Exploring Fast Food in Paris

Fast Food in Paris

Really?  Isn’t Paris the anti-fast-food location par excellence?

It turns out that Paris is not immune to the influence of ever increasing numbers of tourists, or the onslaught of fads imported from elsewhere.  The post office and other official sanctums may still honor the ages- old two hour French lunch, but fast food is rapidly increasing in availability. Mcdonald’s is everywhere in Paris that tourists congregate, although the Golden Arches are sometimes discreetly hidden in  upscale areas such as the Champs Elysees.

Over the last few years, we have been aware of the McDonalds on a major corner in our district – at Boulevard St Michel and rue Gay-Lussac.  This McDonald’s is poised at the cutting edge, with robot machines to use in ordering food visible from the street.  On an opposite corner was a distinctly French burger joint offering essentially the same menu and traditional counter service.  We were dismayed this year to discover that the French burgers have disappeared.  In their place, a Burger King outlet is being prepared.  It seems  excessive and disappointing  to witness an American burger war on a hallowed corner of two major Parisian arteries.

While on one of our shopping expeditions a week ago, we had decided to eat lunch in the department store we were exploring, Bazaar de l’Hotel de Ville (BHV Marais). Several restaurants were offered, including an attractive space called “Le Grand Fernand.” This turned out to be a gourmet burger joint, with exceptionally delicious grass fed beef – a worthy French adaption of a perennially successful restaurant idea.

Since I’ve basically been grounded for the moment with my infected toe, Nancy and I have felt it was time to explore food delivery in Paris. Apparently, as recently as two years ago, this was essentially non-existent, but” Uber Eats” has opened wide the field.  Several companies are competing to offer food  service, delivering international fast foods based on the cuisines of many countries – Japan, China, Vietnam, India, Thailand, Italy, Turkey, Lebanon, North Africa,  and of course United States. Paris has enormous populations of immigrants from all over the former French empire.  In addition, tourists flock here from the US and – now, most recently – from China.

We decided tonight we would order from Le Grand Fernand (I  assume named for Ferdinand the Bull?) , and to ask Uber Eats to deliver it.

Uber has suddenly, in the past year or so, become extremely popular in Paris, as has Airbnb. Last year, it was hotly controversial.  This year it is everywhere – and very useful. We have generally taken city buses to most of our destinations.  However, there have been moments when Uber has been extremely helpful.  For instance, when we went to the theatre in Nanterre, after our adventure following the underground maze, we found ourselves on a suburban street outside the rapid transit station, with no indications at all of how to get from there to the theatre, and no human beings anywhere.  The station had  been automated (no humans around), and it was Sunday afternoon, with all visible stores closed. It felt vaguely as if we had landed on an alien planet, with twenty minutes before curtain time at a theatre somewhere within a 10-15 minute drive.  We waited, hoping a human whom we could ask might  come into view – no luck.  So we called Uber, and in two minutes a car pulled up. The  driver knew exactly how to get to the national theatre in the shortest possible time, and we got there in plenty of time for our play.  Coming back, we  followed a bunch of other theatre goers to the city bus that connected with the RER, and climbed aboard. However, after we got back to Paris and tried to orient ourselves late in the evening on streets that were becoming deserted, we didn’t know where the nearest bus stop was, and there were no taxis coming by.  Again Uber came to the rescue.

Unfortunately, Paris, like London and New York, is feeling constrained to somehow regulate (meaning to tax)  the booming “sharing economy.”  Our favorite Paris apartment, which we found through Airbnb, may no longer be available next fall for this reason.  And now that we’ve experienced its many advantages, we’ll be very disappointed if Uber also, as is happening in London, gets cut off. Meanwhile, our “Uber Eats” delivery is arriving momentarily.  We’re anticipating enjoying a “bon appetit.”

P.S.  I love this company’s sense of humor…

(This was the place we visited where the supply closet was labeled “Acces Piscine” — “Way to the Pool.” )

Our food came complete with “rince- coude” towelettes, complete with visual instructions for opening the packet, shaking out the towelette, and producing shiny clean …..   elbows!    And I loved the French twist on the burger/ fries menu — fries complete with garnishment of parsley and herbes de Provence —   Gourmet all the way!




Posted in Changing all the time, Eating in Paris, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , ,

SOS Doctors

SOS Doctors

There’s something about being away from home – engaging in unaccustomed activities, eating new foods, drinking different water, being susceptible to a place’s germs or insect bites…. Sooner or later minor emergencies happen, especially over a longer stay. Every year it’s something different – I guess we might as well expect that something will come along. We’ve been doing so well this year! Two whole weeks with no health problems after a couple of initial accidental encounters with gluten while undergoing the initial stress of jet lag.

But last night, I knew that I had a problem with my big toe on one foot. It hurt. I limped home and looked, and sure enough, it was red and swollen, and the nail looked bruised. I put triple antibiotic lotion on it and a Bandaid, and went to sleep hoping that by this morning, it would look much better.

But it didn’t.

In fact, it looked really ugly. I knew I’d better get it attended to, so it wouldn’t get worse.
Fortunately, we have learned that Paris has good options for quick doctor appointments for people who aren’t at home and don’t have a personal physician. It’s called SOS Doctors, and if you look it up online, you will find a French phone number to call to make a house visit appointment. There are tens of thousands of English speaking residents in Paris, and thousands more English speaking visitors in Paris at any time of year, so the receptionist and the doctors speak a little English. You call the number and get a live person who asks where you are staying and gets all the information necessary to access you at that place. Then they ask what you are experiencing, and if that sounds like a doctor is needed, they dispatch a mobile doctor who arrives at your hotel or apartment with a large bag of medical supplies and equipment.

In Paris, if you have a health-related question, you can also go to the nearest pharmacy and show/ tell the pharmacist what you are concerned about. The pharmacists know all the nearby doctors, or they may tell you to call SOS Doctors – or if the ailment is not likely to require imaging or prescription medication, they will tell you how to treat it and sell you the appropriate remedies.

My toe definitely looked infected, and it hurt to put on a shoe and walk, so I figured it would probably require a prescription for antibiotics and just called the SOS Doctors number.
A half hour or so later, our apartment doorbell rang, and we opened to greet the doctor. Other Parisian doctors we’ve experienced have carried traditional doctor bags. In contrast, this one – up to the minute – had a carry-on spinner suitcase that he could wheel along.

The doctors who sign on for this kind of practice have offices in the neighborhood, but they also like the variety of different people and languages and situations and buildings, and they are very good at on the spot diagnosis without fancy equipment. European medical schools still teach what is called “Physical Diagnosis” which is the art of direct physical observation and case taking to arrove at a reliable diagnosis. I’m sure that most situations for which calls are made are actually reasonably minor – ours over the years have been potentially serious situations in preliminary stages that are likely to respond to antibiotic prescriptions – things like pneumonia, bronchitis, and now this infected toenail.

This situation on the surface seems so minor as to be embarrassing to ask about. But, indeed, the doctor cautioned me about staying off the foot (Drat!!!) and prescribed several medications to abort the infection, saying that if it doesn’t heal promptly, I will have no choice but to go to a hospital and have it operated on. Yikes!!

It helps to have a traveling companion – odds are that when one is laid low, the other can still go out and get food and medications. I was very grateful that Nancy could do those things. I’m now doing as told – staying off the foot and taking medicine (and, of course, praying and using homeopathic remedies.. it never hurts to do everything possible.). I envision the infection starting to look much better tomorrow or the next day, so that at least I will get back home with no surgery having been performed.

In any case, I’m really glad that we learned about SOS Doctors on our first stay in Paris. It’s a piece of knowledge that has come in handy often enough that it’s worth sharing.

Also worth knowing: If you have a real life or death emergency in Paris, or most places in Europe, the number to call is 112. This is the European equivalent to the American 911.

Posted in doctor house call in Paris, European 911

Histories and Mysteries – Place St. Sulpice

Exploring New Neighborhoods – St Sulpice


Like most large cities, Paris is subdivided into functioning neighborhoods—communities containing all the resources supporting daily life.  It will take us years, if ever, to become acquainted with all of Paris’ neighborhoods.  Each year, we do extend our acquaintance a bit with different areas of Paris.  We are, of course, still exploring our own wider neighborhood in the 5th arondissement, which includes the famed Latin Quarter, an area historically and still today thick with university level and advanced professional schools.

Next door, in the 6th arondissement, the area of St. Germain des Pres, we have still not explored vast swaths of streets and squares.  We were pleased a couple of days ago to have the opportunity of exploring further the streets surrounding St. Germain, which include some of the oldest neighborhoods still standing in Paris.  Most of the oldest buildings we can still find in Paris date from the 1600s.  Aside from royal, governmental, or church-owned buildings, commercial/ apartment buildings from that earlier time mostly occur in tiny side streets that were not affected by Haussmann’s vast reconstruction and design of Paris in the mid 1800s.

These streets are clustered together in different areas of Paris.  A bunch of  them can be found in the 6th arondissement, starting from Place St. Sulpice. We were fortunate to have a Parisian acquaintance offer to show us around the neighborhood, where he had formerly lived, in the same apartment building as Jeanne Moreau, the famous French movie actress.  (It’s interesting how people enjoy dropping names, even if they don’t actually know the famous individually personally – I know about famous neighbors of a bunch of friends who have lived in places where that might happen).

Fortunately, we found a bus we could take from the Luxembourg area in our neighborhood straight to Place St. Sulpice, where we had agreed to meet with our friend.  The Place is pleasantly vast, with an absolutely enormous fountain in the center, from which the sound of tumultuous water was overwhelming.  I was glad to imagine that a recirculating pump is lurking in the fountain’s innards!

The Place is pleasant and bright, and the façade of the church for which the place is named is unusual and interesting – an Italianate two story structure, surmounted by two towers which allegedy had been contracted out to two different architects.  One tower was completed, in perfect harmony with the classical Italian style of the façade.  The other tower remains in a state of incompleteness.  Clearly the second architect had totally different ideas for his tower. The stone pieces are affixed, and their shapes are roughly obvious.  But all finish carving is absent, and the tower is likewise not built to the prescribed height.  The top five meters or so (roughly 15 feet) were never added. The legend apparently says – although our friend, a professional historian pooh poohed the story – that the second architect got depressed and threw himself off his unfinished tower to his death. This would have happened in the 1600s.  One does wonder why no further work has been done on that unfinished section of the church for the last 500 years. Surely that could have been enough time to finish it.  Another story I have found about the towers is that both towers were essentially completed, and then one of them was bombed during some war, and it was never fully rebuilt. Who knows? Parisian folklore is obviously alive and well!

Another interesting mystery of the church is the presence of several figures carved in stone placed on the second story balcony of the façade.  I could make out that one was wearing a bishop’s hat. They are shown participating in a dramatic event, judging by the dynamic postures I could discern through the balcony’s railings.  Nowhere can I find any mention of these sculpted figures. We’ll just have to call them the Mystery of l’Eglise St.-Sulpice.

The Place St. Sulpice, despite its spectacular church – just slightly smaller than Notre Dame de Paris, apparently,( though in a much different style) – and despite the huge fountain and the two massive government buildings found there — the town hall of the Sixth Arondissement on one side, and the block-long building where individuals in Paris go to pay income taxes on another side – does not have a major reason to prompt Parisian tourists to visit.

The church of St. Sulpice figured prominently in Dan Brown’s novel, the DaVinci code.  And apparently everything that Brown wrote about the church is completely made up, with no historic truth whatsoever. It’s a fascinating example of a spectacularly grand site with little back story – rare in Paris.

For us, the fascination of St. Sulpice became the number and complexity of winding, narrow old streets that we accessed from it.  This was not just a single medieval street leading from one Avenue to another.  Nor was it a medieval street lined with houses built in the mid 1800s.  The area offered a network – a web – of ancient streets with many buildings still standing from the 1600s and 1700s – a peek back into an earlier Paris that one doesn’t find so often here today.

Since one of the unique dimensions of Paris as a place to visit is the broad presence of a much older continuous culture from the past than we find in modern cities and towns  in the US, Nancy and I thoroughly enjoyed just wandering from one old street to another.  It was an energetic experience, not a mental one. No narrative exists for this neighborhood other than its age. We were anonymous strangers from one time period absorbing the faint traces of energy left by anonymous strangers from a long-disappeared different era. No words come forth to describe such an experience – one that I deeply enjoy and appreciate as I wander and discover different Parisian areas.  Like many things that evoke wonder, it simply is.  And that’s enough.




Posted in Change over time, Haussmann, Medieval streets, Paris, Paris streets, weight of history | Tagged , , , ,

Paris Surprises – What’s in a Name?

October 3, 2017  Surprises: Place de l’Estrapade


Paris is full of surprises, often where they’re least expected.  The other day, Nancy and I set off to revisit the haunts of our first shared visit to Paris in 2013, rue Soufflot, which runs from the Pantheon down a broad avenue to the Jardin du Luxembourg.  We decided to walk from our present neighborhood, rue des Feuillantines, down rue d’Ulm, at the end of which the Pantheon is clearly visible.  Short and straight, piece of cake, we’ll be there in a jiffy.  We walked along, enjoying a beautiful afternoon, and then were tempted on a detour, as so easily happens while walking along minding one’s business in Paris.  To the left, we could see a small square, with a little park in the middle, and thought we’d explore.  We emerged onto Place de l’Estrapade, and sat on a bench in the leafy square, just enjoying the peacefulness of the place.  A couple of other folks were also lazing on benches, including a homeless fellow who had set up quite a little home for himself in one corner.  It was clear that he had settled there for several weeks.  He had cardboard boxes festooned with found objects that were clearly treasures—including several deformed coat hangers attached to a large flat box in which a television screen had originally lived.  In a way, it was an interesting, potentially decorative composition.  We could see behind and around the boxes a stash of bottles, some partially full.  While we were there, he took out a pack of cigarettes and lit one.  He leaned back and enjoyed the relaxation of the smoke as he inhaled deeply. Why not?  Comfort seems a basic human right, and I felt glad to witness his moment of rest and ease.

A woman passed pushing her baby in a stroller.  A couple sat together, relishing being peaceful together. Early autumn leaves drifted lazily to the pavement. We enjoyed a few moments of relaxation ourselves.

We looked around the Place.  A store window filled with Arabic books occupied one façade, and an empty café terrace sat next to the bookstore.  A group of middle aged men stood in the kind of circle that remains after a group of friends have shaken hands with each other – the obligatory greeting gesture.  Two exquisitely groomed men in luxuriously tailored suits passed by. They were also wearing  dark ties and impeccably pressed white shirts, and each of them was carrying a slim and elegant leather portfolio. We were a short block from the Law School.  They had to be lawyers.

Then our eye was drawn to a boulangerie patisserie at the other end of the Place.  Hmmm….  We crossed over to look, and soon  found ourselves sitting on the inviting terrace set up in front, enjoying bottled lemonade and baked “gourmandises.”  It was a delightful late afternoon pause on a short walk – totally unexpected.

The mood of the Place was friendly and very laid back.  I wondered about its name.  It didn’t sound like the name of a family or a hero – the source of many street names. French street names always refer back to something or someone.  Like buildings, they bear unspoken witness to centuries of events and experiences that have taken place on the same spot.

And some past history is rather gruesome, especially here where so many ages have left their mark.  A bit of research let me know that l’Estrapade was an early form of torture which involved hanging someone up by his wrists.  Apparently this small Place was the location of the apparatus for that peculiar and gruesome punishment, which was reserved for Protestants, until King Louis XIII specifically outlawed it in the 1600s.  I’m sure none of today’s buildings dates from any earlier than the 1800s. How strange that the name for this really awful form of torture should remain attached for 500 years to this specific square of ground in today’s 5th  Arondissement in Paris!  The word itself has not been in common usage since the practice was outlawed. Virtually no one today could tell you the meaning of this 21st century Parisian street name.

In the same burst of online research, I also, quite by coincidence learned more about the order of Benedictine – Cistercian – nuns for whom our street, rue des Feuillantines, is named. They too have been a mystery shrouded in historical mists. I knew the street was named for a convent of nuns that had occupied this location.  I also knew the order had disappeared after the French Revolution.  Apparently the convent building, however, remained for a considerable while. A protégée of Emperor Louis Napoleon was recorded as having lived there in the 1850s, and apparently the famous French writer Victor Hugo spent a good part of his childhood living there, because his mother was the building’s concierge. But who were the Feuillantines that gave their name to the convent and the street?

Apparently, they were an order of cloistered Cistercian nuns, followers of an equivalent order of Cistercian brothers, both from the southwest of France, Toulouse.  They were “reformed” (fundamentalist) Cistercians who believed that the purpose of life was to do penance. French Royalty invited them to send groups to settle in Paris, and they did. Again, the surprise of excessive purposeful suffering appears. The daily life of both Feuillants (men) and Feuillantines (women) consisted in inflicting physical discomfort to the maximum amount possible – sleeping on bare boards, eating in silence while on their knees on cold stone, administering daily self-inflicted flagellations. Such self punishment was considered the height of virtue at the time, and the royals who invited these monastics  to Paris must have assumed that they were surrounding themselves with saintliness by inviting the orders to settle nearby, and by supporting them financially and politically.

Not too surprisingly, both orders had dwindled to tiny numbers by the 1700s, although the kings continued to endow massive gifts on them – one of the royal excesses that brought about the French Revolution, and the final dissolution of the orders themselves.

This was another bizarre episode in Parisian history that somehow got preserved in a street name. And the Feuillantine convent exists no longer, having been replaced by the enormous  lycee (secondary school) that is still here, and that  was built as a part of Haussmann’s massive redesigning of Paris and its amenities in all arondissements.

I guess if I knew the source of all place and street names in Paris, I would be more than usually knowledgeable about Parisian history!!

Posted in Haussmann, Paris streets, weight of history | Tagged , ,

Other Parises

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.

Posted in Change over time, Paris, Paris bus and Metro, Paris streets, return to familiar places | Tagged , , , ,

La Sorbonne

30 septembre 2017 La Sorbonne

In 2013, the first year Nancy and I came to Paris, one of the first places we tried to visit was the Sorbonne, the historic literature, theology, and arts campus of the Universite de Paris. As an undergraduate French major in Rhode Island in the late 1950s, I had learned about the Sorbonne as the heart of French educational excellence. Apparently, it made a big impression on me. It seemed a necessary place of pilgrimage.

When I came to Paris in 1961, I was here as a Fulbright Scholar to France. In the information about our arrival and orientation in Paris, we were told that we would be housed at the Cite Universitaire de Paris in the 14th arondissement, and I thought they told us that we would get to study for six weeks at the Sorbonne.
I was really excited about that. It never happened, however. For those two months in Paris, we had class everyday right at International House at the Cite, where we were staying. It turned out I had contracted Hepatitis A on the ship coming over, so I didn’t have energy to do very much in Paris while I was here that September and October. And I hadn’t gotten to the Sorbonne by the time we were dispersed to our assigned universities all over France. I don’t know if any of us remained in Paris, but I found myself traveling to Toulouse, which I had not even known existed prior to learning my assignment. Consequently, especially since 2013 was the first time since 1961 that I spent any amount of time in Paris, as opposed to other places in France, the Sorbonne exerted on me the powerful draw of unfinished business.

In 2013, when Nancy and I had tried to visit, we discovered that no one without a student pass is allowed to enter the sacred doors leading to the Sorbonne. The guard did allow us a couple of quick minutes to look around the courtyard, but then we had to leave.
This year, I was looking online for interesting off the beaten track activities we could pursue while here, and discovered the announcement of a public lecture in one of the “amphis” of the Sorbonne! The speaker, Nicolas Bouzou, is an economist who studies the evolution of work over time – an interesting subject. Nancy was game to accompany me, which I really appreciated, as I feared she would have difficulty following the presentation.

At 1:30 pm, we presented ourselves before the entrance to the fabled Sorbonne, opened our bags for inspection, told the guard what we wanted to attend, and voila, we were admitted. The courtyard was oblong, paved with large limestone slabs. To our right was the majestic classical church built as “chapel” to the Sorbonne in the 1600s, by its illustrious alumnus, later chancellor, Cardinal Richelieu, powerful advisor to King Louis XIII. This “chapel” is as lofty and magnificent as any church of the period. It provided religious services to the students of the Sorbonne during Richelieu’s life, and ultimately served as his burial place. The “chapel is cordoned off. No access is allowed.

This time I would no longer have to content myself with glancing furtively around the courtyard and then leaving. Across the open space from the street entrance, I was able finally to pull open a door and actually go WITHIN the Sorbonne. The building did not seem especially ancient. We had time to walk around the inner corridors, which were lined with doors leading to different “amphis,” each bearing the name of an important French classical writer or thinker from the 17th century. A look within any lecture hall presented a wooden wall with stairs mounting to the left or right. Once we entered the “Amphi Descartes” where our lecture was scheduled, and went up one of the sets of steps, we found ourselves at the top of a stadium seating arrangement with an aisle down either side, each bench one step further down than the preceding one. Steps on the top rows were full stair height, and the step elevations grew smaller with each row. There were maybe twenty-five rows running the full width of the hall, each row seating maybe twenty students if the hall were full. High wooden sashed windows ran along either wall– their sills perhaps twelve feet up from us at the top row, their tops perhaps another 12 feet above the sills. The room was very well lit naturally. A wooden desk that could accommodate maybe five panelists was at the front of the room, and behind that ran a blackboard of normal height. Double wooden swinging exit doors penetrated both sides of the front wall. The majestically high ceiling featured a filigreed cast iron border running around the whole room, surrounding a corrugated metal ceiling painted white. The benches were narrow, with backs at right angles to the seats — dramatically uncomfortable – almost penitential — to us twenty first century types. In a couple of places, emphatic exclamations of political disapproval were deeply carved into the wooden tops of the continuous tables that corresponded to the benches, and gave attendees a place to take notes.

As I looked around the room, it seemed to me pretty similar to late nineteenth century lecture halls I’d seen elsewhere. That seemed strange to me, given the venerable age of the university.
The lecture was an interesting experience! Indeed the subject, “The Work of the Future and the Future of Work” is a fascinating one. The lecturer, a man perhaps a youngish looking 40 years old, talked extremely rapidly and stuttered noticeably in addition! Oy! After making an extreme effort to understand most of what he was saying for the first 20 minutes or so, I was finding the required intensity of attention fatiguing, and finally decided to “zone out” and examine the room. After a while, though, I became aware that I was still listening, and by now I was in fact understanding most of his discourse, despite the stutter. At times, he slowed down a bit, and then I was fine. I’ve attended lectures on other visits to Paris, and know it’s possible to understand and enjoy them, given a halfway clear speaker. Even with a microphone, the resonant echo in the room blended this speaker’s rapid-fire syllables together into mumbled clots.

Nancy and I basically agreed with M. Bouzou’s thesis, that we can’t leave work entirely to the agency of machines because it is so important to humans to be able to make a difference and feel needed, and that a robust formation in human values and classical philosophy will continue to allow humans to counter-balance the impersonal horror that would result from increasingly powerful artificial intelligence.

After the lecture itself was ended, we were intrigued to discover that individuals representing several different philosophical viewpoints had positioned themselves strategically in the first few rows so they could introduce and explain alternative views. Each questioner who was recognized presented a mini-lecture on the perspective she or he was introducing into the discussion, and the speaker responded with equal passion and depth of detail. The question and answer period lasted, as clearly was planned, for an hour after the speaker’s hour-long discourse. It was an interesting format in light of the French enjoyment of solid philosophical argument and counter-argument. The tone was friendly, even jovial, although one of the counter-speakers reaped enthusiastic applause for a contrarian view.

The lecture was presented as part of a monthly series of provocative topics for adults who clearly participate regularly in these forums, which are presented by a club called the “College de Philosophie.” About 135 people were present, more or less. Our co-attendees were on the older side and clearly well educated and cultured. People were there with friends, obviously enjoying sharing a provocative Saturday afternoon’s discussion. It was a very French experience.

After we left the Sorbonne, I was really curious about the buildings we had just experienced. Robert de Sorbon did indeed found his college back in the 1300s, at a time when students were still subscribing individually to teachers and sitting around on hay bales in the open air around the church of St. Julien-le-pauvre across the Seine from Notre Dame Cathedral. He outfitted a building at the site of the present Sorbonne for a group of 20 subscribed students who had engaged to study theology with him, in preparation for becoming qualified priests and teachers themselves. He was running a very early Catholic seminary, in effect.

For the next 500 years, the Sorbonne became the first University in Paris to have buildings and a library, thanks to patronage from a series of kings, right up to the French Revolution. The university was decommissioned, as were all religious institutions, during the French Revolution. Cardinal Richelieu’s imposing chapel has not been used for the last 150 years or so (I can’t imagine what its interior state must be). The “Old” Sorbonne, except for the chapel, was torn down in the late 1800s while Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann were tearing down and rebuilding Paris. The “New Sorbonne” was finally completed and dedicated in the 1890s – right around the era I had identified as I looked around the lecture hall.

The Sorbonne had good years and bad in the twentieth century, and in 1970, not long after I experienced my disappointment at not having the opportunity to attend classes at the Sorbonne (I now wonder if any were being held there at that point), the University of Paris became Paris I through Paris XIX – it morphed from one into nineteen different universities, with campuses scattered all around Paris, including the surrounding suburbs. Paris I through Paris V are headquartered at what is now called “Sorbonne-Pantheon,” with buildings scattered throughout the fifth Arondissement, which contains the historic Latin Quarter where the Sorbonne is located.

Today, I learned that the Sorbonne that I had desired so ardently in 1961 to experience probably was that of the 1600s, the peak years of this school of the University of Paris. As is often true with strong desires, my emotions were not in tune with the facts, and I was pursuing a will-o-the wisp of an illusion, based on inaccurate information. On the other hand, Nancy and I had the opportunity to observe and participate in a quintessentially French lecture and discussion similar to what might have occurred at the Sorbonne of so many years ago, while sitting within the same compass coordinates at students occupying “Old” Sorbonnne buildings. In 2017, that’s pretty good!

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In Search of Pretty Stamps

September 27 2017, Bureaucracy  and Daily Challenges

We were seeking pretty stamps.  It seemed a simple  quest. Always before, we had gone into the corner post office, and said we wanted to bring back some pretty stamps for friends in the US.  The clerk would pull out of her drawer the folder of current stamps of all denominations, and we would choose those we liked and buy them. Piece of cake. Smiles all around.

Traditionally, the “Poste” – the post office — has been a big deal in French life.  As in the US, letters were once delivered in half a day, and there were two daily deliveries.  Today, email and texts have made this service completely redundant, and it no longer exists.

When I was first in France, in the early  nineteen sixties, the agency was called “The PTTs” – Poste, Telegraphe et Telephone.”  Many people did not have phone lines at home, and to make a call, one went to the corner PTT office to use the pay phones.  Also, the only real way to call from France to the US was to use a PTT operator and phone.

I remember having made calls home a few times back then – what a production!  I had to tell the operator how long I wanted to the call to be and pay for it up front — in cash, of course, and it wasn’t cheap!   Then I provided the clerk with the US number and went into a vacant “cabine” to wait.  Sometimes it took five minutes, sometimes ten, sometimes longer, for the international operator to finally come on the phone in the booth where I was waiting, to say that I would be connected presently.  After many clanks and clicks, if all went well, the call went through, and I was talking to a familiar voice, until the pre-selected time limit was reached, at which moment the call was unceremoniously disconnected with an abrupt “click!”  Those were very nervous calls, threatened moment to moment by abrupt termination as we tried to squeeze everything we wanted to say into a few precious metered moments!

Today, in the age of Internet and cell phones, the French government has gotten out of the direct business of electronic communications, in favor of a hodgepodge of individual companies and plans similar to the chaotic cell phone industry in the US. Instead, the post office has now become a bank providing savings and checking accounts as well as mortgages. And I guess that as electronic communications cut ever further into the revenue from “snail mail,” the “Poste” is also phasing out postage.

In any case, a couple of days ago, we went into our friendly corner post office searching for this year’s pretty stamps.

First, we had to find a time when the office would be open. When the place is closed, the front door is obscured by a pull down gray corregated metal cover that obliterates it – tight as a drum.  We’d found the metal cover down often as we passed by, and finally realized that the post office still closes every day for a two -hour lunch period!  From 12:30 to 2:30 pm every weekday, the graffiti-scrawled steel shutters are all one can see of the post office branch.  This realization about the persistence of the sacred two hour lunch tells us something about the implacability and hidebound resistance to change that has traditionally characterized  French bureaucratic agencies.  In most kinds of establishments today, the two hour closure during lunch is much less prevalent than it once was. But apparently not in the post office.

Once we figured out when the post office would be open, we went in to search out pretty stamps. I asked in French if we could see pretty stamps to bring home to friends in the US.  Imagine my surprise to hear, growled from another counter, the answer, “No pretty stamps here!”

“What???  No pretty stamps???” I replied, a bit taken aback.

In response, the clerk riffed through the folder of stamps of all denominations, showing me what she had.  Indeed, in each pocket resided sheets of monochrome abstract line drawings on uniformly small perforated paper squares.  There were NO pretty stamps at all!  France used to have such magnificent stamps – multi-colored reproductions of beautiful scenes or of art masterpieces! Now, only these drab, uniform little scraps??

So I bought twelve dull  monochromatic stamps with which to mail the post cards we had purchased and written, and asked if pretty stamps were available anywhere else.  This question precipitated a perplexed huddle of all the branch’s employees.  No one seemed to know.  Finally, after a prolonged discussion, one of the clerks finally explained, “Well, perhaps you might find some at one of the really big post offices, but we don’t actually know, and we don’t know where to tell you to go.”

I’m sure it’s much more efficient to just have one model of stamps of various denominations – but even Euros  — currency – are more varied and colorful than these stamps!  What were they thinking?  They certainly didn’t tell anyone what their plan was or their rationale.  Someone at the top echelon obviously made an executive decision and wiped out a long French tradition of beautiful postage stamps.  So much for the value of beautiful things in life!

Interestingly, although bureaucracies in France used to be intensely frustrating to deal with because of their dogged  dedication to following the letter of every rule without allowing any individual expression, many offices have become more aware of the possibilities of customer service.  Bureaucrats whose main function in life used to seem to be using their petty power to impose misery on unfortunate clients have now mostly become smiling ambassadors of good will.  It’s still important, of course, always to acknowledge the equality and  civic merit of all government employees by wishing them at the start of an interaction a cheery “Bonjour!” But that mannerly acknowledgment now opens the door to a relaxed concern for customer well-being.

The transport service in Paris, for instance, the RATP, has actually made life quite convenient with its choice of monthly or weekly passes usable on all public transport vehicles for the same fare.  The Navigo pass is electronic, and you pass it over an electronic panel at the entry to subway stations, buses, funiculars, and trams. You don’t even have to take Navigo out of your pocket or wallet for it to register. You can purchase it in your nearest Metro station for a week or a month at a time, and you can purchase the weekly pass whether or not you are French or live in Paris. For the first purchase, you need to present two passport pictures, because your pass will be personalized and permanent. We bought ours 5 years ago, keep them from year to year, and recharge them at the first possible moment each time we’re back in Paris.  It’s remarkably pleasant and convenient!

Or when we went into the Mairie (the town hall) for our sector of Paris a couple of days ago, employees were actually in the foyer conducting a poll of visitors about what services they most appreciated in this district and which ones they wanted more of, or wanted to experience in some different way.  This cheerful attention to clients’ desires would have been unthinkable in previous times.

I don’t know if it’s the European influence, or some other benevolent energy at work, but the end result is a vastly improved experience of living and moving around in Paris.  Bureaucratic stonewalling is a traditional feature of French life that I will not miss a single bit!  And I’m happy and willing to trade a smiling,  liberated corps of civil servants for the new impossibility of finding a pretty stamp!



Posted in Bureaucacy, Change over time | Tagged , , , , , ,