I don’t wish to gush, but; ahh… Paris. It’s nice to see you again.
Paris is the epitome of a ‘long wave’ city (refer to my Wave City Theory – you’ll be glad you did). The patterns of life for Parisians are routine, but they evolve with the months and seasons. Consistent with my definition of a long-wave city, Paris has a rich multicultural heritage but maintains a dominant Parisian sensibility. There are always things going on – tourism related things of course, as well as sporting and cultural things. It’s a city of drama, and a city of leisure. But what trumps all of this, is that Paris is a city people live in.
As I explore places beyond postcard Paris, I begin to wonder about how the city evolved, and how people come to form their patterns of life within it. Ideas about chickens and eggs sprung to mind – what came first, the city, or the daily routines of its residents? Of course there has already been much written about Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s layout of boulevards (too wide to barricade, but wide enough for military parades and manoeuvres, according to Mumford anyway). From a planning perspective though, this is only one part of the story.
What I’ve discovered to be so interesting about Paris is the way the city adapts to the demands placed on it throughout the day. Early in the morning, Parisians can be found heading out from their homes in search of their daily bread (quite literally). Its not a cliche; the baguette is a staple of French daily life and a reason to venture out in to the street with money enough to procure one. In Paris, the humble bread stick is at the core of vibrant street culture at 6am.
By about 9am, cafes are open, and people are out and about doing what people do in any large metropolis. I suspect that in Paris though, most of those sitting at the cafe tables are in fact tourists. These tourists seem to be widely dispersed throughout the city though – each laying claim to their own piece of her. But it’s locals that seem to be bring the most vibrancy to the streets. They’re the ones that bring the most colour and movement as they stop and chat to the shop keepers, cafe owners, tradespeople and others as everyone goes about their morning routine. The vitality of nearly every city street at this time of day is generated by locals – the rest of us are just watching on.
I think the hour before lunch is my favourite hour of the day in Paris. Everyone seems to be preparing for something. The shops are open, people are busily going from place to place. It seems like everywhere you go, there are tables to set and food to prepare. This is a city that knows how to eat – and sitting down is really the only right way to do it. It feels as though lunch time is viewed less by Parisians as a time to escape from work, and more a time to socialise, and rest. A glass of wine (or more) with lunch is perhaps the single most prominent manifestation of this. It’s a reminder that what’s to come for the remainder of the day ought only be viewed as deed, and not as duty. It’s well understood that wine to the French is something of a National icon – something to be revered. But more than anything, it’s something to drink and enjoy. It’s effect is not to impair what remains of the working day, but to enhance it. There are two sides to every coin.
In the evening, during summer at least, Paris transforms again. Bars and Bistros swell with patrons bringing the streets back to life after the afternoon lull – and everyone is welcome. Crowds gather around performers along the streets and boulevards. They gather too, at the numerous big attractions, where street vendors wander through the crowd; their spotters ever watchful for any sign of the police.
The streets of Paris are a place where young people, old people and families can feel safe. Absent are marauding packs of antisocial youths; of drunken and belligerent men; or others looking for opportunities to inflict harm. Paris at night, like so many of the other great European cities I have visited on this trip, is a safe, attractive and pleasant place to be. The revelry is contagious, and dispersed throughout the city. And on the Metro ride home, I’m commonly joined by sweet old ladies, mature couples and polite young people enjoying each others company. There’s not a drunk or stoned passenger in sight.
If what I have to say here seems less a commentary on the planning and urban design characteristics of Paris and more like a passage from a travel diary, then you have misunderstood my meaning. Paris is less a city and more a pattern of life, at least for those 2.1 million or so that live within it’s 20 central arrondissements. Paris is famous for so many wonderful and unique things, but the overwhelming thing that attracts people to this city is something that few visitors are readily able to identify or understand. It’s very much buried in the physical form of the place.
Everyone who comes to Paris lives a little differently when they do. The city makes you live differently, and inevitably leads you to thoughts of how city life might be improved if we did some things more like the Parisians do, or if we built our towns and cities in a way that would allow us. Not everyone who visits Paris likes it, and indeed, not everything about Paris is desirable. But everyone who visits Paris is changed by it, even if they don’t recognise or admit to it.
Paris is a wonderful city.