Friday, February 17, 2012

Paris butts and other pet peeves

I love Paris and I'm very happy to live in the city, but there are some little things that I find irritating, as one might find in any place, since no city is perfect.

One of them that I've noticed especially recently is cigarette butts. As I've mentioned before, smoking among the French has actually increased by two percent since smoking in all public places was outlawed a few years ago—among women, it has increased by seven percent (!). This was brought home to me a few days ago as I walked along a side street behind the grands magasins. I saw a huge number of people standing around outside the employee entrances of stores (specifically Printemps), smoking like steam locomotives. At one point, I was actually walking through a blue cloud of cigarette smoking drifting into the street from both sidewalks, thanks to the hundreds of smokers there—I'm not exaggerating! It was amazing. And when you look down, the sidewalk is covered with cigarette butts.

It's just amazing to think how much time these employees are wasting, and how much money they are paying for cigarettes (a pack of cigarettes will soon cost around €7.50, from what I've read). And yet they smoke more and more, instead of less and less … especially French women.

Another pet peeve is noise. Paris is a wonderful city visually, and has been featured in many films, including a few recent Oscar contenders such as Midnight in Paris. But the synchronous sound in these films is either very heavily edited in post-production or removed entirely, because Paris is a very noisy city. Of course, most large cities today are extremely noisy, so it's not just Paris. And they are generally noisy for exactly the same reason worldwide, namely, because of motor vehicles. The difference in sound level between a quiet street (be it filled with pedestrians or not) and a street with motor vehicles can be 1000 to 1 easily. There's virtually no escaping it.

Still another pet peeve is also related to motor vehicles: many streets in Paris, even small ones, are almost entirely dedicated to cars. You might have three lanes for cars in a small street, with sidewalks that are literally only 18 inches wide. I'm pleased to see that the city is rebuilding some of these streets with much wider sidewalks and only one lane for vehicular traffic, but it's going to take a long time to change them all. I noticed some intersections around Montparnasse recently remodeled in this way, and the difference was huge, with vast, spacious sidewalks (easily filled, since there's at least as much pedestrian traffic in Paris as there is vehicular traffic), and a roadway with several lanes less than it used to have. I hope the entire city will eventually be converted in this way.

A last pet peeve is the cost of living, but there's nothing surprising about that. Everyone wants to live in Paris, so prices are high, especially for real estate. And with the rise of moneyed classes in the Third World, the demand for the pied-à-terre in Paris is increasing, and it's a small city. For people like me, who work for starvation wages for employers with a long history of abusing their employees, it's difficult.

Nevertheless, overall, these problems aren't that big a deal, except maybe for the cost of living, but no city worth living in has a low cost of living. The advantages of Paris outweigh the disadvantages. As I've said before (I think!), when people ask me if living in Paris is really all it's cracked up to be, I say … YES!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A cold snap—for once

Well, cold weather has come to Paris these past few days. Historically, that would not be exceptional, but these days (these past few decades, that is) it has become so. The past few days have been below freezing 24 hours a day, which is quite unusual for Paris. The last time this happened was back around 1987 or so. Still, one must look at this in context. Subfreezing temperatures are unusual for Paris, but they still are nothing in comparison to the incredibly bad winter weather that afflicts much of the United States every winter.

I don't mind cool weather, but I dislike hot or cold weather, which I suppose makes sense. For me, cool weather is between 0° and 12° C (32° and 54° F). Above that, and things start to get warm, and possibly too warm (at least for people like me who like to walk). Below that, and things start to freeze, which brings a whole truckload of problems along with it. So right now I'm not too happy because of the subfreezing weather. I have clothing that is warm enough, so that's not a problem, but my hands and face and head freeze a lot, and I haven't been able to find gloves that can both keep my hands warm and still allow me to manipulate the Tinkerbell-sized buttons on my various electronic gadgets (cameras and such).

A consequence of this is that I don't go out much if the temperature is below freezing. Gadgets don't like subfreezing temperatures, so I can't bring them with me, and even if I could, my hands would go numb if I tried to hold them. So I just stay home.

Staying home has other advantages, too, the main one being that it costs less. Every time I step out the door, it costs me €20 or so. My parents didn't want to believe this, so I've been keeping a log of my expenditures each day. Sure enough, every time I open that door, it costs me money. I have to buy groceries, for example, which are extremely expensive. I have to buy aspirin or whatever at pharmacies from time to time. I have to buy Métro tickets or transit passes. And if I walk for any period of time, I usually buy a soda pop or a cookie or something. So I'm always spending money on something. It amounts to hundreds of euro per month, and represents my greatest living expense after rent.

So I guess I save money when it's very cold. I do pay indirectly for heating, although the building is centrally heated, so I suppose that costs money. The heating system works very well in exceptionally cold weather like this, whereas it tends to overheat in seasonal winter weather, which usually has temperatures above freezing.

It's amusing to see people reacting to this minor cold snap. Temperatures have risen so much in recent years that people don't realize how cool Paris traditionally is in the winter. Last year, similarly extreme excursions on the hot side of the thermometer occurred practically all year long, but they are so common now that people don't realize how much the city has warmed up. The Seine River used to freeze over regularly 150 years ago, but not now.

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