Progress in Paris – D. and S. Hamilton

We’ve noticed a few improvements since we were last here. The most important is the public toilets. They have been around for a long time, but previously they cost about half a euro (65 cents) and often didn’t work. They are quite a contraption. They are rounded rectangles of concrete and corrigated metal with a sliding metal door. Inside, they have a porcelain trough emerging perpendicularly from the wall into which you are to place your very personal deposit. However, there is no flushing mechanism that requires action on the part of the user. You just open the door and leave, feeling somewhat guilty that you have neglected something crucial. This means that no one in their haste is supposed to jump in just as you leave. The door closes automatically behind you and then an impressive watery convusion takes place inside. A minute or so later “libre” replaces “occupé” on the external instruction panel and it’s ready for reuse. They are usually quite clean and even have toilet paper. There are about 450 scattered around Paris and they can be, if not a life saver, at least an anxiety saver. Now they are free and generally working, in defiance of those who claim capitalist incentives are required for efficiency.

These public toilets are a great leap forward compared to Paris of old where one was often required to rush into a cafe with outside seating, claiming if questioned to be a client “au terrase.” This strategy was particularly difficult to pass off on sceptical waiters late at night when the outside tables were already being stacked for removal.

Finding a public toilet wasn’t such a problem back in my army days – at least for men – when they had these quaint metal urinals, frequently photographed by admiring American tourists. These, however, were for stand up use only and now have all been removed, apparently victims of emerging French feminism. But back then, men felt quite free to pee just about anywhere. This practice seems to have become unfashionable. In a related radical change, dogs are now required to have a human attached who carries a plastic bag.

Another advance is the Sunday closing to motorized vehicles of the two-lane freeway that runs along the right bank of the Seine. It’s now for the exclusive use of bicyles, runners, roller bladers, walkers, skateboarders and the like on that day. This is part of the effort by gay Socialist mayor Delanoë to reduce car use in central Paris by half by 2012 and the part of the plan that has met the least resistance. This freeway is one of several modern innovations within the heart of Paris that seem to have been later regretted. Other examples include the 688-foot tall Monparnasse Tower, a gray slab office building that looks like it was transplanted directly from Houston. Finished in 1973, it is a blight on the otherwise six-story central Paris skyline. Nothing remotely similar has been built since and we have heard rumors that they are considering tearing it down. When taking broad view pictures of the Paris landscape, it is recommended to have a traveling companion stand so as to block it out.

Another example of architectural misadventure is Les Halles, the once quaint but antiquated wholesale food distribution center where those seeking to follow in Hemingway’s footsteps would eat onion soup at 3 a.m. In the late 60’s it was converted into an ultra-modern shopping center with its original function transfered to the edge of town. Fortunately, it is mostly underground. They are already discussing a redesign. But the grand champion of modern architectural atrocities is the Pompidou Center, the National Museum of Modern Art. Its obnoxiousness is a metaphor for most of the “art” collected inside. I keep hoping that Christo, the contemporary master of artistic absurdity, will decide to wrap the whole thing, including the entrances, permanently. I predict that in 100 years it will have followed most of what is displayed inside into the garbage can of taste, but I’m decidedly old-fashioned in these matters.

An architectural achievement more to my liking was the recent remodeling of part of the Samaritaine department store. The entire 19th century Haussmann facade was maintained by a fantastic supporting superstructure while the interior was gutted and modernized. We are told that in many Franch villages, the law requires that new construction blend in with the old.

Another new architectural wrinkle in central Paris is an innovative extension of the right to housing. The city government is handing out two-person backpacker tents to people living in the streets. Most are identical and they appear in little clusters under bridges, in alleys and in the rear vestibules of churches. In what I regard as a special improvement, there is one group on the backside of the Pompideau Center. I doubt that foreigners travelling cheap qualify for them. This reform may not last. They seem to get very funky after extended use. We hear that there are also free public showers.

Finally; there is the new Batobus, the city-operated boat transportation system on the Seine from the Eiffel Tower on the west to the Jardin de Plantes on the east with eight stops at important points along the way. Private tourist boats have long been a major attraction. With the Batobus, the “floating metro,” the city has horned in on the action. These are large, wide vessels with seating for a couple of hundred people, largely covered with clear plastic canopies. With a ticket stub from any of several major museums you can get a five-day pass for 10 euro, getting on and off as often as you like. They are great for a romantic ride through Paris, except that they shut down about 10 p.m., when it is just twilight here at this time of year. There is also a new all night bus system running on a circuit that covers all six Paris train stations, but we can’t stay up late enough to use it and we walk almost everywhere we go.

David and Sally Hamilton

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