October 2, 2017: Other parises
We have focused a large part of our rich and always fascinating explorations of Paris on a few of the low-numbered arondissements that represent ancient settlement in Gaul and whose layout and buildings testify to the history of Parisian settlement from the days of the Roman Empire. There are, however, other areas of Paris, with very different energies and landscapes.
Yesterday, we visited one of those, today another.
Yesterday’s trip involved attending an avant-garde manifestation of French culture at the theatre of Paris X – one of the 13 universities into which the University of Paris was splintered in 1971. Paris X is situated in Nanterre, in the Haut-de-Seine department, which contains ten or so individual communities that function as suburbs on the eastern edge of Paris.
Historians have thought that “Lutece,” the early sacred settlement of the Romans in Paris, was on the Ile de la Cite, at the center of Paris – where Notre Dame is situated. Recent archeology, however, is ironically indicating that the heart of Paris in Roman times probably was not in the center of present-day Paris, but on its periphery, in present-day Nanterre, home of one of the largest and most vibrant offshoots of the original University of Paris. Today, Nanterre is the home of business people, government officials, and a large working class population. About 40% of today’s inhabitants of Nanterre are immigrants from throughout the former French Empire.
Nanterre contains a growing and impressive archeological trove of ancient Roman buildings and also a modern agglomeration built since the 1970s – tall, modern apartment blocs stand shoulder to shoulder, an extension of the group of tall, modern business buildings and the square Arch of “La Defense.” Everything is clearly from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – a bit overwhelming and impersonal. For most non-residents, the university is the central draw of the town.
We went to the Theatre National de Nanterre-Amandiers to see a modernistic, theatre of the absurd production by contemporary playwright and producer Francois Tanguy. The staging was original and interesting. The ennui that permeated the play, which resembled nothing more than a prolonged nightmare, seemed to hark back to the 60s and 70s – it didn’t seem very avant-garde at all.
Nevertheless , one can easily experience similar ennui in real life in 2017. For instance, to get to Nanterre, we took two lines of the RER, the mid- twentieth century expansion of Parisian rapid transit into the suburbs and beyond. In the center of Paris, the tubes for the RER are even deeper than the tubes carrying Metro trains, most of which were created around the turn of the twentieth century.
To go to Nanterre, we had ridden our local RER-B train, and two stops later, gotten off that first train at the station Chatelet, which connects many underground transit lines.
Chatelet is a nightmare of a station for passengers – a vast underground warren of tubes and passages, lying under a huge number of blocks above ground. Underground, the walk from one end of the station to the other in one direction is a good half mile in length. Actually Chatelet is three different stations allowing connections among 10 different underground transport lines. It’s a maze.
Yesterday at Chatelet, we had to make the connection between the RER B and the RER A lines, making sure we caught the A train going in the direction we were actually headed. After we had made the transfer twice, once going to the play and once on the way back, Nancy’s Fitbit showed we had walked underground a total of 1.6 miles and had climbed 11 flights of stairs!
The experience of following a maze marked only by multiple signs pointing the ways from where we got off to make connections with a total of 18 potential trains going in different directions felt totally absurd and somewhat impossible. Underground, everything is identical with everything else, and there are no recognizeable landmarks. Every large white column contains a list of trains and directions, with arrows going in different directions – incredibly confusing! At one point, we went up and down flights of stairs and followed a maze of signs, only to end up on the same platform on which we’d gotten off minutes previously, just in time to watch the same train we had arrived on depart the station approximately 5 minutes later! On another occasion, the signs pointing to the train we were looking for ended at a blocked off corridor where construction work was progressing. Dead end!
The RER trains themselves – 20 0r 25 cars or so composing modern double decker commuter trains – are a model of modern artificial intelligence at work. The departures and arrivals are orchestrated and announced by a computer system that is impressively clear and well coordinated. The trains glide silently along – whispering past, obviously on rubber tires. Enormous numbers of people exit and enter at every stop. Since it’s a suburban train, the RER stops are far apart from each other, with sometimes 4-7 minutes hetween stops, traveled at very high speed.
Once we’d found the RER A train, we went from the center of Paris to this town outside of Paris proper in less than 15 minutes – pretty amazing! And Paris mass transit is so well coordinated, we were able to use our Navigo pass seamlessly all the way there and back, on both the RER and the city bus in Nanterre that got us from the theatre back to the RER station. (We had no idea where to go or how, when we arrived in Nanterre, just 20 minutes before curtain time, so we “cheated” and called Uber, which got us to the theatre in under ten minutes.)
All in all, our expedition to the University of Paris-Nanterre was an interesting experience of well planned and well executed public transport, as well as juxtaposed theatrical and real life adventures in the Absurd – a full and interesting day.
Today, we experienced a very different area of Paris, the Champs Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe – the “high rent” district – or at least one of them. The Arc de Triomphe, erected initially by Napoleon I and still the largest arch in the western world, sits in the middle of a wide open area surrounded by the beginnings of twelve wide avenues. Approximately 12 lanes of traffic circulate counterclockwise around the arch. I remember in the early 1960s trying to drive around this monument, and, as an inexperienced driver, finding myself squeezed into the innermost circle, driving around and around and around the arch, trying to figure out how to get out. The traffic is very fast, and there are no marked lanes. The trick is to get into the circulating lines of traffic just enough so you are ejected easily onto the avenue leading to your destination – pretty hard when you can’t see the names of avenues from your car, and you’re not really sure how many exits to bypass before getting off at just the right one. For me, it was a much earlier experience of the absurdity of trying to navigate Parisian mazes while lacking fine-tuned expertise.
But today, I wasn’t driving. I was strolling – much more comfortable. I also remember walking on the Champs Elysees and other grand avenues in my youth. Back then, the buildings lining the avenues were grand, and any stores were intimidating in their grandeur, their famous names, and their high prices. I would not have dared to approach any of them. Every building was enormous, set back generously from the avenue itself. Back then, I remember wandering past embassies of many countries, auto showrooms for Bentley and Lamborghini cars, high end designer showrooms, famous grand hotels, perfume emporiums with famous names, and a fair number of private mansions with guards standing at the palatial entrances.
I’m sure most of the actual buildings are the same today. However, the ambiance has completely morphed. The one enormous, glamorous store along the upper blocks of the Champs Elysees is the Disney Store. At street level, commercial spaces have been popularized and segmented into typical narrow shops, where many chain stores are represented. Pedestrian traffic, which, in the sixties, was sparse, has become a moving phalanx of tourists of all ages and many nationalities. Traffic today is dense and noisy. I spotted at least two American fast food joints among the stores along the thoroughfare, McDonald’s and Five Guys Hamburgers! Formerly esteemed sites such as the Claridge Hotel have now been subdivided into busy ground floor and subterranean shopping malls. We found the FNAC store we were looking for – the huge chain monopoly in Paris that serves as Mecca for all things electronic– in the basement of the Claridge Hotel! How times have changed on the Champs Elysees! In the process, a graceful elegance has vanished, at least from that area of Paris. Such change is a sign of normal, dynamic vitality, of course, signaling the increasing popularity that marks Paris now in the minds of people worldwide – as a premiere travel destination.