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My Love Affair With a Guide

In Praise of a Pocket-Sized Escort to the City of Light

October 15, 2000|KENNETH TURAN | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

The publicity executive in the Paris headquarters of magazine-publishing-giant Hachette Filipacci was not surprised to hear from an American journalist. Not at first, anyway.

"You want to do a story on Paris Match, yes," she said, mentioning the magazine celebrated for its compelling photography. No, I didn't want to do a story on Paris Match. And no, I didn't want to do a story about Premiere, their influential film magazine. I wanted to do a story about Pariscope.

A moment of silence ensued, followed by a single unavoidably skeptical word: "Pariscope?"

Yes, Pariscope.

Impossible to subscribe to, difficult to find outside of Paris, more of a guide than a magazine, but a publication that allows the greenest tourist, even one who hasn't mastered the French language, to experience one of the world's greatest cultural centers with the depth and aplomb of a native. A publication, in short, whose ability to open an otherwise inaccessible cultural cornucopia encourages partisans to treat it with reverence bordering on worship and awe.

People, for instance, like my colleague Larry Kardish, senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art's department of film and video in New York, who considers it "as much a part of Paris as the Eiffel Tower, one of the things that makes me mad about the city." And people like me.

Without Pariscope as my Baedeker, I never would have visited a French antiquarian book fair or a magnificent gallery show of African art, heard cutting-edge jazz at a smoky club or enjoyed an English-language performance of Dublin's Gate Theater. Without this peerless guide to a city without equal, I never would have known and loved Paris as much as I do.

I discovered Pariscope on my first trip to France in 1971, when I had some trepidation about the language. A college friend had told me that on his first trip, he'd asked for directions in a cafe and a Frenchman at the bar had turned and spit in his face. But when I saw this inexpensive (three francs, about 50 cents), pocket-sized weekly rundown of the city's events at a kiosk, its nearly 300 tightly packed pages held together by two of the hardest-working staples in show business, I knew everything was going to be all right.

Now, as then, Pariscope has two key things going for it: an almost fiendish comprehensiveness and a determination to make everything it mentions accessible by listing not only addresses and phone numbers, but--and this is critical--the name of the nearest Metro stop. Armed with a Pariscope and an indexed street map, a visitor has both a simple and foolproof way to get anywhere in the city without having to risk expectoration abuse for subpar pronunciation.

Although Pariscope is written in French (with the exception of one small section), its listings are so concise that they are easy to use without extensive knowledge of the language. Even deciphering its internal abbreviations can be kind of fun. "V.O.," for version originale, meaning a listed film is subtitled rather than dubbed, is easy; "tlj (sf Mar)," next to museum names, meaning tour les jours sauf Mardi (open every day except Tuesday), takes just a bit more time.

Though the French are more tolerant of nonnative speakers these days, Pariscope, if anything, has become more wide-ranging and inclusive. There is a section for children's activities; the racier "Paris La Nuit" (which lists clubs, bars, discos and spectacles erotiques ); a quite helpful six-page English-language insert put together by Time Out magazine; as well as a list of the city's FM radio stations. Most of Pariscope's space, however, is devoted to its six key sections:

Theater. More than 200 plays organized alphabetically and broken down into categories by type of theater, covering everything from tiny storefronts to huge spectacles such as Crazy Horse and the Folies-Bergere. If you want to see Shakespeare performed in French, it's listed here. So are the latest sensations and revivals of favorite writers such as Sacha Guitry and Jacques Prevert. One friend says that, if not for Pariscope, he never would have come upon a rare staging of a play by the 17th century giant Corneille, performed in unmodernized French.

Music. Classical, world music, dance, opera, jazz-rock, variety shows, it's all here. You can find what's playing in Paris' ancient churches (home to many of the city's most interesting concerts), where I once discovered a rousing English-language gospel performance not by barnstorming American artists but by French-speaking natives of the Caribbean.

Arts. Pariscope contains listings of more than 300 art galleries and museums, as well as art conferences that are open to the public. My wife and I now own a scene of 1930s Paris by photographer Marcel Bovis, whom we never would have known about if Pariscope had not led us to a small gallery showing his work.

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