no one in Paris seems to be doing much of anything. At any given time, one third of the population is sitting in a sidewalk cafe having a four-hour meal, while another third of the population cooks and serves. The third third is busy driving fast on streets with no marked lanes. Then a bell chimes in some cathedral and they all switch places. This is how their society is structured, near as I can tell. Another big difference is that many people in Paris voluntarily drive Renaults.

And when you think of Renaults, what do you picture? A dainty, temperamental contraption, licensable as a car in most states, right? In France, they have Renault semis, and they're just as big as Kenworths except a lot scarier because they say RENAULT on the front in 6-inch letters and you just know they were built in a factory where wine is served at lunch, if not continuously throughout the day from water-cooler-like dispensers. When you consider the narrow streets, the aggressive driving and the lack of lane markings, it's easy to conclude that if these trucks had been around in 1940, the invading Germans would have thrown down their weapons and fled. I was expressing this World War II theory to my new German friends when suddenly they had to go. And so did I, according to the terms of my airline ticket: "Must return on any non-holiday in the destination country, or after reinforcing the stereotype of Americans as dorks."

On my supersaver flight home I thought: Perhaps I would have more leg room if I were in the overhead bin. And I also thought: Joni Mitchell was right. I was a free man in Paris. I felt unfettered and alive. There was nobody calling me up for favors, and no one's future to decide. In that way, it was much like Chehalis. You know I'd go back there (Paris) tomorrow, but for the work I've taken on: stokin' the star-maker machinery behind the popular song. Really. That's what the ad said: Help wanted: self-motivated individual for star-maker-machinery stoking. Salary commensurate.

Bill Muse is a Seattle free-lance writer.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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