Volume 23, Number 8 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | July 2 - 8, 2010
Le petite voyageur: A New Yorker strolls through the City of Light
BY Helaina N. Hovitz
“Can we get a taxi this way?” I asked a small man in uniform at the airport as I quickly rolled my suitcase toward the small blue exit sign. “You’re from New York, yes?” he asks me. “I can tell.”
Before I left for Paris, dozens of people gave me a warning. “Be prepared to be ignored and spoken down to.” It is a pretty common conception, among New Yorkers in particular, that French people hate Americans and are incredibly rude and snooty. Needless to say, I was a bit shell-shocked when every single person I came across was friendly, amicable, and helpful. However, there was one restaurant where I encountered a couple of snooty waiters, but it felt the way I imagine a chaotic cab ride must feel for a tourist in New York; you don’t really mind, because you secretly want the “full experience.” It’s not as if waiters in New York are never rude to tourists who come here. France is a beautiful country, but it’s not a utopia. People are people anywhere you go.
The airport was the first and last time I was able to find a taxi with any sort of ease. Here’s the thing about me in Paris: I couldn’t hail a taxi for my life. There are designated Taxi stands scattered around the city, but cabs rarely bothered lining up and were impossible to catch in moving traffic. In fact, I was the only maniac hopping around waving my hand in the air trying to get one. Frankly, if our subway system was anything like theirs, I don’t think I’d be clambering for a cab too often.
Their Metro system is efficient, spotless, and smells like…nothing! As if that alone isn’t refreshing enough, the vending machines on the air-conditioned subway platforms offer up everything from freshly brewed espresso to ice cold water. There’s little waiting time between trains, and the cars are clean and quiet, even during rush hour. There are no advertisements inside the subway cars, and the upholstered seats are plush and comfortable. The only panhandler I saw was a smartly dressed, middle-aged redheaded woman. The one thing our train cars have in common with theirs are those annoying, single pop-up-seats that make a loud banging noise when you stand up, like the ones we have on the 6 train (which is also, coincidently, their green line). Though there was cell phone reception in the subway tunnels, barely anyone used their phones, and if they did they spoke in a hurried whisper. New Yorkers, please take a moment to imagine a place where people are so genuinely considerate of each other that they will amend their own personal agendas to maintain a peaceful, spotless environment. It is really something else.
The people who wound in and out of moving traffic on foot to solicit money from drivers weren’t homeless or trying to sell water to thirsty drivers; they were collecting donations for the Red Cross. And nobody honked a horn at them. In fact, I did not hear a single “honk” during my entire stay in Paris. Could it be that every single driver that sat in traffic or got cut-off by another car had the patience of a saint? Did President Nicolas Sarkozy have car horns outlawed? It got me wondering whether or not New Yorkers are just an impatient, angry breed of people…it also got me wondering whether or not I could make that judgment after only being there for four days. So I stopped wondering, and just enjoyed the peace and quiet.
New York is always under construction, especially Lower Manhattan, so I was a bit crestfallen when I noticed that there was construction taking place every six or seven blocks in Paris; new buildings were being erected and old monuments were being restored. Even the Brasserie de Notre Dame was being built upon vertically. Barricades and netting were everywhere. But just as things began feeling all-too-familiar, I stumbled upon a flower market that just so happened to be selling roosters, chickens and other birds. Even more peculiar were the bars I then passed that catered exclusively to men, who stood or sat in groups laughing and drinking beer.
It’s interesting to think about how New Yorkers would feel about having to pay extra for food and drink in a given restaurant just to be able to sit at a table. In Paris, you pay more for the privilege to sit in or outside of the restaurant; otherwise you stand at the bar or get the food to go. However, the extra Euros are worth it. Restaurants in Manhattan take up a great deal of sidewalk because people are seated across from one another. In Paris, the sidewalks are fairly narrow, so tables all face out onto the street, with seats adjacent to one another instead of across from each other. This seating arrangement allows for a kind of relaxed privacy; you are not being watched, and you don’t have to worry about the person seated opposite you.
Rashid, a bartender at the Hotel Astor, is a film editor on the side, and was greatly disappointed with France’s mainstream cinema. According to him, most of their movies are about either integration or terrorism, and they’re not very innovative. He told me that they encourage integration in Paris and other cities, but racism in the South of France is still as strong as ever. I told him I needed to clear up a few things for the folks back home, and he was happy to oblige. Firstly, he told me, French people don’t hate Americans. It’s not Americans that most French don’t like; it’s American politics (frankly, I told him, I’m not really a fan myself). Secondly, everyone thought that the whole “Freedom Fries” protest was hilarious. “Fries aren’t even French. They might as well have been called Indian Fries. We all got a big kick out of that,” he said. “And if you want to pour expensive champagne down a sewer drain, well, the joke writes itself, no?”
When visiting Notre Dame you can’t wear a hat, take pictures, or use your cell phone. But people were snapping shots everywhere and texting away…so it was jarring to witness a guard approach a young man wearing a wool hat and demand he take it off, even after the boy exposed a bald head covered in black splotches. “Please don’t make me take it off, I’m uncomfortable,” he begged of the guard. “I don’t care,” the guard responded. And so I walked out of Notre Dame after walking only halfway through.
There is no way to compare New York City to Paris, because each city has its quirks, and each city has its marvels. But I will say this much: France may have eight-piece orchestras performing in the subway, but they don’t have pizza by the slice. If you want a slice of pizza, you’ve got to sit down in a restaurant and order a pie. They may have Peach and Pistachio Frappes at their McDonalds, but a Diet Coke costs, on average, five Euros, the same price as a glass of wine, and you can still find a can for a buck in the Big Apple. Paris may have a slightly more clean, serene walk of life, but when all is said and done, nothing can beat our New York swagger.
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