Sunday, July 11, 2010

It's Paris, isn't it?

Paris breeds bitterness. It’s not just me who feels it either. Many friends of mine who I have spoken to are in complete agreement. Having spent an extended period of time in the city one is constantly reminded of the ridiculousness of Parisian life. All too often a horrific story of French bureaucracy, unhelpful employees and appalling manners is shrugged off with a simple ‘it’s Paris, isn’t it?’ Paris is by no means an inconsequential city. In fact, more often than not it is listed alongside London and New York as one of the great cities for culture, fashion and art amongst others things. Be that as it may, having lived in London and visited New York, I can say categorically that Paris trails dismally in the wake of these two clean, efficient and modern cities.

Jessie, a friend of mine who works at Breakfast in America, was negotiating the metro recently. Of course, no one could say that the underground or the subway are particularly clean, but the metro is home to hundreds of homeless people, ripe with the fetid stench of excrement, a breeding ground for thousands of cockroaches and lined with gutters filled with questionable sludge and muck. One homeless man approached Jessie and asked her for some change. She apologised and attempted to pass along the platform at which point he pinched her, hard, on the thigh. Shocking as this may seem, it’s Paris, isn’t it?

John and I are continuing our walks of Paris. An attraction of one such walk was a clock mounted on the side of a building surrounded by ornate figurines depicting a fight scene between a giant serpent, a man and a phoenix. The guide book advised us that every hour, as the clock strikes, this scene comes to life and a battle is waged until one side is defeated. Happy that we had been fortunate enough to arrive at five minutes to nine we positioned ourselves in a perfect vantage point. Presently, however, we noticed a sign affixed beneath the clock informing viewers that the mechanism used to power the figurines was, in fact, en panne i.e. broken. Rather than repairing the mechanism, in their infinite wisdom, the Marie had decided it made more sense to affix a permanent sign to the building and leave the clock broken indefinitely. Hey, this is Paris, remember?

The Auld Alliance, a Scottish pub near St Paul, is a favourite of ours and we often frequent the terrace at the front and take advantage of the shaded aspect and relatively cheap drinks. We were enjoying a particularly relaxing afternoon recently when we spotted one of the many clinically insane homeless people living in Paris shambling up to our table. He hobbled along on his bare, deformed feet and proceeded to lean over the table and screech violently for several minutes all the while dribbling thick strands of brown saliva from his toothless gums onto our table. I was struck by how little effect this episode had on all of us. We continued our conversation as though nothing had changed and even after he had shambled off no one felt it necessary to discuss the matter further. I once saw another man raging at his poor dog who, loyally, was following with his tail between his legs occasionally letting out frightened yelps of distress. I would be interested to ascertain what, precisely, the protocol is in the UK for dealing with homeless people who have mental problems since it is rare that one finds any roaming the streets. There is clearly no such protocol in this city but it is Paris after all.

Liz and I were chatting the other day about how, regardless of nationality, Paris will create a propensity in you to instantly dislike anyone outside of, or linked in some way, to your friendship group. The Parisians, of course, are the first to come under fire. With their tendency to repeat everything you say to them and their thick, gungey accent they are incapable of remaining quiet when thinking of what to say next but instead develop an assortment of noises which can be slipped into conversation where necessary simply to avoid a moment’s silence.

Walking towards a park in the suburbs the other day, Rose and I found ourselves in the unfortunate position of being in between two French chavs one of whom had walked slightly ahead of her friend. The one behind us called to her friend who refused to turn her head when she responded and as a result the conversation went like this:
‘Il y a quoi la?’
‘Il y a un parc’
‘Un quoi?’
‘Un parc’
‘Un QUOI?’
‘Un PARC!’
At this point Rose and I were so sick of listening to the two of them that we picked up our pace and didn’t stop until we were well ahead of both of them. It isn’t just the Parisians who irritate those of us who have lived in the city for an extended period of time however. Upon hearing an English or Irish accent the natural assumption the city imposes upon you is that they are typical tourists who want nothing more than to climb the Eiffel tower, get spectacularly lost, eat a full English breakfast and get annihilated in one of the expat bars. Americans face a similar fate with the exception that they are generally louder. ‘Tyler’ and ‘Dwaine’ or whatever other unfortunate names the parents have chosen for their children will be the subject of a longer ridicule simply because their parents have chosen to announce their presence so forcefully thus providing more time for mockery.

After work yesterday evening we went for a drink and then played a game of Beer Pong. I needed to be up early today so I left at 2:00 with the intention of getting a velibe and being home by 2:30. I passed, perhaps, eight different velibe stations, the majority of which were empty. Two or three, however, were full of fully functional bikes but, of course, the station itself was broken and would not release any. I attempted to get a taxi after this process continued to repeat itself but naturally there wasn’t a single one available. After an hour and a half of walking I arrived at Gare de l’Est and finally found a taxi. The driver was reluctant to take me since Chateau Rouge was such a short ride (five minutes by car, fifteen on foot) but eventually he agreed. He wacked his meter up to the highest tariff possible and off we went. As I watched the figures soaring I reminisced about the days in London when I would walk from the West End down to Trafalgar Square, buzzing with people, and await the friendly glow of the N155 back to Clapham. That was, of course, towards the end of the month, at the beginning I would have taken one of the thousands of vacant taxis cruising through the streets until all hours.

Presently we arrived at Chateau Rouge. I wanted to give the driver a tip since he HAD agreed to take me after all. I asked him for three euros change giving him a generous tip. This he handed me without a word. I paused for a second before getting out and slamming the door as hard as I could and making my way, furiously, back home. There was no friendly chatter as one can expect from the London taxi drivers, nor was there any cockney good wishes of goodnight. It’s Paris, isn’t it?


  1. (They) 'instead develop an assortment of noises which can be slipped into conversation where necessary simply to avoid a moment’s silence.'
    This is so true that I laughed loudly for a good 10 seconds after I read it, so thank you. On the other hand I found your description of the homeless in Paris verging on dismissive and cold. I'm still affected by the amount of people living on the streets in this city, and agree that there must be some way to improve the situation.

  2. Thank you for reading - I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Apologies for the interpretation of my perception of the homeless in Paris. I, too, have every sympathy for them and my issue is with the city for not providing suitable help and facilities for them, such as one might find in London or New York for example.

  3. Brilliant James, I liked it that you touched upon the expats who have lived in Paris for a number of years. I hope I don't end up like it but they seem to become a bit obsessed by the length of time they have lived here and/or by the fact they live here at all. An Irish girl refused to acknowledge me in the Galway the other night and when I asked her why she told me she does not speak to "effing tourists"...charming eh? The times I have been called a "newbie" for only living here two and a half years !! Karen Xx

  4. Everyone who lives in Paris has their stories - I thought it's what gave the city its character. I could tell personal stories about the girl who got flashed at by another woman on the metro, or the woman who felt her skirt being lifted climbing the metro stairs one evening (another homeless guy). I recall two business men impatient in the post office, yelling (to the point of spitting on the back of my neck) and banging fists on the desk as they knocked over stands and shouted abuse at the staff, then walked out with goods they hadn't pay for, to compensate for their wasted time. There's the countless youth who refused to give up a seat for a heavily pregnant woman on public transport, or the people in the supermarket, who literally push you out of the way to get on an elevator leaving you stranded, waiting with a pushchair, only to have people attempt to do it again on the second attempt to go down a floor. Everyday there's people parked on zebra crossing, or reversing on a crossing as you're on it. There's the waiter who told me to 'vamoosh' because I was blocking the corridor, and when I explained I couldn't leave because I had been giving the wrong change, he retorted 'we are not thieves here'.... I could go on, and on and on, but it's not all bad is it? I've never lived in New York or London, but I've visited and found plenty of rudeness there - that's just the nature of city life.
    Very easy to be all one sided, but I've met plenty of friendly people in the city. Some people are very polite, and some folk will go out of their way to help others. In two years I've never felt intimidated day or night, and the only crime I've seen were some Eastern block kids trying to run off with the camera belonging to a Japanese tourist. The architecture's splendid, the museums stunning, and some of the restaurants are amazing. There's beautiful parks, and beautiful women.
    Agreed, the taxi driver's are bloody awful though!

  5. i've got some horrible stories about having my daughter here and all my immigration woes. I would love to be able to say that someone flashed me or that i was disappointed to find something out of service. To each his own apparently, but my woes in Paris regard the seriously debilitating. However, I'm very happy to have found your blog for some fellow cynicism in what feels like a sea of Parisian romanticists. I'd love to PM you if possible.

  6. I can't argue with your own personal experience but in my opinion, as a foreigner who lives in Paris for over 2.5 years now, your impression of Paris is way too gloomy.
    We could have endless examples about why this city is not as good as NY, London, Berlin, Madrid or any other metropolitan, examples such as the damn trick with the coin of the Gypsies, the metro bands, the way they abused and massacred the Pizza etc..
    But there are some other things in Paris, some things which I can find charming - the artists, the liberated souls who feel the beautiful sites and the sewerage of Paris; they are friendly and they keep this city alive and visually in anarchic way up to date, another example are the various attractions you have during the different times of the year all over Paris.
    Furthermore, when you do know how to speak french and you will try to have a small talk with somebody in most cases you will make a new disposable friend. It might be the guy from the Greek fast foot diner, the girl from the tapas bar next door, the barber, the taxi driver, the barman, the same homeless guy that sometimes is too disgusting to stand next to, but on another occasions can be an interesting character to speak with,
    And more than everything else the girls. the beautiful Parisian with Chic who you can make you fall in love with 20 times in 30 minutes, from the moment you step into the metro until you get off at your stop.
    The reality is in the eye of the beholder, so as Paris