There have of course been a lot of changes since my first family trip to Paris in the mid 60s. Here are a few that I’ve noticed.
- The Métro. The carriages I remember were absurdly quaint. They looked like something from an old movie, with red first-class cars (now gone) and green second-class cars. The old cars had latches to open the doors. Now there’s a mix: some cars have latch-like levers, some have buttons and some (quelle horreur!) have doors that open automatically. The most dramatic difference to me is that in the 60s each platform had a hydraulic gate that closed when a train arrived to prevent people from crowding onto the platform at the last minute. I liked to imagine that this was due to a disaster in which a crowd pushed a bunch of people onto the tracks in front of an arriving train. Whatever the reason, they’re gone.
- Toilets. There used to be metal enclosures called “pissoirs” for men to pee in along all the broad boulevards. These only provided privacy where it counted, but they were a real convenience — for men. Now there is a certain number of self-cleaning automated toilets. They serve both sexes but they take a lot of time between patrons and there aren’t as many of them. Update: In 2012 I am delighted to see that the pissoir is back! Re-branded “urinoir” it offers even less privacy than the old design; not for the pee-shy!
While we’re on the subject, every place I stayed in the 60s had a bidet (a porcelain appliance used to wash your private areas). Haven’t seen one yet on any of my trips. Also, French toilet paper used to be terrible — thin glossy sheets that didn’t do the job (because they had bidets?). Toilet paper here is now much better than ours; you only need a single square.
- Carafes and Wine Glasses. Every carafe or glass used for wine had a line scored into the glass, evidently by a government official using a file or similar tool, to show the exact level for the standard quantity. It gave me comfort to know that I was getting my money’s worth! These lines have disappeared, hélas.
- Movies. These days movies in Paris are the same as in the U.S. The only difference is that there are a lot more screens — on a rough count 120 first-run films were in Paris cinemas this week, plus about 100 older films shown at least once in art theaters. Back in the day, however, the movie-going experience was very different. Your ticket was for a specific seat, like in a play, and you were shown to your seat by an usher with a flashlight. Before the movie, and during the intermission, an usher circulated through the theater selling candy from a tray suspended in front of her like a cigar girl in an old movie. It was quite a surreal experience!
- Greetings. Whenever a young person joined or left a group of friends he or she would shake hands with everyone in the group. Now in similar situations it’s a double kiss on the cheeks. Plus ça change…
- Smoking. Everyone smoked, everywhere. And not just any old cigarette but those noxious Gauloises. It has been just a couple of years since smoking was banned in restaurants and cafes, and the change is dramatic. People still smoke outside at cafes, unfortunately, but everywhere else is blissfully smoke-free. I wouldn’t have spent this long here otherwise.
- French and English. In my early visits I got the impression that the French had chips on their shoulders concerning language. If you didn’t speak French perfectly they would frequently pretend not to understand you at all. And they would decline to help you even if they knew some English, which was rare. All that is changed. People in general are pleased if you know some French. They try to understand and they congratulate you if you’re even in the ball park. They’re happy to offer what English they have, which is now often quite a bit. The result is that “the language barrier,” formerly something of an issue, is now more of an game.
I wouldn’t want to turn back the clock, but among the pleasures of seeing Paris today are the ghostly memories it invokes of the way it used to be.