Thursday, August 1, 2013

Two rare cool days, La Défense, smart phones, holidays

Monday and Tuesday were unseasonably seasonal, that is, the temperature was in line with historical norms for this time of year. That’s unusual these days, because an endless succession of heat waves has been more common in recent years. And in fact these two days were just a brief respite between two heat waves. People thought it was chilly, when in fact it was just normal. It was nice. I even walked around a bit, mostly to and from La Défense, where I had to go on business. Today another heat wave is predicted to start, however, with temperatures 22° F above normal (which translates to over 100° F on the street).

Walking to La Défense is somewhat of a hike, especially since it is slightly uphill from the Champs, my starting point. It took slightly more than an hour. I didn’t want to waste the (relatively) cool, overcast weather. And La Défense is pleasant to visit on a weekday, because it’s a very popular business district with tons of people walking around. It has a lively, modern, upbeat atmosphere about it, since most of the people walking around have decent jobs and salaries.

Originally, this business district had a vast open plaza surrounded by high rises. The plaza is still there, but the organization that manages the district—no doubt motivated by the desire to make money, which is all anyone really cares about in the final analysis—has allowed the plaza to become more and more crowded will all sorts of junk: restaurants with vast terraces, special events, little kiosks of all sorts, and so on. Some of them are temporary, others are permanent. The openness of the plaza is gradually yielding to “monetization,” although I’m sure the EPAD (the aforementioned organization managing the area) would deny that money is the motivation behind the changes. It’s rather sad. But money is everything, after all, and apparently the lure of filthy lucre is irresistible enough to justify sacrificing the aesthetic environment of the district.

Today is the first day of August, and the period between mid-July and mid-August is the quietest time of year in Paris. The trend towards diversity in vacation periods continues in Paris, meaning that the city doesn’t suddenly turn into a ghost town during August as it did half a century ago, but there is still a noticeable decline in traffic and crowds during August. However, the influx of tourists makes up for the outflow of Parisians during the summer. You still hear some French on the streets, but often it is drowned out by English or (these days) Mandarin. If there’s no heat wave in progress, the sky is very clean and clear because there is less traffic, but during the repetitive heat waves, inversion layers tend to keep the air dirty despite fewer motor vehicles moving about.

Back in the olden days, just about everything closed during August, too. Today, that’s mainly true for small shops that don’t have enough staff to stay open during August. Bigger stores and most other businesses remain open. That’s fine with me, as I wouldn’t like being stuck in a ghost town for a month. The travel guides are always behind the times, and some of them still claim that Paris closes up shop during this month, but that’s no longer true, and hasn’t been for many years.

Because of the heat waves nowadays, I do spend a lot more time indoors in summer, listening to the air conditioner run. It’s noisy, but it’s no longer possible to live without it in 100° F heat. I can still remember the days when you didn’t need A/C in Paris, as they weren’t that long ago. But it seems that those days are gone now.

Paris Plages is in progress, too. It gets a bit more elaborate each year. I’m not sure that that’s a good thing. It’s intended to provide some relaxation for Parisians who don’t leave the city in summer (and more and more of them stay). It’s not a tourist attraction, although some tourists who know about it do visit it. I’ve not been there so far this year, because it’s just not fun once the temperature rises beyond a certain point. It’s nice when the temperature is seasonal.

Since I got a smartphone, I’ve been observing others a bit more in their use of smartphones. Paris was always an early adopter of wireless technologies, and today it seems that at least two thirds of the people you see on the street have a smartphone in their hand. The proportion seems to be even higher in places like buses, subways, park benches, cafés, or just about anywhere where people tend to sit down for a moment. I confess that I’m not sure what all these people are doing with their phones. Even though I’ve stocked mine with apps that I consider useful, I still don’t walk around with it in my hand all the time. I presume they are making calls or texting, which are things that, ironically, I don’t often do with my phone.
In Paris as in many other cities, theft of smartphones is the single largest source of petty crime. Both pickpocketing and snatch-and-run thefts of smartphones are common. They represent more than half of thefts in the Métro. But there are so many people using smartphones that the numbers still work in favor of those who carry them. There are tons of people with smartphones, and relatively few thieves. Indeed, I wonder exactly what thieves do with their stolen smartphones, since it seems that everyone who wants a smartphone these days already has one.

You’d think that in such a pretty city, people would look around and admire the environment around them from time to time. But in fact a lot of them are staring at their phones. Perhaps they are looking at pictures of Paris on their phones. I suppose that residents can be forgiven for this, since they live in Paris and see it all the time. But it’s a bit harder to understand when you see tourists peering at their smartphones as they stand at the base of the Eiffel Tower or in front of the Mona Lisa.

Anyway … in addition to Paris Plage, there’s also the summer carnival in the Tuileries Gardens. I go there sometimes to eat junk food, although I’ve only been there once so far this season. There are places with good gyro sandwiches and granites (slushy frozen fruit drinks). It can be a bit dusty if it hasn’t rained. But as usual, the main problem is that it’s often just too hot to walk around. On those increasingly rare days of normal weather, it’s fun to visit.

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