Paris is a very pedestrian-intensive town. I grew up in a place where people got into their cars in their garage attached to their house, then drove to a large parking lot and went inside a huge shopping mega-mall. Food, clothes, toiletries, pool cleaner, post office, bank, florist, spirits shop, candy, Christmas gifts, rental videos, and more I’ve forgotten about, all under one roof. In this same town, a pedestrian was either a child or someone whose car had a flat down the road. We never met more than one neighbor on our street, didn’t know any of the salespeople or cashiers where we shopped every day, and generally didn’t ever talk to people we did happen to run into at the mall. My idea of personal space was developed there, which is probably why I love Paris so much.
I Could Walk for Miles My hometown seems so sterile, so cold for a desert, and I rarely miss it. I like walking around in Paris’s little streets, passing people whose faces I recognize, shopping at all of the outdoor markets instead of the indoor supermarché, and browsing through all of the books, CD’s and clothes that line the pedestrian streets. No need to ever go into the shops here, they come out to you. If I walked from work to my house as a teenager, it seemed to take longer than the 20 minutes it really was, as I passed huge strip malls, parking lots, identical residential houses, and boring 6-ft. concrete-block walls. Here in Paris I can walk for hours, peering into the windows that have been so carefully decorated. Two points I find particularly satisfying: the prices of the things in the windows are usually listed (no need to go in and ask), and there are little wooden platforms built outside the grands magasins holiday windows so that the children can all see.
Winter is Here It’s getting chilly here now, a bit of snow came down Tuesday afternoon, abruptly melting. And those holiday windows at Printemps and Galleries Lafayette are the only reminder that Christmas shopping is on its way. There is certainly commercialism in France for the holidays, but it’s more of a nudge here than the violent shove back in the US. A few neighborhoods have begun stringing lights and erecting giant pines in the community squares. I love watching the men come with the hoses to flock the trees white. Very serious business, this decorating. But the people have remained subdued thus far. Unlike back home, no one is worried about Y2K mayhem and madness. Yet. We have bigger, more certain threats to our sanity here in Paris—the strike.
When You Have No Choice Having established myself as a pedestrian by preference, I must say that I still rely quite heavily on public transport to get around Paris in the cold, dark winter. And each winter that I’ve been here has had its days of partial and zero service because of striking RATP and SNCF workers. Back in November 1995, it lasted for three weeks straight at one point, and spread to the post office, the air traffic controllers, students, doctors…what a mess. But the Parisians are used to this, so they just hitch rides, roller-skate, take the Batobus on the Seine, or stay at home and grumble. Traffic usually becomes deadlocked as all of the commuters from the suburbs bring in their cars, and the shops close early and open late.
The Fifth Season What kills me the most is the way that it has become a seasonal event, as if there’s no way to avoid it: “It’s strike season again,” they say as the garbage has begun piling up in the metro station at Gare du Nord. Yesterday was an “official” strike by the post office. Last week the radio and TV stations went on strike as well. I hate getting into the reasons, so I’ll just say it has to do with something the government is doing under the pretence of helping the economy. So they protest against the government by making me walk around in the cold, polluted air, when I have la grippe (the flu). It’s not like President Chirac has to take the metro to work. That’s all I will say about that.
Check the News If you’re curious about whether or not the line you need is working, you can check out the sites for the RATP (bus and metro) and the SNCF (regional and national trains). Both have sections in English, but the section on traffic and manifestations (strike demonstrations) are only in French. If you’re driving, check out the Ile-de-France traffic conditions at Sytadin, where they also list info for both airports, pollution levels, and ride-sharing info, mostly in French. For some handy phone numbers and a glimpse at what the strike was like in 1995, see an article written by Ric Erickson. If you’re super desperate and need to guarantee your transportation, why not rent a chauffeured car or limo? (You won’t want to drive yourself during a strike, trust me.) SOS Driver, AAA Elite Limos, and AVIS are just a few you can book over the web, in English.
Can’t Keep ’em Down To look on the bright side, the metro, RER and busses will be running on New Year’s Eve, for free, assuming they’re not on strike and Y2K doesn’t make the wheels disintegrate instantly. I’m not worried at all about that though, because France handles these crises very well. Even if the electricity stopped working at midnight on December 31st, I’m convinced they’ll all just roll with the punches, pull out the candles and the non-electric can opener, and get on with life.
November 2019 Update
Almost twenty years after writing this article, there are more highways and enlarged roads in my hometown (the suburbs of Phoenix, AZ), while Paris has actually created more pedestrian-only areas, including the quays of the Seine (which were turned into expressways in the 70s) and many historic districts, either permanently or on Sundays and holidays. President Sarkozy created the “minimum service” law in 2007, so public transportation rarely shuts down completely, even if strikes are as widespread as ever. One thing I correctly predicted: when the December 26th storm blew out electric lines in 30% of the country, those people were seen on the news celebrating New Year’s Eve…with candles!
This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’m publishing them all here, one by one, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris”