Parisian Street Signs

The photos below are a couple months old now, but I was reminded of them the other day when I noticed the same three types of street signs on the corner of another street. Despite being interesting as a reminder of the city’s age, a few other things are worth noticing:

  • The decreasing level of permanency of “sign technology” over time. The oldest is literally carved into the building itself, the second is encased in the stone, and the third merely tacked up with some fasteners. (This particular building was constructed in 1750.)
  • The decreasing height of the sign over time, presumably required as cars started to use the streets, and windshields limited the driver’s vision.
  • The scratched-out “St.” in the street name (Saint-Andre des Arts), on the top sign. I only noticed this while cropping the pictures for this post, but I did a quick Google search and and found that my suspicion was correct: this was done on street signs throughout Paris just after the Revolution, in the surge of anti-Catholic sentiment and an effort to erase Catholicism from French history (which is about as ridiculous as Virginia discarding its state song because it was written by a slave, or the West creating the nomenclature “Common Era” in order to pretend that its calendar isn’t pegged to the birth of Christ.)

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Paris Scooters – Les Trottinettes

One thing that struck me soon after arriving in Paris was the popularity of scooters – not motor scooters, but the small “Razor” push-scooters that were popular briefly in the United States several years ago. In the U.S. they were essentially a fad, and really only among kids. Presumably they also gained popularity here in Paris around the same time; however, apparently, they never fell back out of style – and their popularity isn’t limited to young people.

It amused me to see so many “older” people scooting around on what I’d always thought of as a kids’ toys, so I started snapping photos of them whenever I could. The collage below is the result (click to enlarge).

Paris Scooters

Why Learning a Language Is Easier Than I Expected

I used to think that it was necessary to learn a language completely if you wanted to speak it competently. I thought it was necessary to memorize every word, become familiar with every idiom, and study every rule of grammar, until thoughts leapt from your brain to your tongue without a second thought.

However, I’ve been learning recently how mistaken I was. I spent some time thinking about why my view of fluency was so distorted, and realized that it was because I ignored two important factors, both of which serve to mitigate the apparent difficulty of languages. Those factors are synonyms and context.

Synonyms – Synonyms make speaking seem more difficult than it is, because they artificially inflate the amount of apparently necessary vocabulary. But in order to speak effectively, you don’t need to learn every word in the language; you only need to learn one word for each concept. For example, if you were learning to speak English, it wouldn’t be necessary to learn the words “fast,” “swift,” “rapid,” and “quick,” because you only need to learn one (and you can choose the simplest) in order to communicate the idea.

Context – When reading or listening, it is unnecessary to recognize every word or grammatical form spoken to you, or to differentiate among every syllable. The gestures, intonations, body language, facial expressions, circumstances and other words or sentences surrounding an unknown word often tell you everything you need to know about its meaning.

This probably sounds obvious, and I am sure it isn’t news to anyone who has learned a second language. But when you’ve only studied languages in a classroom (as I had), with textbooks that meticulously detail every rule of grammar, and thousand-page dictionaries, “speaking a language” seems to be much more linear and rational than it actually is.

Why Paris is Smaller Than I Expected

Paris is a big place. The metropolitan area has a population over 12 million, putting it on par with cities like London and Los Angeles. I moved here from San Diego, which has about three million in its urban area. In other words, I am living in a city four times bigger than I was used to.

In almost six years in San Diego, I rarely ran into people I knew in public. Towards the end of my time there, when my social circle was at its largest, it started to happen occasionally, but by no means frequently. I would say that I ran into people I knew less than once every couple months.

I also drove 30 minutes each way to work every day, which was almost entirely on a single highway (Route 15). A handful of times during those six years I looked over my shoulder or in my rear-view mirror, and recognized a coworker’s car, also headed into the office. And occasionally I would recognize cars that I had seen previously – usually because they had unique bumper stickers, or interesting decals, or something else that made them memorable.

Here in Paris, after less than four months, I’ve run into a several people randomly in the streets and in bars. In fact, in the last four days it happened five times. Two of the instances were actually the same girl, in the same night, in significantly different places.

I also regularly (almost daily) see people from my office on the train to work, even at stations much farther from my current office than my place in San Diego was from my office there. And I only know a fraction of the 2,600 employees at my office, so I suspect that as I meet more people, I will start to recognize even more people on the train.

Of course there is the chance that this is a statistical anomaly – that these encounters really are complete coincidences. And of course the fact that I work at a much bigger company means that I am more liable to recognize coworkers during my commute. I also realize that by going to certain types of places, or associating with certain types of people, you limit your exposure and the number of people you come into contact with. It isn’t as if I am walking past all 12 million inhabitants of Paris at random on a daily basis; I am only operating within some sub-set of the total population. But this was also true in San Diego, and there, my circles were far more limited than they are here in Paris – a much bigger city where my preferences and routines have yet to become well-defined, and where I am still regularly exploring new places and making new friends. I think there is more at work than just coincidence.

In the United States, we live far more anonymous lives than people do here in Paris. A big part of this has to do with the fact that we drive cars everywhere, effectively concealing ourselves from the thousands of people we would otherwise see as we move around every day. Although it seems like I encounter more coworkers (or other people that I see repeatedly) on the train than I did during my commute in San Diego, I am sure that if I had been able to see the faces of the people I drove alongside every day, I would have recognized dozens or even hundreds of them by the end of the six years I spend making that commute. “Seeing” someone’s face through tinted windows, or only from the back-left as you pass them at 80 mph, is different entirely from the way I see the face of the man sitting across from me on the train right now as I type this.

But there is another important way in which we live “anonymously” in the United States. Consider the fact that our stores, restaurants, bars, parks, etc. are all much bigger than the ones here in Europe. This has the effect of increasing the number of people that you encounter in any given venue. So while you might remember the couple that sat across from you in an intimate restaurant, or the guy who goes regularly to your local men’s clothing store, you are far less likely to isolate in your mind or memory any of the couples that were dining with you at The Cheesecake Factory, or any of the shoppers you saw at the mall. In the same way that I didn’t bother looking twice at a blue sedan on the highway just because my coworker drove one (thousands of other people did too), neither do we in the United States pay as much attention to the people around us, because there are simple too many to take in at any given place, and we “zone out.”

All of this is to say that I think my surprise upon running into people randomly here is more a matter of the United States seeming artificially large than a matter of Paris seeming artificially small.

Of course there are exceptions to this generalization. Cities like New York are probably much closer to Paris in this respect, and the Parisian suburbs are probably not very different from the suburbs in a typical American city. But the point is that, when our minds are forced to handle large sets or quantities of things (in this case people), we reach a threshold at which we stop paying attention to individuals. And that threshold is one that is far more frequently reached in the United States than it is here in Paris.

Le Tour de France

Last Sunday, the final leg of the Tour de France finished in Paris. I am not a huge road biking fan, but I’ve always felt a kind of attachment to the race, mainly because my dad has always been an avid bike rider. I have fond memories of watching the movie Breaking Away with him when I was little and going on “long” rides on the bike trail in Northern Virginia. In any case, when I learned that the “tour” was coming through Paris, I knew I had to see it. (I was a bit surprised when I asked a few locals whether or not they were going – no one was. It is definitely not an event that interests Parisians.)

Actually, although the last leg of the race finishes in Paris, it starts in Versailles, quite a way outside the city (near my office, in fact). Only the last hour or so takes place in the heart of the city, where the riders do several laps around the Louvre and Arc de Triomphe, and finish at sunset on the Champs-Élysées.

Around 9 pm (sunset is late this time of year), I got a call from my friend James, saying that the riders were just arriving – earlier than expected – and that we’d need to hurry if we wanted to catch them. I was just getting out of the shower (trying to cool down in the recent heat), so I threw on some clothes and headed out. We grabbed bikes from the Velib station in our neighborhood, and pedaled over to see the last couple laps.

Race or no race, it is always nice to be riding around the city at dusk. The low sunlight really brings out all of the contours and minute details in the architecture, and it lights up the gold trim on the buildings and bridges to really punctuate the look. But that night there was an extra buzz in the air – an excitement superimposed on the age-old setting. Unlike on Bastille Day, there were people everywhere with flags or yellow jerseys, singing or cheering for the riders from their respective countries.IMG_20130721_210642_320IMG_20130721_210648_725

James and I both live very close to the Louvre, so within a couple minutes of leaving our places, we were standing on a corner watching the pack of riders fly by. We were able to ride around to a few different places, and watch the race go past at different spots in the final circuit. Although we didn’t get close enough to see the finish in person (it would have been impossible with the crowds), we could see it on a big screen TV, only a few hundred meters away, and we could see the riders come past just after they’d finished.IMG_20130721_205000_547

The thing that struck me most was the contrast implicit in hosting such a fast-paced and cutting-edge race in such an established and timeless city. You have hundreds of these highly-trained (and yes, probably drugged…) riders, on the newest and lightest bikes, wearing all kinds of loud colors, and they are whizzing past you on stone-paved streets, in the shadows of somber and imposing buildings like the Louvre. The juxtaposition is impressive.

The end of the race was a little anti-climatic, because the winning team had already been determined over the course of the previous legs (which I gather is pretty typical). So although people still got worked up at the final sprint, it wasn’t anywhere near commensurate with the race’s magnitude and reputation. But it was still exciting to be out watching the real thing, and seeing the riders cross the finish line.

More Photoshttps://picasaweb.google.com/104158199159964308047/TourDeFrance?authuser=0&feat=directlink

Bastille Day in Paris

Every year on the 14th of July, the French celebrate Bastille Day, a holiday commemorating the success of the French Revolution and the rise of democratic ideals. In both circumstance and substance, the holiday is very similar to Independence Day in the United States: both celebrate the move towards democracy and the overthrow of “old-world” governments in countries heavily influenced by The Enlightenment. Both are in July, and both are celebrated with a day off work, parades and fireworks.IMG_20130714_232515_116

A few days before the 14th, a French friend (who’d been in the U.S. for the 4th of July a couple years prior) explained to me that the celebrations wouldn’t be quite the same as what I was used to in the U.S. for Independence Day, because there would be no overt displays of patriotism. No one would be wearing the national colors, flying flags, singing or playing patriotic songs, etc. The reason for this, she explained, was that these things were seen as “far-right” behavior, demonstrations of nationalist extremism.

This was echoed by two other French acquaintances when I asked them about it later, though they were quick to also expressed regret that it was this way. They were proud of their country and wanted to show it, but they didn’t feel like they could because of the stigma. “It’s a shame,” one said, “that it is like this in France. I don’t know why it is like this, but it is…”

The prediction was right. The whole day – even at the fireworks – I didn’t see a single person carrying a French flag, wearing France-themed clothes, or even wearing blue white and red. Although I did see a couple small flags hanging from apartment windows, there were still less than you would see on a normal day in the United States.

While riding the metro to the fireworks with some friends, I did see a group of three young girls with French flags painted on their cheeks. At first I was excited by this – not because I think French should be more patriotic, but because (in light of what I’d been told), I assumed it was a kind of provocative political statement, and I was curious to see how others on the metro would react. Would people stare? scoff? exchange words? – or even fight? But when the girls happened to take a place on the train right near us, and started talking, my excitement was immediately deflated – they were Americans! So the only outward sign of patriotism that I witnessed was nothing more than a projection of American enthusiasm onto the French holiday.IMG_20130714_234603_851

While I am a little too new to France for my opinion to carry much weight, I don’t think that the French are un-patriotic people. I suspect that their national pride – which is very evident in their protectiveness of their language, their resentment of foreign competition, and other aspects of their culture – is simply overpowered by their liberal ideals.

In any case, the fireworks were excellent. I’ve uploaded a few photos to my Picasa account, though in fairness to the France’s “fireworks reputation,” the pictures really don’t do them justice.

Pictureshttps://picasaweb.google.com/104158199159964308047/14Juliette2013