assorted observations


In no particular order…

In New York City, it always seems to take longer to get to my destination than Google Maps’ time estimate, but in Paris, I always seem to get places faster than what the map tells me. At first I thought maybe Google calculates walking time based on the average pedestrian speed in each city. New Yorkers practically run while Parisians saunter – and I walk at some pace between the two. Then I made another observation, which I now believe probably better accounts for the difference:

The Parisian subway system actually runs on schedule. In the four months I’ve been here, I’ve only had to get off a train once due to a technical malfunction, and apart from that I’ve experienced no other train delays. Almost every metro station has a countdown clock that shows when the next two trains are expected. For much of the day, trains seem to run every 2-3 minutes, and I’ve only had to wait more than 5 minutes once, late at night. By New York standards that is incroyable. Yes, the subway here closes way too early (between around 12:30 and 1:30am in central Paris), but now that I’m past my prime that has only been a problem one or two times.

Credit cards do not really exist in France. What people use instead is a debit card tied to their bank, or a “credit” card that allows them to pay off their balance on a monthly basis but only allows them to charge up to the amount left in their accounts. There are no bank-issued cards that allow you to spend more than you have in cash on-hand. This boggles my mind, in a good way. I found this explanation of the system from 2010. I’m sure a lot has changed since then but I think the general idea has remained the same. I am giving the French the benefit of the doubt and assuming that this is a consumer protection measure to prevent predatory lending and downward debt spirals, but I really don’t know.

I’ve been aware for years that French numbering conventions defy all logic, but I’ve only recently come into contact with the possibly even more bizarre Parisian arrondissement system, the discovery of which has led me to believe that there really is something strange going on with the French brain. The neighborhoods of central Paris are numbered from 1 to 20 and someone decided to assign them not from west to east and north to south or from north to south and west to east but rather, in a spiral starting from the historic center. This means that it is possible to walk in a straight line from the west side of the city to the east side in this order of arrondissements: 16th, 7th, 1st, 3rd, 11th, 20th. Just… why? It’s so kooky that I’m sure it will eventually become charming… once I can keep the numbers straight.

On the same note, why is the north side of the Seine called the right bank and the south side the left bank? In order to see one side as the left and one as the right, you have to tilt your head sideways. The more I think about it, the more I wonder whether the French are actually wonderfully eccentric thinkers worthy of my captivation rather than my complaints.

If you get your coffee at the bar, it costs as little as one Euro, but if you sit down at a table you have to pay more. I stiffed a couple of servers before realizing this. Also, you don’t have to say you want an espresso, you just say “café.” But, there was one time when I ordered a café and the guy gave me a coffee, and when I pointed out that it wasn’t an espresso like I had ordered he said they only serve café filtre, and because in France the customer is never right or at least very rarely and only begrudgingly so, he then shrugged and walked away. 

When I lived in Dakar there was practically no air conditioning and people were very conservative with water and electricity use. I assumed this was a question of infrastructure and money. Then I came to France, where there is plenty of infrastructure and money, yet there is still practically no air conditioning and people are very conservative with water and electricity use. I knew that Americans were wasteful with resources (myself very much included), but the scale of our gluttony really hits home when you spend significant amounts of time around people who could be but who are not.

There are some cute varieties of produce that are common here but that I have never seen elsewhere. To name but a few: tiny adorable rocket-shaped radishes, spherical zucchinis, green plums, and fuzzy green almonds, which are regular almonds but unripe. I just looked them up and they sound delightful to eat, so I think I will pick up a bunch next time I see them.

I realized I was about to run out of toilet paper so when I left the house this evening around 10pm I went looking for a store to buy some. Everywhere within a four block radius was closed except for the bistros, from which I considered stealing a roll but did not have a big enough bag to hide it in. I keep forgetting – so often that it feels almost willful – that the French keep certain hours and you will not find what you are looking for outside of those hours. Lunch is from 12-2, maybe 3 if you’re lucky, and then the doors remain open but they only serve drinks until dinner.  You have to find a place with a “service continu” sign if you want to eat at irregular hours, and those can be few and far between depending on where you happen to be when hunger strikes. Half of the city is closed now in any case because it’s August, during which a vast amount of Parisians go out of town for vacation and lock up their businesses for 3-4 weeks. (Apparently there are two camps of Parisians: the juilletistes, who take their vacation in July, and the aoûtiens, who go away in August.) It’s insane from my point of view, but if I were one of the ones going on vacation I’d of course think it was awesome…

One thought on “assorted observations

  1. I learned so much about the french culture in this post!!! The way they count and organize numbers does indeed sound crazy. I have also noticed that people tend to be much more conservative with water and electricity in Costa Rica and Chile, and restaurants tend to keep strict hours as well. I agree that this makes people from the United States seem careless about resources. But I am excited to try to take these lessons back to the states with me to try to make a change for the better!

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