In Stacy Schiff’s fascinating book A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America she writes how difficult it was for Benjamin Franklin – who was sent back to France in his 70s to lobby for France’s assistance during the American Revolution — to communicate with the Continental Congress back in the United States. King George III’s spies followed his every move, intercepting almost every letter sent to or from Franklin, so that in 1777 an entire year passed where he relieved no news at all from his colleagues in Pennsylvania (which must have driven the creator of the US Postal Service crazy).
As a result he often had to improvise based on rumors, assuring Louis XVI’s ministers, that “Yes, of course the Revolutionaries are winning the war!” even though the English ambassador at Versailles was busy spreading his own rumors of an imminent defeat of the colonial rebellion. Franklin’s persuasive powers eventually saved the day, securing France’s monetary and military assistance when it was needed most.
It’s hard for today’s American expatriates to fathom the lives of our forbearers who lived in France before the internet, commercial airlines, the telephone, or even the telegraph, completely cut off from their homeland for months at a time. When I first arrived in Paris as a student in 1995, France’s communications industry was suffering from a full blown identity crisis. They seemed both behind and ahead of the US, determined to modernize but only on their own Gallic terms.
I lived with another American student in a little garret apartment that belonged to my “French family” on the floor below. We had a phone, but Madame made it very clear that local calls were not free, something that came as a surprise to Americans used to long conversations about nothing with our friends every night. Our personal phone wasn’t even equipped with long-distance, which in 1995 was still considered so expensive that some people still sent telegrams (Western Union was still sending an average of 20,000 telegrams per year when they officially closed the service in 2006). So we had to buy international calling cards from the tabac and use them at a phone booth. The equivalent of $20 would get you about 20 minutes of time, and I remember desperately watching the units of credit on the little digital screen tick down as I tried catching up with my mom and my boyfriend back home before getting cut off. When I was looking for my own flat in 1997 it was still common to wait two months for France Telecom to open a new phone connection, so most expats had to double check that any short-term rental already had a working line. Today most French residents either have a landline through their home computer network (the “09” numbers which are often masked as “01” numbers, although they don’t work if your electricity goes out), or they don’t have a landline at all, preferring to use their mobile phone.
In 1995 I didn’t know any students who had a cell phone (and beepers were still for doctors or drug dealers). In the French comedy film Rien à Déclarer, Dany Boone plays a border police officer in 1995 who has one of those enormous cell phones the size of your head with the extendable antenna. Once I was at a café with a few French classmates when Félix, who liked to wear suits, smoke cigars and pepper his French with as many English words as possible, casually placed what looked like a cell phone on the table. I eyeballed it in curiosity but was still so timid speaking French that I didn’t say anything. When it rang, Félix grabbed it from the table and rushed outside, loudly yelling “Allo! Tu m’entends?!” As soon as the door closed behind him one of the other Parisians dismissively snorted and then said to me, “It’s just a bi-bop, he thinks he’s hot shit”. The Bi-Bop was France Telecom’s alternative to the GSM cell phone, and worked only in close proximity (300m) to one of the 3000 radio transmission terminals throughout the city (usually lamp posts with the blue and green symbol seen below), a bit like the way WiFi works today. They only lasted from 1991-1997 when GSM phone service won out. Watch this funny French commercial promoting the BiBop.
By 1995 the internet existed, but it was still predominantly used by those who used it for work or by university students. There were no laptops yet, but there were plenty of “cyber” cafés in Paris. My favorite was in a building on top of the Galeries Lafayette store at Montparnasse. It wasn’t always the most convenient place to work. I recall trying to figure out how to connect to my university’s telnet network so I could check my email (this was before internet-based email like Gmail and Hotmail) while the legendary protest marches of fall 1995 were taking place in the huge square below. In the evenings the cybercafé doubled as a nightclub, so they would dim the lights and turn up the dance music even though there would still be a half dozen glowing screens around the room. As far as websites, France was very much late to the game. When I started the Secrets of Paris in 1999, there were still only two other websites about Paris in English besides the Tourism Office website. It was still not considered a necessity for a business to have a website in France at that time, and was even looked down on as “tacky”. When I worked as an editor at ELLE.com in 1999 (the fashion magazine’s first website, run from publisher Hachette’s headquarters just outside Paris), I clearly recall how the French ELLE magazine editors would totally ignore us in the office cafeteria. We were “just the website”.
Like the Bi-bop, France also had its own alternative to the internet, the Minitel. This was a small terminal, halfway between a computer and a laptop, that plugged into your phone line giving users access to all kinds of digitized databases (telephone directories, stock prices , mail order catalogs) as well as online shopping, train reservation services, and message boards for chatting (the Pages Roses were the infamous sex chat pages). You could rent a terminal from France Telecom in your own house or use them at the post office. I tried it once to look up an address but couldn’t get past the black screen with green text, like something out of Tron. There were no images, something the Internet already made possible. Created in 1982, the Minitel service still had 10 million monthly users as late as 2009 (I personally never saw one after 1999, so I had to double-check that stat!). In 2012 it was officially put to pasture. Here is an excellent article about the Minitel in English.
Modern Expat Life
We can mock the French for the Bi-Bop and the Minitel, but some Americans are old enough to remember whose parents bought Beta instead of VHS, or installed an 8-track player instead of the cassette player in the family car. Technology in the age of globalization means that now you can easily travel with your phone and laptop between continents with little more than plug converters or roaming fees to slow you down. In the surprisingly funny teen comedy Eurotrip, about a group of Americans students on a misadventure throughout Europe, there’s a running gag where one of them uses his cell phone to pretend he’s still at work back in the US:
[lowers phone, picks teeth, puts phone back to ear]
Cooper: No, sir, I can’t find the Goodwin file anywhere. Yes sir, I’ll keep looking. I don’t rest until I find it.
Scott: You didn’t tell your boss you were leaving the country?
I know a lot of people get annoyed at the idea of being connected while on vacation, but reliable cell phone connections now make it possible for some executives to take real vacations without going completely offline, which for many used to mean no overseas vacation at all. I’ve had tour clients who are listening to conference calls on mute as we stroll past medieval monuments. “They think I’m in Virginia!” Expats often bemoan how everything in Paris costs more, but my cell phone contract is just €19.99/month, for 3Go of data and unlimited texts, local calls and international calls (and I can cancel any time). That’s less than the international calling cards I used to buy 20 years ago! So much can be done online now in France, such as downloading an official birth record or paying taxes, that I can’t help but laugh when newcomers (or those who haven’t lived here since the 90s) complain about complicated French bureaucracy.
My own career as a freelance journalist and an independent tour guide would have been virtually impossible before the internet. I’m convinced that if I had been a student in Paris in 1985 instead of 1995 that I would have returned home for work after graduation. The fact that I could easily find and write for many different English-language websites made it easy for me to stay in Paris without a “real job”. Starting my own tour business would have been a lot harder if I didn’t already have a following of Francophile readers on my website. And websites that everybody loves to hate like Facebook not only allow me to easily follow the news of my friends and family back in the US, I’ve actually become closer to cousins I never saw growing up because we were on different sides of the country. Like everyone else in the busy modern world, I sometimes consider throwing my cell phone into the Seine. But then I remember what it was like to show up at a friend’s for dinner on a cold, rainy night only to realize I lost the code, and ended up having to going all the way back home to get it. Or I think of how Ben Franklin — so desperate for even a sliver of important news from home – would have probably taken to modern technology like a social networking pro.
From Ben Franklin’s Twitter feed, circa 1777:
@BFranklin13: Early 2 bed early 2 rise for tomorrow’s long ride to Versailles, “networking” lunch w/le roi. #showmethemoney #lovemyjob #gopatriots