Blog traffic has been flagging lately, so we must not be writing anything that is interesting to people. The things that people on WordPress seem to like most are inspirational tales of hardships overcome and reinforcements of the mantra to believe in yourself. The second favourite is photographs of exotic locales. Thus, we strike with the third favourite – trip reports. Recently I went to an atomic physics conference in Palaiseau, which is in the southern Paris exurbs (hence one half of the title). On the way back, I stayed a couple nights around Gatwick, going into London for the days (hence the other). I know, this isn’t particularly exotic. Still, here are some observations.
Mona lisait (mais elle ne lira plus)
Paris appears more invested into bookstores than most places I know. Which is one of the reasons it is such a great city. The Mona Lisait bookstore is basically better than any single bookstore in Seattle (with the possible exception of Elliott Bay), Vancouver (with the possible exception of MacLeod) and Amsterdam (with the possible exception of the Athenaeum). And yet it’s a chain of which there are at least four, and it seems far from the best bookstore in Paris. In fact, after a law that says “anyone who puts out chairs onto the sidewalk facing the street and offers people food and drink if they sit on those chairs goes to prison,” the deprecation of paper books would have the biggest negative impact on the city’s character and wellbeing. Except the first of these things isn’t gonna happen any time soon.
I may not be among the first million people to point this out, but, confidential to Paris: if you have a metro station that is large enough in extent that its two ends are actually two different stops on the same metro line it’s a good sign that (a) this station is too big and (b) your metro lines have too many stations.
“La psychologie: où le client a jamais raison”
Living in North America, I have become accustomed to a “the customer is always right” treatment. It was interesting to observe that this is not the way things work in France. After a very fun three days couchsurfing, I stayed in the École Polytechnique’s school hotel. The first night, I was in a room with an enormous amount of bedbugs of surprising variety and voraciousness. Being bitten dozens of times within the first half hour, I decided that sleeping outdoors would provide me with a better rest. The next morning I tried to complain about this and get money back for the night. However, the hotel manager lady suggested that perhaps the bugs flew in during the night because it was really hot and the window was open. She did not seem concerned with either bedbugs’ lack of flying ability
or even the improbability of so many of them coming in at once. Her point was that there was no reason for her to believe my story was correct. Later, I did get my money back, so the system worked. It’s just that what I said happened wasn’t deferred to or even believed I don’t think. I’m not saying the “customer is always right” treatment in North America is better. Just it’s different, and I guess my personal preference would be somewhere between the two.
I was against authenticity before it was cool
When people travel, they like to “go where the locals go” and “blend in.” I think David Sedaris has a pretty good essay about how this particular conceit manifests itself in Paris.
Like “authentic” food, though, this might be something people enjoy saying as a pose more than they actually believe. Once by pure chance, I ended up in a bustling place that was full of characters straight out of Zazie in the Metro, drinking aperitifs at 8 in the morning. And you know what? I felt totally out of place. There they were, laughing it up, everyone seemed to know one another, and I was like the guy who walks in in the middle of an hour-long in-joke. It can’t be that this is the experience one seeks out. What people may mean by the “locals” thing is that they don’t want to be “obvious” tourists – and here I sheepishly admit agreeing. A. and A., who I was with, were nearly polar opposites to one another in this regard. A., who kept pulling out his gaudy tourist map of Paris everywhere and A., who refused to ask for directions and didn’t even bring a camera. On the one hand, if you’re a tourist, you might as well admit it – who are you trying to fool? And yet it just seems too tacky – I couldn’t quite bring myself to do so. My goal is to be like someone who lived in the city for a little and is coming back after a long absence. That is when visiting a city is the greatest. Alas, unless this is the real situation, that is hard to achieve.
Contradict myself in rhyme like Tupac
And yet, as I mentioned, I stayed with a couchsurfer and it was the most fun. So maybe blending in with the locals is okay, too.
London is brilliant (Southern England is rubbish)
I have a rather prejudicial dislike of (at least southern) England that I’m not proud of. And yet I love London. I felt both opinions reinforced during my stay this time around. I’ve been thinking whether this can be attributed to the sifting argument that I linked to previously in an aside about meritocracy. London has been a metropolis almost since time immemorial and as far as I know there was never really any stringent impediment to moving there. So could it be that the areas around London have long been bleeding all the smartest, most enterprising, wittiest, most talented, beautiful and just best people to London itself, leaving behind a wasteland? I kind of doubt it, because the same is true of Paris, and a lot of Northern France is awesome. And for the fact of London’s longevity to matter, this argument has to assume a
higher degree of genetic fatalism than I would like. Still, something to think about.
The heartbreaking unterribleness of English food
English food is supposed to be famously awful. Back when I visited last, after accidentally blowing basically a week’s worth of food budget on “Jersey Cream Tea” in Jersey, I subsisted entirely on baps and some kind of Tesco meat product. This time around, coming from Paris, I was expecting a similar letdown. And yet the first thing I ate was a hot, flaky, lamb-and-mint pasty that was pretty damn delicious. On basically every corner, there is a Pret à Manger, which serves (you guessed it) pre-made food of the could-be-available-in-high-quality-grocery-store or if-Starbucks-was-more-into-food variety. It’s the sort of thing that yuppies should be all over. And considering it isn’t that expensive, I am a fan. Of course it’s still got nothing on French food, which is pretty invariably delicious, but here is another stereotype decimated. What country’s food can I mock now? Finland? Where’s the fun in that?
When Vancouver was about to host the Olympics there was a lot of uncertainty. Was it just a corporate cash grab? Would the city benefit financially or would it be a huge money sink? Were the organizers papering over the ugly parts of the city, displacing people and violating individual rights? Wouldn’t the traffic be terrible and isn’t it better to get out of town? And yes, those are all valid concerns. (except the getting out of town part). But somehow it feels worth it, because everybody is there, and most people are in a good mood and optimistic, and for a little while it’s just this wonderful party. That’s how it felt in London, too.
About the banya
My acquaintance I. was telling me about his friend who was only able to talk about bicycles. Frustrated by the excess of shop talk, he asked her how she felt about Paris. “Paris – it’s a worthless city, she said, hardly any bike infrastructure, and cycling anywhere is a hassle.” Well, I am afraid I am somewhat like this friend of his, so don’t invite me to your dinner party, I guess. But London is just fantastic for biking. They have a bikeshare program, that, unlike Paris’, you can just start using on the spot. And it’s only a pound a day. Riding around on the bikeshare bikes gives you an immense hunger for distance, where you see something far off, say to yourself “gee, I wonder what that is…” and then you go there and find out.