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Paris Is Burning

We climbed aboard the bike skeletons and urged my embarrassed sister to take photos

By Novella Carpenter

I'm still not able to sleep past 6am, and I can't stay up later than 8pm--dang jet lag. One of the things I really wanted to do while in Paris was to visit the automobile museum just outside the city (you didn't know that the modern car was invented in France?).

However, I never got to see it! In a freak weather event, it snowed the whole time we were there, which made me think about that ecological disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow more often than I would have liked. Snow in March? The Parisians shook their heads and pouted their lips in surprise. Climate change anyone?

It was simply too dangerous to drive to the museum. Instead, we relegated ourselves to riding the fabulous Metro and exploring the beautiful city on foot. On our jaunts to famous landmarks like Notre Dame and the Champs Élysées, we saw exactly one SUV. That is a rare sighting in Paris, since space--on the road, in apartments--is at a premium in the city of 10 million people.

It isn't remarkable, then, that Paris has been trying to rid the beasts from her streets. Though it can't ban them outright, it can make it difficult by restricting SUV owners' right to park and by not allowing them on roads during peak pollution times. This, of course, would never happen in the United States. You see, in France (and probably most of the European Union), there is an underlining sense of the community. At times, this can be beautiful--when the Metro gets full, people stand up to allow more people on the train, people open doors for each other, an underlining civility saturates the place. Owning an SUV, then, is a big affront to this spirit, as they take up more space, pollute the air more and can be hazardous to pedestrians and the other, minisized cars found in Europe.

While I generally agree with these values, I sometimes found the civil society to be slightly smothering. Tradition dictates that a son will follow his father's profession, newcomers are not always welcome and, in general, people make great strides to not do anything out of synch from the crowd.

This is the core difference between Americans and Europeans. It is our greatest weakness and our greatest strength--the individual spirit of America. I found myself, a true American extrovert, wanting to rebel. For example, one day Billy and I encountered three badly burned motorcycles, charred down to their metal frames. We climbed aboard the bike skeletons and urged my embarrassed sister to take photos. Horrified onlookers stared at us, unable to understand what we were doing. A grandmother type approached us and asked if these were our motorcycles and commented on how horrible it was that they were set afire. We shrugged.

Later, puzzling over the charred bikes--what civil society burns motorcycles?--my sister's French husband, Benji, explained to us a tradition that haunts the French every New Year's Eve (and apparently other times too, as evidenced by the crispy cycles). There are poor suburbs of Paris and other big cities in France where the unemployment rates are high, youth have dropped out of high school and small-time crimes, like auto theft, are endemic.

These disaffected youth steal cars (or motorcycles), joy ride and then torch them to erase the evidence, or just to see something burn. On New Year's Eve, this happens at a much higher frequency. Last year, vandals destroyed 333 cars in France, 190 in Paris alone. "They don't have guns, so they burn cars," Benji said. Fire trucks won't even go to the scene anymore, as riotous crowds often turn on the safety workers, pelting them with rocks.

One doesn't see much press covering this odd phenomena, mostly because journalists don't want to spark copy cats or glorify these acts. Some people think car burning is just a game for the youth, but perhaps it is the need to walk outside the line of civil society--that unlovely side of human desire that reveals itself as a warning.

Next time, I'm going to make it to the auto museum if it's the last thing I do; email me at [email protected]

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From the March 16-23, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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