Friday, May 16, 2014

Strolling in Paris (again)

I took an unusually long walk home today, through the Opéra district, down through the garment district and the rue Saint Denis, then through the Latin Quarter and then home.

I took a few pictures. The weather was excellent, clear and neither too hot nor too cold. Recent rains had reduced pollution to a low level, so the air was very clear as well. And I wasn’t the only one who had noticed this, as this was a very busy Friday night, with people everywhere.

Louis XIV's arch
In addition to pictures, I sometimes shoot video, or even make stereo recordings of ambient sound on the streets of the city. But nothing can adequately convey the actual atmosphere of Paris on an evening like this, when everyone is out and about and relaxing for the weekend in fine weather. The sun is already up late (it doesn’t set until well after 9 PM), and every major street of the city is awash in pedestrians. Streets like the boulevard des Italiens and other broad avenues are lined with restaurants, bars, clubs, theaters, shops, and cinemas, and all of them are open and doing excellent business. Paris is a city with many open terraces at eating and drinking establishments, so thousands of people are sitting at small tables on the wide sidewalks sipping drinks, eating dinner, smoking (alas!), and chatting with friends. This continues late into the night—I was out until around 9:30 PM, and yet the evening was only just getting started.

I am a very strong introvert, and yet, for some reason, I enjoy living in a densely populated city, surrounded by people. I don’t feel very inclined to interact with them personally, but I find their presence reassuring. I could not live the life of a hermit, or even out in the countryside. Pretty scenery gets old quickly, at least for me. But living in Paris is very nice. The city is pretty, even though the scenery is man-made rather than nature-made—but I actually rather prefer man-made scenery, as long as it is pretty, which it is in this case. There is something reassuring about knowing that the city is constantly active and alive, even when I’m asleep or sitting at home staring at my smartphone.

The Forum park and St. Eustache
I can understand why people like Manhattan, which has many of these same advantages. But I found Manhattan to have an old, dilapidated look to it, compared to Paris, which seems cleaner and newer … even though buildings in Paris are often more than a century older than those of Manhattan. Buildings from the early twentieth century somehow seem more ancient and decrepit and dated than buildings from the last nineteenth century. And the latter are aesthetically less pleasing than the former, at least to me. And it doesn’t help that so many buildings in Manhattan are tall, leaving you in a sort of sharp-angled ravine, whereas in Paris, years of strict building codes have restricted the height of most buildings to only a few stories. I can understand why someone might want to live in Manhattan—but I prefer Paris, thank you.

As in any densely populated big city, you move from village to village as you walk. Each village has its own atmosphere, even though they all have traits that tie them together and make them Parisian.

The Rex cinema
The area near and east of the Opéra, the grands boulevards, has traditionally been one of the most animated parts of the city, and remains so today. There must be a zillion restaurants in this area, plus tons of cinemas and shops. You can wander around there for days, and never eat in the same restaurant or shop at the same store twice. This is where one of the Chipotle restaurants I’ve previously mentioned is located (the other one is in the Fifteenth, and I think there’s a third one at La Défense). There’s also McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, the Hard Rock Café, various wannabe Tex-Mex and American restaurants, Italian restaurants, Asian (especially Chinese and Indian) restaurants, innumerable Anglo-Saxon bars, and of course many traditional French restaurants and cafés. Truly something for every taste.

In this same area is the Rex, a cinema from the golden age of cinemas that is still standing and operating successfully. You can take tours of the Rex, although I haven’t done so. I’ve seen one or two movies there, long ago. Most Disney premieres in Paris are at the Rex, in which cases there’s a canopied red-carpet waiting line set up outside.

As you move east, you come across several monuments. The big arch commemorating the military escapades of Louis XIV is still standing, and is still clean and in good condition, despite being constructed back in 1674, more than a hundred years before the founding of the United States of America. The arch is a bit incongruous today with its surroundings, since Paris has continued to evolve around it. On the north side is a street lined with ethnic grocery stores. On the south side is the garment district, and the wicked rue Saint-Denis, known for its prostitutes, although hundreds of years ago it was a royal parade route. The prostitutes are not as numerous as they once were, and they contrast with the wholesale garment distributors and manufacturers that line the street (interspersed with a handful of sex shops and—increasingly towards the south end of the street—restaurants).

I took the rue Saint-Denis down to the Forum des Halles area, and then across the river into the Latin Quarter, where I hopped onto the Métro to go home. By the time you get to the Forum, all the prostitutes and sex shops are gone, and instead you have restaurants, bars, and trendy clothing stores. The Forum itself is being completely reconstructed. The western end of the park has been finished and is very nice. The shopping center is still being rebuilt, with an odd “canopy” roof that looks like it’s in the midst of collapsing. There are tours of the construction site on Saturdays, but I haven’t been able to summon the energy to sign up for one.

All of these areas are always filled with people. When I compare this to the dust-blown, blazingly hot, totally empty streets of my hometown in the Great American Southwest, the contrast is amazing, and hugely favors Paris. My nightmares about being stuck back in the hellhole where I was born have largely subsided over time, but I’m still tremendously glad to be living in the City of Light. Like the saying goes “and now for something completely different” … that could not be truer in this case. If only it weren’t so expensive—or better still, if only I actually had enough money to maintain a decent standard of living. But it’s better to be poor in Paris than poor elsewhere.

Monday, May 12, 2014

From tobacco addicts to e-cig addicts

I’ve mentioned before that smoking has actually increased in France since the total ban on smoking indoors went into effect a few years ago. And now it seems that people are no longer smoking tobacco alone—the electronic cigarette has entered the scene, giving people addicted to nicotine new options for accommodating their mental illness.

Just in the street where I work, there are two e-cig stores. Pleasing odors waft out the front doors of these stores, but I know that people who use electronic cigarettes are not looking for pleasing odors … they are looking for their nicotine fixes. And the liquids vaporized by the gadgets generally contain heavy doses of nicotine. The gadgets are so new that the risk they present for non-smokers—if there be any risk—has not been quantified. But I know that if the liquid container ruptures and the liquid contacts, say, the skin of a child, it can causes seizures and death, thanks to the highly potent nicotine contained within (nicotine being an extremely poisonous neurotoxin).

I don’t see a lot of people inside these stores, other than salespersons, so I wonder how they are doing. And I wonder how just one small street can support two of them. But who knows? Walking home a few days ago, I passed several of them. I’m sure (and I hope) it’s a fad to some extent for now, but time will tell whether or not it will catch on for the long haul. To me, it’s just another drug for people who are prone to drug addiction.

We even have problems with these gadgets where I work. Some of our students (we teach adults), want to “light up” their toys during classes. Smoking tobacco indoors has been illegal for years, so the tobacco addicts must wait until break time and then go outside to get their fixes. But those addicted to e-cigs want to do their drugs right during class. It’s not illegal, but it’s certainly irritating to non-addicted students and teachers. Whether or not it should be formally prohibited is an open question for the moment. I’d be happy with a prohibition—anyone who can’t wait ninety minutes to snort his e-cig is clearly an addict—but others are not so gung-ho as I am.

On the street, you don’t notice it too much. And on the street, the e-cig addicts are still vastly outnumbered by the tobacco users. They sit or stand in any open area outside their clubs and restaurants, puffing away, rain or shine. Their cigarette butts litter the sidewalks in front of the entrances to every office building. During the day, there are always a few addicts standing around in front of the building, smoking and smoking. How glad I am that my life is not tied to a little roll of tobacco (or a little vaporizer dispensing the same drug)!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Trash containers return to the Champs!

One of the new trash "cans"
Walking home today, I was shocked to see a trash container on the Champs-Élysées. In fact, I saw not just one, but several, where there had been none before.

For many years, there have been no trash containers of any kind on this avenue. Trash containers are plentiful elsewhere in Paris, but they had been entirely removed from the Champs years ago, by a government inspired by the example of American cowardice. Apparently politicians felt that the imaginary bogeymen haunting the thoughts of their friends across the pond would abandon their nefarious plans for the destruction of society if they discovered that there were no handy trash containers in which to conceal their improvised explosive devices. (I guess the bad guys would never think of hiding something in, say, the hundreds of cars parked freely along the avenue throughout its length.)

Whatever the reasons, trash containers had long since disappeared on the Champs. The pedestrians who crowded its broad sidewalks day and night had no choice but to throw trash directly onto the ground. The city was spending some €750,000 a year on continuous, all-day cleaning of the avenue by city workers and subcontractors. It now seems that someone has finally been able to face down the irrational fears and restore hygiene to one of the world’s most famous streets. It’s about time!

In the olden days, the trash containers were closed, cylindrical affairs, brown in color with gold tops, and moderately fashionable. Today, they are just simple metal frames holding clear plastic trash bags boldly marked with vigilance propreté (“vigilance [and] cleanliness”). I gather that the clear plastic would allow passerby to see and promptly report sticks of dynamite or blocks of plutonium or other suspicious objects in the containers. It’s not very aesthetic, but at least it’s a bit cleaner.

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