I will write some notes on our recent Paris journey, in three phases. First, general impressions of the city. Second, our reaction to the food scene there. Third, comments on beer in Paris (while not intending to focus on our pet subject, inevitably I was drawn to it when in situ).
As for 20 and 30 years ago when we first visited the city, the architecture is the main draw. At every corner you think you are in a museum of some kind, an outdoors one based on buildings, monuments, and the engineer Haussmann’s long-lived design. Paris survived almost intact the two major wars of the 1900s, and his work and the previous infrastructure left standing retain all their glory. You get a burnished golden look to many of his buildings which helps define the city.
This museum-character is virtually unique among major cities of its age and importance.
The famous Metro works as well as ever. The RER (interurban system often aboveground) works well too although in general the cars seemed older and scheduling less rigorous. Traffic is thronged, and somehow the city manages without the speed bumps and bike lanes which have made city-centre traffic so dense and slow-moving in many Western cities. I have a feeling there are aesthetic reasons too why these refinements of social paternalism are dispensed with there.
The city, while it has the same look as preceding generations stretching to the late 1800s, is however less French than before, dans un double sens one might say. The French language has increasing amounts of English in it, in public signage and in newspapers and other media. Even where French seems unaffected by English, one can see that many phrases borrow their word order and ideas from English. For example, the verb se positionner, or to position yourself (say to make a run for office), seems of this type.
Much of the business language in the press uses cant words from New York and London, but in French. I suppose practical people would say it’s gagnant-gagnant (win-win).
Many signs now are bilingual, one sees it in the Metro, the system to buy tickets certainly, in museums, in many shops.
I’d think in a couple of hundred years French will be replaced by English as the lingua franca (sorry).
As well, many more Parisians speak English than before. Not just in hotels and restaurants, but those whose work requires interaction with Britain, U.S., or other parts of the EU. Of course globality and the Internet promote all this. Still, knowing some French helps the visitor a lot. With my Montreal upbringing, expressing myself came easily but I had trouble following some of the French due to the speed and monotone style in which Parisians speak. Quebecois speak much more in a musical way which to my mind is more understandable, but it’s all relative. All the French I met expressed great interest in Quebec and many said they would like to visit here.
I told one person that most French Canadians trace their lineage to Normandy or Brittany. He expressed surprise at this and said the modern Norman accent is not like Quebec’s, but of course things change over time.
In mid-2017, most of the tourists seemed Asian or East or North European – very few North Americans. The reasons are well-known, especially the fear of more Islamist terror attacks. One sees soldiers festooned with submachine guns frequently in town, especially near the seats of government in the 2nd arrondissement.
A group of Czechs was in town wearing white and red football-like costumes, some with funny hats. A bunch of them, men and women, sat in a line in a cafe and ordered large mugs of beer at noon. My kind of crowd. We met some on the Seine tour boats as well.
The city remains very livable. Like London, it almost instinctively knows how to preserve a kind of tranquility once the traffic dissipates and dusk falls. This is achieved in other ways too. Walking for hours each day, I think I heard an emergency siren once or twice – in Toronto it would be many more times. There is less heavy construction, of course because so much of the city remains the same, hence less noise from that source.
I didn’t see any of the zones where large numbers of French and immigrants live of North African or similar origin. These areas must be relatively distant from the main arrondissements of the city centre. There is an ethnic diversity in that city centre of course, but it seemed not much different from decades ago.
The media especially tv seemed preoccupied with politics especially the election just held. The style of news seems much influenced by what we first saw in America, the panels where each speaker tries to shout down the other, the experts brought in from academy, army, or business to weigh in on this or that. It’s still very French though. Emmanuel Macron’s victory speech was a triumph of banalities in my opinion, just vague, inspirational talk, and he mentioned almost nothing of policy. Frequently this was the tone of the commentary as well including the print versions (Figaro and other newspapers).
There is an intellectual tone to all this that seems impressive but sometimes you get the impression people like to hear themselves, and others, speak…
In the end, Paris remains itself, and that draws untold millions to see its wonders, and will no doubt into the distant future.