PARIS - If you are a Paris politician, what do you give the city that has everything?
Paris already has the world's finest art museums, the most achingly beautiful architecture, 34 spectacular bridges, cathedrals and cozy cafes, bird and flower markets and symphony-quality musicians begging in the Metro. Paris has scores of world-class restaurants (replete with nongroveling waiters), mail delivery and street-washings several times daily, not to mention an overall incomparable atmosphere.
So, what did the Socialist, green-friendly mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, think to offer his constituency? Why, 3,000 tons of sand, delivered neatly and ceremoniously in big wooden sandboxes and laid atop the concrete roads next to the River Seine, stretching from the Tuileries gardens to Ile Saint-Louis. He gave Paris a beach, the one thing it didn' t have.
Let them eat sand!
This year, the second year for Paris Plage, the beach coincided ironically with the deadly heat wave that killed more than 10,000 people. The day I saw that movable feast, that contrived Right Bank Riviera, thousands were taking advantage of the oceanless beach. The death count hovered at about 50, and few suspected, least of all Paris politicians, that heat would settle over Europe like a killer quilt.
No, that day in August the beach was wildly popular, as was its sponsor. Parisians loved the hammocks, beach shacks, live music, volleyball courts, palm trees, chairs and sprinklers. Especially the sprinklers.
I guess all of the truly beautiful people already were at the real Riviera, because the would-be beach bums at the manufactured beach were fairly typical-looking sun worshipers, none particularly gorgeous. They had all some of their swimwear on, because city hall had decreed no topless sunning.
This was a family affair, with toddlers building castles in the government-sponsored sand. And that was the point, according to the benevolent mayor: that poor city kids have the same opportunity as well-heeled children to get to a beach in the summertime.
Only in France would a day at the beach be considered an inalienable right.
The Paris Plage ran for about two miles and cost about $1.7 million. Critics - there are always critics, aka other politicians who didn't think of it first - said you could have sent dozens of poor children to the actual French Riviera for what the facsimile beach cost.
But few were worried about critics or even the politics on the white-hot August day I came to the beach. Roller-bladers were roller-blading, strollers were strolling, people were doing exactly what they might have been doing in Panama City, Fla., or any other beach anywhere. Having lots of fun, of the beach-blanket variety.
Nobody could swim in the Seine, of course, because it's like a busy interstate highway with its barges and tour boats and the inevitable pollution of a huge city. But the illusion was there, and nobody's better at romanticizing reality than a Frenchman.
I definitely could see the advantages of bringing a beach to Paris, which needs nothing else. If you're going to be in a hot place, you need a beach.
Byways normally open to automobiles become pedestrian-only - if only for a couple of months. Paris already has plenty of green space and pedestrian routes, but you can never have too many.
I noticed an unexpected (and possibly unrelated) development: Paris' famous bookstalls along the Seine were open for business in August, which isn't always the case. Paris pretty much closes up for the holiday month, bookstalls included.
The Plage that drew 2 million Parisians to the riverbank evidently drew the bookstall vendors back to their stalls. Perhaps they could smell the suntan oil and extra Euros.
Now the same mayor who bought his people a beach is in trouble for not recognizing the severity of the heat. The French have less patience with their politicians than we do; they expect them to offer workable solutions, yes, even to do something about the weather.
Sure, the beach was great. But what have you done for me today?
Rheta Grimsley Johnson's regional mailing address is Iuka, MS 38852.