Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Mr. Cab Driver: the Parisian Taxi-Man’s Unique Breed of Discrimination

Parisian living is peppered with a generous dose of trials and tribulations, which makes life’s little triumphs seems that much more, well…triumphant. Scoring an apartment through connections rather than the traditional way (the classifieds, followed by waiting in impossible line-ups that begin to form hours before the eight-o’clock-in-the-morning open house) tops the list, and when you’re a self-employed foreigner, finding a landlord who isn’t spooked by your inability to provide proof of income through the all-Important French fiches de paye (pay stubs), ranks not far behind. There are smaller victories, too, that guarantee the passage of a pretty good day: no line at La Poste when you had psyched yourself up for the standard 45-minute wait, a métro that’s just arrived as you are stepping out onto the quai or an expedient check-out at Monoprix at six-thirty in the evening, when the majority of the Parisian workforce is rushing around buying groceries for dinner. In Paris, where patience is both lacking and a necessity (it can’t be a coincidence that the French verb ‘to wait’ translates as ‘patienter’) things eventually come to those who wait, but it’s nice when one doesn’t have to.

One of the biggest triumphs that Parisians experience occurs long after the sun goes down. If it’s two o’clock on Sunday morning and you’ve waited no more than five minutes for a taxi, one might conclude that you were born under a lucky star.

Taxis in Paris seem to exist in their own vehicular dimension: ordinary human beings can see them circulating about, but making contact requires a special skills set – superpowers, conspiracy theorists might argue – to cross the invisible boundary between us and them. You can wave away, taunt the yellow lights glowing atop their roofs, advertising their vacancy with the malice of a schoolyard bully, but you can’t ride along.

Every Parisian has a taxi-related story – or several, depending on how long they’ve lived here and how often they stay out after the métro has closed down. There’s the classic tease: the taxi-man actually stops, but refuses to take your fare because your destination is not ‘on his way’ (where that is, no one has ever been able to figure out). There was the time that a taxi-man informed a certain journalist – who had treated herself to a panini as a midnight snack – that she was forbidden to indulge in her late-night delicacy because it would create crumbs. (The same taxi-man invited her, however, to make love with her boyfriend in the back seat if the need overtook her.) There was the girl who closed the door to the backseat a little too firmly, inciting the taxi-man to throw his tip at her while shouting that she was a whore. And then there was the gay couple who committed the sin of kissing each other as the car sped through one of the world’s most romantic destinations…that taxi-man retaliated by making a detour to the Bois de Vincennes, leaving them to find their way through the wooded darkness and back home by foot.

City Hall occasionally broaches the subject of Paris’s taxi problem, but like many issues in this country, one can’t push things too far without the threat of a strike. (Last year, taxi drivers in Marseille went on strike because some indiscreet politician whispered that one day…in the future…the government might consider proposing some amendments to the current system…maybe…) Mayor Delanoë has attempted to get around this (while simultaneously enforcing his platform on protecting the environment) by extending the métro’s hours (it closes at 2:00 a.m. on the weekends), the after-hours Noctambus (think of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for drunks) and Vélib, the program enabling Parisians to substitute trains and buses for bicycles.

Solutions with merit, but for a world capital, it’s a shame that those who don’t drive (or who won’t do so after a couple of drinks) face a struggle at the end of an otherwise lovely evening if they opt for what in other cities is the most comfortable version of public transport. Which is why, perhaps, so many Parisians stay out all night. After all, the métro re-opens at five.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Paris When it Sizzles: Summer in a City in Heat

A wise editor once remarked that she didn’t understand people who couldn’t see the beauty in a rainy day.

A wise Parisian once observed that the second the first summer sunbeam heats up the pavement, the city blows a fuse. A destination reputed for its drizzle, Paris, when it sizzles, is an entirely different place.

Unless you’re lucky, (your flat boasts a sizeable terasse and enough windows to either lock out the heat or generate a merciful courant d’air) or rich (your apartment features a large patio overlooking the Eiffel Tower and an abundance of windows that keep out the heat or the move the air circulating within), enjoying the hot weather, or at least resisting it, is a daily struggle during France’s hottest months. Paris’s multitude of studio apartments, nestled high up under the city’s photogenic metal rooftops, become as stuffy as a street-level boulangerie, and even the most spacious digs weren’t designed with air conditioning in mind. In the commercial facilities that are equipped with climatisation, the air still remains slightly toasty: the French are wary of conditioned air, largely because it’s bad for the health and equally detrimental to the pocketbook.

Outside, the population adopts behavior similar to a dog acting out of character on the night of a full moon. Perfume, grease and exhaust fumes hang, listless, in the heavy air, creating a stewy mélange that is intoxicating to the city’s inhabitants. Music is louder and people are bolder, shedding the studious discretion they maintained for so long under trench coats and scarves and umbrellas. “Don’t push me too far,” their eyes seem to be saying, hinting at the trouble that could ensue if boundaries are crossed.

Part of this is because while summer in Paris has more people out and about, it’s difficult to get away from them even if one is staying in. At night, when shutters are opened to welcome in the slightly cooler air, it’s impossible to avoid witnessing (at least, in an auditory sense) the lives of one’s neighbors in the throes of dining, arguing, entertaining and, on frequent occasions, making love. This is the City of Romance, after all.

Since 2003, the French talk about heat waves the way that Northerners discuss blizzards, and the most recent canicule was in July of that year, when thousands of Parisians (mainly elderly) perished due to temperatures that reached upwards of 40° Celsius (104° Fahrenheit). “The worst thing about it was that you kept expecting it to get cooler at night, but instead, the temperature actually rose,” remembers a media executive living in Paris at the time. ‘There was no relief.”

While a heat wave of deadly proportions has not been predicted for this year, Parisians will find relief the traditional way: on Europe’s southern shores and abroad. For those of us who can see the beauty in a rainy day, we’ll be looking forward to that odd summer shower, until it’s time to head out and enjoy the season the right way: on a beach.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Hot Job: Paris’s pompiers turn up the temperature

An internationally accepted cliché, the image of the fireman is revoked on a weekly basis on ladies’ nights across the Western world. Strong, virile and well chiseled, these modern day versions of Adonis boast the enviable quality of being both heroes and sex symbols at the same time.

Among France’s vast array of men and women in uniform, the Brigade de Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris are easily the most popular. Established by Napoleon in the early 1800’s, the pompiers are part of the army, their main function being, as their job title suggests, firefighting and rescue in buildings that are centuries old, constructed largely of wood, and featuring none of the infrastructure – such as fire alarms and emergency sprinkler systems – found in today’s construction. Battling flames and saving the odd cat, however, is only part of their duty, and it’s not uncommon for the pompiers to be first on the scene of a party gone awry (they’re equipped to treat drug overdose but unauthorized to make arrests for possession of illicit substances, making them the preferred option for those whose debauchery has gone too far) and car accidents. In a city where the police are criticized for their inefficiency and poor training – and, even decades after the Second World War, for their collaboration with the Vichy government – the firemen are, to the average French taxpayer, far more trustworthy.

The physical demands of the job mandate a grueling exercise schedule, and many an early riser (often of the female variety) enjoys the perk of performing their own workout alongside Paris’s famed boys in red and blue. Whether they’re sprinting up the stairwells of Montmartre, running through the walkways of Les Halles or jogging through the well-groomed pathways of Les Tuileries, the pompiers are indefatigable athletes, and they always have an encouraging word (‘allez, mademoiselle !’) or a flirtatious quip (‘you’re in luck, man, you can catch up to her…she’s going pretty slowly!’) to keep motivation among those they share the space with relatively high.

Each year, on the eve of Bastille Day – when France celebrates the fall of the notorious prison and a bloody revolution that saw many a nobleman’s head roll – the Brigade de Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris host their most popular public relations event, the firemen’s ball. Open to the public, this alcohol-fueled soirée is a prime opportunity for those partial to men (and women) in uniform to cut a rug with a local hero…and for local heroes to capitalize on their elevated stature among the common man. Held in the various casernes (fire halls) that dot the city, le bal des pompiers runs into the wee hours of the morning, with the firemen in each caserne engaging in friendly competition to out-do one another. Seasoned Parisians know which casernes throw the best parties, and many make the rounds throughout the night. Dance cards fill up fast, however, and those who want to get up close and personal with the pompier of their choice are wise to arrive a little early.

Not to be upstaged by nightclub impostors, Paris’s firemen always plan a few surprises for their yearly fête. Sometimes, to the delight of the crowd, this involves a striptease…the concept being, one imagines, that if the bal des pompiers is the occasion to get to know the firemen in the flesh, they might as well go all the way.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Soldes-ing Out: Paris goes bargain hunting

There are two times of year that all budget-conscious Parisians anticipate with that friendly competitiveness shared among all bargain hunters: those several gray weeks following the holiday season, and the (usually) sunnier ones that officially kick off the summer.

A continental phenomenon, Les Soldes offer retailers the opportunity to clear out the current season’s inventory, and consumers the chance to claim ownership of items that they couldn’t have otherwise afforded…or wouldn’t have bothered to buy. With the French consumer’s weakened buying power a hot topic for the nation’s president, scribblers and talking heads, Les Soldes, for many, is not just the best time to hit the stores…it’s the only time.

This summer, the purchasing orgy began on June 25th and will continue until the beginning of August. Initial markdowns run anywhere from 10 to 25 percent, growing more considerable as time marches on. By the end, shoppers can rack up to anywhere between 50 and 75 percent in savings. This inevitably leads to the classic Soldes debate: should I take the 30 percent discount on this pair of pumps that I will probably only wear twice in the next year and consider myself lucky, or do I take the chance and see if they still have my size in three week’s time, when they’re bound to be cheaper? If ever one were to assign a theme song to accompany this event they might choose ‘The Gambler:’ knowing when to fold and knowing when to hold out are crucial skills in the successful navigation of Les Soldes.

While items such as house wares have crept into the product mix, Les Soldes, for the most part, is targeted at fashion victims, with discounts applied to clothes, shoes (unadvisable to hold out too long for those), handbags and accessories. Strategic in times when there isn’t a deal to be had, bargain-hunting parisiennes assume the cold-hearted determination of a general at war when it comes to getting their dainty hands on a frock that is soldé, and in the weeks leading up to opening day, many a lunch hour is spent seeking out, trying on and, in some cases, hiding the coveted garment from any other Soldes-goers that may threaten to throw a wrench in one’s purchasing coup. If the going gets really tough, these otherwise docile creatures aren’t above using baby strollers as weapons…and naïve is the girl who thinks that the slow-moving elderly woman standing in front of the dress rack doesn’t know how to use her elbows if you get too close to the object of her desire.

‘All’s fair in love and war,’ goes the saying, and in times of Soldes, one can safely throw ‘shopping’ into the mix.