Vive la France or Leave la France ?
What’s the world coming to if you can’t get a coffee in a Paris café?
While flat-hunting in the capital city of my dreams last summer, a French friend asked why on earth I wanted to move to Paris anyway. “C’est la misère,” she said. She was referring to how expensive the city had become, and how no one apart from the well-heeled could afford to enjoy living here any more.
She was echoing what I had heard from lots of ex-Parisians, who had seen enough of their hard-earned money going nowhere and gone for a cheaper option by moving to Berlin, a policy of “leave la France” rather than “vive la France.” It didn’t put me off coming, though. And despite the higher living costs, which are to be expected in an established international city, I still find life in Paris well worth the additional outlay. No, what has struck me more is what another friend told me: “C’est l’arnaque à Paris!”
“L’arnaque” or “arnaquer” (as in “Je ne me laisse pas arnaquer comme ça, monsieur!”), respectively meaning “rip-off” and “to rip off,” are words that have stuck in my brain since moving here last autumn, not only because I rather like how they sound, but also because I hear them so often. They are mostly spat out by people in a mixture of anger and disappointment, as if a good friend has let them down.
Their point seems to be that although Paris was always more expensive than the rest of France, many people who offer everyday services now seem to be going beyond even that and are plucking prices out of the air. And I have to say I can see what they mean.
Take the cost of the catering for my housewarming party as an example. The initial price agreed on in the shop of €150-€180 turned into a final reckoning a week later of €280, almost double the original quote. I paid a visit to the Italian traiteur (caterer), who smiled cheekily then knocked the price down to €200.
Or how about the nonsense ploys that are used in a bid to squeeze more euros out of you: the Place Verte café in the 11th arrondissement, for example, once refused to serve me coffee unless I ordered the Sunday morning brunch with it. “On fait que le brunch, monsieur,” the waiter said. A café that won’t sell coffee? Must be something of a first. When I saw the derisory brunch, I decided that I still wanted only coffee and went elsewhere.
There are many other examples of blatant profiteering that go untamed, like the bar next door that, as one good friend lamented when in need of some late-night nicotine, whacks another two euros on a packet of cigarettes. “C’est cher ça, non?” he said to the barman. “Voilà!” came the reply. The barman did then make a rather amusing gesture of appeasement, however, by placing a free box of matches on top of the cigarettes.
What has always made France and Paris so irresistible to me is the way people interact with each other, in a spirit of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” and with a sense of respect for their fellow man. People connect with and enjoy other people in a way that I don’t experience anywhere else. But this feeling of potentially being conned whenever you need or want to buy something cuts right through this bonhomie and destroys trust and joie de vivre. And it is this, rather than the general high cost of living, that I think is the final straw for the locals, plunging them into despair and driving them away.
I don’t think that will happen to me. Well, not just yet anyway. But I have decided that in order to keep enjoying Paris I need to keep my guard up, keep my money in my wallet – which has already been stolen once – and focus on what the people and the other sides of the city have to offer.
© 2009 Paris Update
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