It’s been thirty years since we were last in Paris for any length of time. For all the eternal verities of the old monuments, museums, and traditional street scenes, the changes are striking. Apart from the update on the public transit system which I discussed in my last post, there is a new atmosphere in the city which illustrates the dynamism of the city.
What is most engaging is an apparently all-pervasive new interest among the French in speaking English. When I visited Paris as a student in the ’50s – ’70s, the French had a reputation for being unfriendly to visitors. They proudly spoke French and expected everyone else to do so as well. At one time, the French government actually ran a poster campaign encouraging their citizens to “be friendly” to visitors. Today, no such campaign is required.
Although my husband and I speak French, if not with a great accent, we both found this trip that everyone we talked to shifted into English the moment they heard our accent. Shopkeepers in all the local stores and in the department stores, bus drivers, security guards, “volunteers” in the subway, staff at the museums, other travellers on the buses or the Métro, people in the laundromat, all took the opportunity to speak English, even when their English may have been more limited than our French. Sometimes, when their English was in fact quite good or they had travelled in Canada or the United States, they would engage in long conversations.
Apparently, a new generation of French started learning English in grade school, studied the language for three or four years at least, and they are eager to practice what they remember. Many told us that they learned English because of the movies, music, and the media. Their enthusiasm for the language seems to reflect a new openness to engaging with visitors which we had not experienced before.
It seems ironic that, just as the French are embracing English as the principal means of communication in the world, the English are threatening Brexit. The British may not want to participate in the European Union, but the French at least have now adopted English. It’s a major victory for the English language which the Brits are spurning.
Another change is the all-pervasive use of credit cards and smartphones. Everybody pays for everything using bank cards. Tickets for public transit, groceries in the supermarkets, purchases in local stores, entries to the movie theatre, theatres and museums, restaurants and brasseries all prefer payment by bank card. To buy stamps for postcards, I had to use a machine at the local post office and use my bank card to pay for each 1.8 Euro stamp. Ordering tickets for the symphony or for museums presupposes that payment will be by bank card and that a smartphone can be used to show email copies of the tickets on entry. Our Canadian bank occasionally rejects purchases I have made on Visa and sends me a text seeking confirmation that the particular purchase is okay. Without a smartphone, I could not get the text. My husband, who has always resisted using smartphones, now realizes that having a smartphone, and knowing how to use it, have become necessities for contemporary travel.
The diversity of people in Paris is also evident. Public transit is full of people of all races, colours, and creeds from all over the world. There are so many tourists in Paris from Japan, China, and Korea that Asian languages are seen everywhere. And “ethnic” restaurants are proliferating in Paris as much as in Toronto. We discovered several small Asian restaurants which served delicious fare, were inexpensive and extremely friendly. Apart from McDonald’s and other North American chains, Marks & Spencer has many stores in the city, large and small, selling finely-prepared food which is reasonably priced, can be heated on the spot or eaten cold and is popular with tourists and locals alike. The busy Marks & Spencer at Terminal 3 of Charles De Gaulle airport is an outstanding example which we used often to provision informal dinners for our room at the airport. I wonder what will happen to M&S post-Brexit?
Another new development in Paris is the vast expansion of public greenery which now prevails in the city. In the past, open spaces were covered with gravel and sand. If there was grass, it was formal, considered decorative and people were forbidden to walk on it. Now, children play on the lawns at the Parc Montsouris and other such parks, and families picnic. The small open space just up the street from our apartment, now called Place des Droits de l’Enfant, sports trees, benches and public art. René Coty is a lovely boulevard nearby which runs from the Parc Montsouris to Denfert-Rochereau and onto the Boulevard Raspail. In the centre of this wide boulevard, tall trees now line a sidewalk on both sides, encouraging the public to walk in the shade. It is a beautiful street which has enhanced the quality of the neighbourhood enormously. The Paris City Council promotes these initiatives as part of their public policy priority favouring the greenification of public spaces.
There are several new attractions in Paris which warrant the attention of visitors. The Paris Symphony has built a striking new Philharmonic Hall at La Villette in the northeast of the city which opened in January 2015. The architecture is highly controversial, but the concert hall itself, the Grand Salle Pierre Boulez, seats 2400, all arranged around the orchestra which is placed in the centre. As everyone is seated so close to the maestro and can see the orchestra as it goes about its work, the intimacy of the concert is amazing. With excellent acoustics, the yellow, orange, and cream colours of the undulating lines of the room add to the glow of the music. The Institut du Monde Arabe is another new museum with breathtaking architecture, excellent amenities for seniors, and an emerging collection. In addition to the permanent historical and archaeological exhibits, a current exhibition shows art from contemporary artists from all over the Arab world, work we would not normally see. Another exhibition, called Foot et Monde Arabe, features Arab football players and teams that have been famous over time. Included are the Jordanian Women’s Football Team, and a presentation on playing football in Palestine under current conditions. The renovated Musée Picasso is utterly beautiful, with modern elevators, places to sit, and an innovative exhibition of Picasso’s lesser-known earlier work, and an exciting current exhibition comparing Picasso with mobile sculptor Alexander Calder. Clearly, there is much to see in Paris.
***** Thanks to Tim and Judith for their input.