My wife Nancy used to be close friends with an American woman who had lived in Paris in the late 1940s and early ’50s. One day they were talking about what the city was like back then, and the older lady reported, among other things, that “there was hardly any traffic. We could park any time right on Place Saint Germain des Prés, and then we’d see Truman Capote sitting in the Café de Flore.” Nancy said, “Oh, those must have been the good old days.” To which her friend replied, “But at the time everyone was nostalgic for the ’20s and ’30s, when Hemingway and Gertrude Stein were around.” (This conversation took place years before Woody Allen made Midnight in Paris. I think he might have been eavesdropping.)
Indeed, Paris may be the world capital of wistful longing for le bon vieux temps. Such sentiment has no geographical boundaries, of course, but for some reason each successive generation of Parisians finds a long list of reasons to envy the previous one.
It’s a never-ending cycle. To take the example of food, in a New York Times op-ed piece just last year, Mark Bittman bewailed the mediocre quality of Parisian restaurants in contrast to his experience on previous visits in decades past. (Quote: “I have to eat in three to recommend one, and that’s with expert guidance.” In my op as an ed, Mr. Bittman needs new experts.)
The great food writer (and consumer) A.J. Liebling voiced a very similar complaint in 1962 in a book entitled Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris, bemoaning that he could no longer find the kind of restaurant that he had loved in the 1920s. And people in the 1920s lamented the disappearance of the “real French cuisine” of the Belle Epoque before World War I, and so on back to when Paris was an outpost of the Roman Empire and everyone groused constantly about how the boar’s heads were bigger, tastier and hairier back when the barbarians were running the show.
Since I like to think of myself as a forward-looking kind of person (example: I’m looking forward to never eating boar’s head), I see all this as pointless reminiscing. And since I have now been in Paris long enough to span one entire nostalgia cycle (just over 30 years), I have decided to declare myself qualified to break the pattern by pointing out the less-than-good aspects of the good old days, such as I knew them.
There are two elephants in this particular chambre, and one of them is gasping and wheezing: life in Paris is much better under today’s anti-smoking laws.
The old stereotype of the Parisian with the cigarette soldered to his lips is to some degree deserved. I recently saw François Truffaut’s Vivement Dimanche (Confidentially Yours), which was released the year I arrived in France. In the entire film, there is hardly a scene in which at least one character isn’t puffing on a Gauloise as though it were tax-deductible, and the dénouement comes (seriously) when one of the characters, inside a police station, tries to smoke two cigarettes at once.
This was a perfectly logical plot device back then. Smoking was allowed in police stations, fire stations, Métro stations, restaurants, bars, offices, shops, hospital waiting rooms, confessionals and just about everywhere except inside maternity ward incubators and the protective glass case around the “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre.
Until the no-smoking statute banished cig-suckers to the sidewalk in 2007, every café smelled like, and essentially was, a giant ashtray. (Like the sidewalk in front of every café today, but it’s still an improvement.)
As for the other above-mentioned elephant, its lung functions are unimpaired but it also stinks. Reader Jim Hanlon reminded me of this one: until relatively recently, the sidewalks of Paris looked as though pet owners came here from all over Europe to walk their dogs. Or bears.
This made strolling the streets of an undeniably beautiful city a dilemma. Most people in Paris could walk and chew Nicorette at the same time, but no one would dare walk and look at the sights, having to keep a keen and constant eye out for biologically processed dog biscuits.
It’s no wonder that Parisians acquired a reputation for being negative: we all spent a significant portion of our lives looking down, expecting to see the worst.
Finally, after several feeble efforts to solve the problem, including a billboard “awareness” campaign that went completely and utterly unnoticed, and the deployment of a brigade of doo-moppers with specially equipped motorcycles (they were already riding on the sidewalk anyway, so why not?), the city began enforcing a “pooper-scooper” law in the late 2000s.
It has been largely, if not entirely, effective. From what I have observed, there are more scofflaw dog owners than smokers. Note to angel investors: there’s a fortune to be made for the startup that invents the vaporizing electronic dog butt. You heard it here first.
But back to my pachyderm-packed enclosure, which is rapidly resembling Noah’s Ark: we also have a pair of lesser but still formidable creatures to reckon with. The first of these wildebeests is the telephone service, which in the 1980s was frankly pathetic.
Right before I moved to Paris it used to take months, literally, just to get a phone in your apartment. And even right after I moved here the call routing system was iffy — it was not rare to get connected to a wrong number over and over even after dialing very carefully.
Furthermore, the only phones available, the ones that France Telecom rented to subscribers, were even iffier. This is true: I had a phone that lasted less than a year before the “4” button stopped working. I traded it in and my next phone lasted a few months before it, too, developed button failure (4 again). The next one lasted a few months and then stopped ringing. The only way I could tell when I had an incoming call was that the answering machine would come on. I kept that one — at least I could use it.
As an illustration of how backward the situation was, in about 1984 the phone company announced a revolutionary, innovative, groundbreaking new service: itemized invoices!
Yes, it was a first in France. Before that, a phone bill consisted of an amount due, a deadline, a threat for failing to pay A before B, and no other information whatsoever. And since there was no flat fee for unlimited local service, every call was tallied into the total, which could reach truly breathtaking heights (especially with all those wrong numbers). Every time I got a phone bill I was reminded of the historic, and often-abridged, quote from Alexander Graham Bell: “Mr. Watson, come here — I want to see you(r face when you get a load of this France Telecom bill)!”
From respiration to digestion to communication, and now transportation: believe it or not, the Métro used to be even more crowded. This was because, until 1991, it had classes: each train had five cars and the middle one was for first-class passengers only, who had paid extra for special tickets, leaving the vast majority of travelers to jam into the other four.
Unlike on the long-distance trains, Métro first class didn’t offer wider seats or more luxurious fittings — the interiors were identical to the other wagons except in color. The logic was that there would be fewer travelers and therefore more space in premiére: according to the principle, since only the elite — financiers, barons of industry, diamond-bedecked socialites, etc. — would buy first-class tickets, they were less likely to have to stand and wear out their opera slippers during rush hour.
But in practice, first was often worse than second class. This was because all the turnstile jumpers, including insistent beggars, drunken hooligans and odiferous clochards, would ride in first. They too, were acting according to a principle, namely that if you’re going to bum a ride you might as well dodge the higher fare. That way you accomplish more, build up greater equity and leave a more impressive legacy for your heirs.
Also in my fauna-filled room are a few smaller species — the tickbirds on the larger animals’ backs, if you will. These do not involve life- or shoe-threatening substances, but rather petty annoyances, affronts and inconveniences that are no longer a problem.
For example, when I first moved to Paris there were virtually no stores open after 7pm, there was one single ATM in the entire city (corner of Saint Germain and Saint Michel), the post office was organized so as to ensure interminable lines for the simplest routine transactions, and there was no home delivery of any kind of prepared food. We didn’t even have home-delivered pizza, which by that time had become so commonplace in the United States that it constituted a separate food group with its own recommended daily intake.
Nancy and I used to have a private joke, a two-word metaphor for anything that we wished we could get but that was not obtainable in Paris for love or Microsoft stock. The two words were “takeout sushi.” Like the phrase “old hippie,” the idea itself was absurd enough to be funny in 1985.
Of course, now you can’t throw an elephant tusk in Paris without hitting a sushi chef standing outside a takeout place. Where he’s probably smoking an e-cigarette and talking on a reliable telephone. And when he gets back up from the sidewalk, his clothes won’t be smudged with anything that violates the health code. The march of Parisian progress!
Note: My thanks go out to reader Jordan Grossi for his help in researching source material for this article.Favorite
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