What are the differences between living in Paris and living in Boston? There’s only so much one perceives after living in a place for a few months, but more than a tourist sees during a week’s stay in a hotel.
Cleanliness. People often ask whether Paris is a clean city. The answer is yes, and no. Parisians are at least as messy as Bostonians, and tourists are no better. With respect to cleaning up after their dogs I think Parisians are even messier. But the Parisian sanitation department is nothing less than awesome. Around six every morning I would notice a whooshing sound, which was an employee power-washing the sidewalks with a fire hose.
Then followed three sanitation department trucks — a big one for trash, a smaller one for recycling and a street-cleaning truck to clean up any spills. In the market areas where I have been living these trucks return several times a day! The streets and sidewalks are squeaky-clean after this team has passed. They start getting messy again immediately, but not for long. Except for chewing gum — which is a problem everywhere (except Singapore) — you don’t see the kind of accumulated sidewalk crud that is so common in Boston. My overall impression is that Paris is remarkably clean, although you do have to watch your step to avoid the doggy-do.
Smoking. A lot of people smoke in Paris. Even nice, well-educated people, like my friends! Smoking was banned inside bars and restaurants a few years ago; I wouldn’t have done the trip otherwise. But it’s still permitted on the terraces outside, which is usually where you want to sit. So there’s a lot of second-hand smoke. It seems to me as though many fewer people smoke in Boston, and the fact that it’s banned on restaurant terraces means that you usually don’t have to inhale it when someone does smoke. In Patty Larkin’s phrase, “the collective unconscious hasn’t woken up yet” about smoking. This even though cigarette packs bear huge, dramatic messages like “Smoking Kills!”
Windows. French windows go knee-height to ceiling and open inwards. For one thing there are no screens, so when the windows are open insects are free to enter and leave. Fortunately I have rarely noticed a mosquito in Paris so this isn’t an issue. The problem I do have, however, is that the windows tend to bang open and closed when it’s windy. I generally use a chair to prop them into position but it would seem that French engineering could come up with a bar of some sort that would let you fix the windows at a particular angle. These windows let in lots of light, however, and lots of air when they are open.
Toilets. The toilet in my apartment this year was a super-low-flow model which hardly used any water. The problem is that it didn’t do the job — whenever I moved my bowels I would have to use the brush to clean the bowl and flush again. I’m not persuaded about the ecological soundness of this procedure and in any case it’s darned inconvenient. I’m pleased to have returned to toilets that use enough water to perform their function. Also, on a couple of my excursions I encountered squat toilets in provincial pubs:
|I was used to seeing these from trips to China, Turkey and Thailand, but I didn’t expect to encounter them in France.|
Métro. I’ve commented elsewhere on the features I like about the Paris métro — how frequently the trains run, the board that tells you when the next two trains will arrive, the late hours on weekends. The 14 is already driverless and the 1 will also have driverless cars later this month. Not only is this very cool, but it also allows trains to run faster and more frequently. One feature I hadn’t fully appreciated is the fact that the automated barrier along each platform also prevents people from falling (or jumping) onto the tracks. Apparently this is the cause of more than 60% of delays in service!
There are also some drawbacks to the métro. The trains aren’t air conditioned, which can be annoying although much less often than it would be in a Boston summer. Connections can be long, involving several to many flights of steps. Not only isn’t the métro accessible but it is hard to imagine enough elevators being put in to allow a wheelchair to navigate any of the major stations. If you can’t climb stairs you have to use the (excellent) bus system. There are annoying panhandlers and begging musicians, even though this is illegal.
All in all, however, public transport works well in Paris and you can generally rely on it to get you efficiently anywhere within the city.
Café Style. My friends Ryan and Alan pointed out a key difference between Parisian cafés and American cafés: In Paris when there are two seats at a table they typically both face the street while in America they face each other. This small difference reflects — and contributes to — a significant cultural difference. Parisians sitting at a café watch the people strolling by as well as chatting. And the people strolling by know they will be watched, so they dress and carry themselves accordingly. This “virtuous cycle” may be one factor contributing to the fact that many Parisians are more stylish than Bostonians. Another aspect of this difference is that looking at other people is normal here, as is looking back; taking pleasure in one another’s appearance is an accepted part of public life rather than something furtive.
Passion. I will venture a further speculation, based on even less evidence. The stylishness one frequently notices in Paris (and rarely in Boston) is not just a matter of classier clothes — though that is certainly a factor. There is also something in the way people carry themselves, and the serious expression that they often have. The consciousness of being looked at is part of it, but I think there’s more: a feeling that one’s life is important. I got the same impression from several conversations with French friends. They were passionate about political and intellectual issues — as well as friendship and romance — in a way that my friends and I were in college, but not so much since then. Living passionately has its drawbacks as well, but it is impressive, and seductive.
Energy. One thing I was struck by on returning to Boston this year was how quiet it seems here. It was as if I had moved to the country. And I live in Central Square, Cambridge, one of the busiest neighborhoods in the Boston area! There are people on the sidewalks, even eating at sidewalk tables, but perhaps one-tenth as many as in my Paris neighborhood (admittedly one of the busiest in that city). The traffic moves slower, there are hardly any motor bikes, people mosey (or waddle!) instead of striding crisply along. The view from my apartment windows is mostly of treetops. City noises occasionally intrude, but between honks I hear birds singing. It should also be acknowledged that Paris has much quieter neighborhoods, including many that I consider depressingly dead. But my neighborhood in Paris had a level of diverse, happy energy that I don’t expect to encounter in Boston (though I could find a counterpart in New York).
Electricity. Last but not least, 220 volts is lots more powerful than 115 volts. Stuff happens quicker: water boils, steam irons steam, etc. I suppose it’s also better at electrocuting people; happily I didn’t encounter this issue. But I do envy the greater puissance of French electricity.