Archive for July 16th, 2006

The Thinker

An American in Paris, Part One

There is nothing like traveling to an exotic destination to blow away stereotypes. Perhaps there was a time in the recent past when the majority of Parisian waiters were rude. Perhaps the French really do hate Americans, or at least our government. If so, I was too emotionally unintelligent to detect it. On the other hand, perhaps there are so many foreigners traipsing around Paris that the presence of one more American family was hardly a reason to single us out. No, we found Parisians to be polite, friendly, classy and laid back people. Unlike us Americans, they do not seem to need to pop Valium in order to calm down, because life rarely seems to upset them.

If anything, America is far ruder and more singular place than France. It was not that we did not witness exceptions. We ate at one restaurant near our hotel to find a patron going into histrionics when he tried to light up a cigarette. This particular restaurant (with an American like décor) actually had a nonsmoking section. This patron was irate when the server asked him to put out his cigarette. He eventually left the restaurant in disgust. In addition, there were a few eccentrics on their subway system. I am not talking about the occasional busker on the metro playing traditional French tunes on an accordion and then soliciting patrons on the car for spare change. No, I am thinking of an extremely rude rider on the metro who, just because he could get away with it, decided to blow a police whistle at ear piercing volumes every fifteen seconds or so for a half dozen stops.

These though were the exceptions, not the rule. In the instance of our whistleblower, his fellow Parisians threw him as many dirty looks as we did. In a city with over two million people, you expect a certain number of oddballs. However, there were far fewer of them than I found wandering the streets of Washington D.C. As with Washington, we did not have to look too far to find homeless Parisians. Unlike our homeless people though, they were respectful. No one seemed too bothered if a homeless person made his home on the street, stacked up a mattress as his bed, and even owned a couple dogs. The homeless people never grubbed us for money.

I also felt safe in Paris, even at night. Our tour book and even signs on the Eiffel Tower warned us to beware of pickpockets. I never felt threatened. By American standards, Parisians are amazingly law abiding. Yes, the many motorcycles and motor scooters and their seeming lack of mufflers often annoyed us. Since there are numerous traffic lights in Paris, there are numerous opportunities for vehicles to stop and start. When the lights changed to green the ear piercing groans of motorcycles accelerating offended my sensitive American ears. Oddly, after eight nights in the same hotel room, I had mostly tuned out their noise, even at night. Perhaps it is a survival mechanism, since you cannot escape the noise. What amazed me the most though was that when lights turned red, both cars and motorcycles actually stopped. In the Washington area, the odds are high someone will run a red light. I witnessed very few red light runners during our time there.

Despite the noise and the population density, Paris struck me as a laid-back city. In America, we seem to be on personal quests to be the best that we can be. If this means getting a graduate degree or stepping on your colleagues in order to win a promotion, well, that is the price of progress in a society where free enterprise and capitalism has become our de facto religion. Money and status are vitally important to Americans. Parisians struck me as content to live a simpler and more stress free life.

I expected Paris to be dirty, but at least in the tourist districts it was not. Their metro system had a certain malodorous stench to it, but it was far cleaner than New York City’s MTA and I never saw rats crawling along the tracks. The subway system itself is amazingly extensive. If it cannot take you where you need to go, a bus will get you there as readily. Unlike Washington’s metro system, where you may wait a long time for a train, in Paris you generally never need to wait more than a few minutes for a train. Moreover, unlike Washington’s metro system, I never saw a train break down. They keep them running reliably. Admittedly the lack of air conditioning on the trains and in the stations is annoying, but it is only in the summer when this becomes a problem.

One thing that is true about Parisians and I assume the French in general: they look gorgeous. The women are not all pretty, nor are they necessarily well dressed, but they make the most of their dress and their appearance. You have to look hard to find an obese Parisian. I am ashamed to say that if you did see someone obese, it was almost invariably an American tourist. Perhaps they stay so trim from the walking that is a natural part of their daily life. On the other hand, perhaps since a majority of Parisians appears to be smokers, the nicotine suppresses their appetites. Whatever. Unquestionably, Parisians have a sense of style and good taste that you find only sporadically here in the states.

At least in Paris, there was little in the way of a language barrier. Paris is very much an international city. At times English seemed as pervasive as French, but it was also not hard to hear most of the other languages spoken on the continent. Most waiters and shopkeepers, through necessity, know enough English to conduct business. Moreover, I found that I could get by knowing a dozen or so French words then apologizing and speaking in English if necessary. From my dress, Parisians could figure out that I was American, and consequently would speak English to me by default. I quickly learned how to say, “Excuse me”, “Hello”, “Thank you”, “Please” and “Thank you very much” in French. Even when we toured museums and the words were entirely in French, I could usually figure out what was written on the plaques. English and French share a lot of words and many words are similar or are easy to infer. Of course, I could not read a newspaper, but I could read street names, find exits and know how to open doors easily enough. It did help to have my daughter to translate when we needed to express a more complex thought. Nevertheless, my wife and I could have navigated easily in Paris even without her.

My complaints are perhaps trifling in the grand scheme of things. They are simply a result of being raised in a different country with different values. I do not mean to imply in my criticisms that there is anything inherently wrong about the way the French life. Indeed, as you will discover, I found much to admire about the French. America has become the country of nonsmokers, so the stench of cigarettes was challenging to my easily offended olfactory glands. When we asked for nonsmoking areas in a restaurant, they generally were not available. To cope, we sat on tables by the street and hoped we were upwind from the smokers. Invariably some smokers near you would light up, the fumes would hit you in the face, and there was little that you could do about it. My wife reports that smoking is down considerably from her first visit thirty years ago. This is good, and I hope that the trend continues. Although I will miss Paris, I will not miss the pervasive smoking.

Another nit is the cleanliness of the restrooms in France. Actually, there are no restrooms in France. They are called “toilettes”, which is certainly more descriptive, since there are no chairs or places to “rest” in American restrooms. You generally have to use a restroom in a bus depot to find toilets as nasty as you find in France (and I imagine most of Europe). Another annoyance: in many places, you have to pay for the privilege of using the loo. In fact, it is more likely you will have to pay to use a “toilette” than not. Fortunately, it does not cost an arm and a leg to pee. Forty Eurocents seemed to be the going rate. In some places, attendants made their living directing people to empty stalls and occasionally going around spraying air freshener. On the plus side, it is much easier to find a toilet in Paris than in most American cities, because pay toilets are right there on the side of the streets in many areas. Often there are waiting lines. For a European visiting America, I imagine finding a nation full of free and clean restrooms must seem amazing.

Due to its northern climate, air conditioning is largely unavailable in Paris. We found some parts of Charles de Gaulle International Airport air-conditioned. The Louvre was also air conditioned, although the press of people in some popular galleries made them unbearably hot. Otherwise, no places we visited were air-conditioned. Our hotel room has an air conditioner, but it was underpowered and largely useless. Since the temperate never exceeded 85 and it was generally in the 60s at night, this was just an annoyance. After a day of touring, we were usually sweaty and hot when we returned to our room. Only a long cool shower and a fresh set of clothes would make me feel like a human being again. When I consider how much money Americans spend to artificially heat and cool their homes for optimal comfort, and how much this contributes to global warming, I consider that the lack of air conditioning may be a good thing. Incidentally, there were no screens on our hotel window. Fortunately, there were so few flying insects that it did not matter. Apart from the street noise, there was no problem leaving our windows opened.

As best I can tell, the most profitable business in Paris during the summertime is bottled water vendor. I did see one public water fountain at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, but otherwise you had to pay from 1.5 to 2 euros for a modest bottle of spring water from a vendor. I would not be surprised if we ended up spending 100 euros in our eight days on bottled water. We did save some money by buying a six-pack at a supermarket. One day I even lugged a six-pack in my backpack as we toured Paris. With the warm weather, it did not even last us the day. Again, I expect that Europeans must be astounded by the free water fountains, generally serving good tasting public water, which is commonly available in the United States.

There will be more on our French experience in future entries.


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