I did something in Paris last Saturday night that I’ve never done before.
I went to a restaurant alone for dinner. I know, it’s lame that I’ve always been afraid to go out to public places at night on my own. I tried to get beyond this phobia by going to the movies by myself one Saturday night in Washington, many years ago, after a breakup. But when the lights came up, my ex was sitting in front of me with a pretty date. That cured me of the desire to venture forth solo for another couple of decades.
But I was in France for work for the week and stopped in Paris on the way home. I spent Friday night eating the minibar — salt-and-vinegar potato chips, popcorn, nuts, chocolate and white wine. But by the second night, it seemed too sad to be cooped up in a dark room in the City of Light.
So I worked up my nerve and made it as far as the hotel dining room. I was staying on the Left Bank at L’Hotel, where a depressed Oscar Wilde came to live in 1898, subsidized by the French government, after his release from Reading Gaol.
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He died there at 46, in a room off the lobby that is now a petite mirrored bar with glossies of famous drop-ins like Mick Jagger and Johnny Depp, and a cocktail called “Born to be Wilde,” made with Bacardi, basil, honey, lime juice and Tabasco. Legend has it that Wilde’s last words were: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.”
The wallpaper is now ruched gray silk, so Wilde would no doubt like it, and the worn carpet is a suitably wild leopard print. I walked past the bar to the restaurant and trepidatiously asked for a table for one. The response was not comforting. “Madame,” the young sommelier said, gently pulling me aside. “This is a gastronomic restaurant.” I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to infer. “Do you mean prix fixe?” I asked.
He shook his head, grabbed a menu and pointed to the prices, which were in the range of a nice Washington restaurant, and gave me a dubious look.
Was it something I wore? I had changed out of jeans and put on a flowered Diane von Furstenberg sundress and a striped seersucker J. Crew jacket. They did clash a little, but clashing prints are supposed to be in. Perhaps not in Paris.
Did he think I should go out for Le Big Mac or a Royale With Cheese? I murmured something about running out of food in my room. “Oh, you’re in the hotel?” Valentin, the sommelier, asked. Then he went off to huddle with his boss, Philippe, the restaurant director, and came back.
“All right,” he said, pointing to a table with striped love seats. “You can sit here.”
As I ate my avocado and yuzu mousse, and braised turbot with aniseed fragrance and maritime aster leaf, accompanied by Valentin’s hand-picked Burgundy, I looked around. There were 10 tables, nearly all with couples. Maybe Saturday night in Paris was not the best time for bravado.
When I got my Italian lemon meringue, a work of art shaped like sun-drenched tear drops, Philippe kindly explained, “You can eat the gold leaf on top.”
“I know,” I told him. “I used to watch Martha Stewart’s show.”
He gave me a blank look.
I was armed with a bunch of newspapers, so I could pretend to study up on the Brexit vote convulsing Europe. Oscar Wilde’s bon mot perfectly sums up the continental divorce: “Each man kills the thing he loves.”
What better to do when you’re alone than contemplate why England wants to be alone? The sexy couple next to me was too busy smooching over red wine for me to inquire about the French attitude toward British solitude.
Parisiens I had talked to were universally disgusted: with David Cameron, for holding the vote; with the British, for Brexiting; and, always unsolicited, with Americans, over l’affaire Trump.
“C’est impossible,” they lectured. “Fou.”
I pondered the parallels between the world’s two most infamous blonds, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.
They are prolific authors born in New York City to parents of considerable means and known around the planet by their first names. And there’s the odd fact that John Oliver called Johnson an orangutan, and Bill Maher suggested Trump came from one.
Boris, a Shakespeare aficionado who went to Oxford, is more erudite, witty and disheveled than the Donald.
But, as The New York Times’ Sarah Lyall wrote, Johnson has a sometimes buffoonish “cocktail of charm, bluster and obfuscation.” And so does Trump. Johnson is obsessed with his own brand and mocks with a rapier. So does Trump.
Johnson had an extramarital affair that became notorious in the tabloids. So did Trump. Johnson lies with ease and cavorts in farce. So does Trump. Preferring grandiosity and P.R. stunts to policy details, Johnson has stumbled on his hubris, lack of preparation and disorganization. So has Trump. Johnson was abandoned and knifed by many in his own party. So was Trump.
“True friends stab you in the front,” as Wilde said.
Like Trump, Johnson brilliantly and cynically played to older, white voters and rode a wave of xenophobia, anti-elitist, anti-immigrant, they’re-taking-what’s-ours begrudging.
As Lyall wrote, Johnson, leading the “Leave” contingent, had a talent for making things up and taking a kernel of information about Brussels’ ineptitude and spinning it into a broad negative narrative.
Just so, Trump can amplify a few crimes by undocumented Mexican immigrants and spin them into an indictment of an entire nation.
As with Hillary and the more compulsively watchable Trump, Cameron and the more compulsively watchable Johnson started off as friends and then found themselves in opposite corners for a spectacularly nasty fight.
As with Trump, Johnson was not trusted by many to do the job or seen as having a real plan besides chaos and the fearful message that THEY are stealing everything WE built.
After spinning up his storm, Boris failed to seize the moment, acting sheepish and almost repentant as he backtracked on some crucial Brexit promises.
After spinning up his storm, Donald also failed to seize the moment. He has failed to cement Republican support and raise his game to a mature, knowledgeable level. Trump wasn’t sheepish about herding the crowd with demagogy, but he has been looking a bit nervous, confronted with a scenario where he could become a losing brand.
You can write off the success of Johnson and Trump with older, white voters to self-defeating nostalgia.
But there are painful, interlocking identity crises roiling, with young pitted against old and long-simmering resentments against leaders who haven’t recognized the pain of globalization or the yearning for national exceptionalism.
Many Brits don’t like being dictated to by bureaucrats in Brussels. And many Americans wonder, if we can no longer win any war and build the best stuff, who are we?
Both parties are having identity crises as well. Republicans despairing at a BuzzFeed story about alleged Trump eavesdropping on guest and staff phones at Mar-a-Lago can take heart that Bill Clinton still has a talent for getting himself — and the wife he supposedly wants to help — in trouble.
Bill’s having a Phoenix airport 30-minute meet-cute with the attorney general in charge of the FBI investigation on Hillary’s emails was a debacle for all three of them.
How could the guy with the gold-plated political instincts not see the problem with trooping across the tarmac to surprise Loretta Lynch with a visit? It’s part of a bizarrely predictable cycle of the Clintons: Just when things seem to be going well, they squander the advantage.
“I am just flabbergasted by it,” Trump said. “I think it’s amazing. I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
For once, he may not be exaggerating.