Thursday, July 25, 2013

Paris and the Desert: Living in the City of Lights and the Provincial Alternative

Living the Parisian lifestyle has been the stuff of dreams shared by people the world over.  The elegant streets, framed by the sumptous Haussman style apartment blocks, tree-lined alleys, and punctuated by small cafes and the occassional Art Nouveau subway entrances. As far as it comes aesthetic urban experiences, it really doesn't get any better.  And still, I could never see myself residing permanently in the city of my birth.  Compared to the things I would obviously gain, there would be many things that I take for granted that I would necessarily give up. 

I was recently fortunate to spend a week in an apartment in 14 arrondissement and was treated to all that was wonderful about the city- its beautiful streetscape, convenient places to dine, shop and relax.  Being an arrondissment little bit further away from the city center, the pace of daily life was a bit more relaxed, removed from the bustle of tourists and instead more catered the needs and convenience of local residents.  For example, right below the balcony of my apartment was a boulanger (bakery), a fine dining restaurant, and the ever so important laundromat.  The butcher was right across the narrow street, while several banks, brasseries, a pharmacy and small grocery were no further than a 50 yards away.  Heaven, n'est ce pas?  For a short while, yes, it is pleasant but one should be mindful that there is a price for such living  that all those who romanticize about it should be informed about.

Challenges of the Traditional French Dwelling
Since writing about this very subject two years ago during my visit to the Franche Comte region, subsequent stays in other regions in France confirm my initial observations ever more so. When it comes to providing comfort and ease of use, French residences fall embarrassingly short. It has little to do with the small tight spaces, which is to be expected, or even its age, since I've stayed in both old and new residences. The problem is that French dwellings typically do not function all that well. Other than the rare stay at an American-style hotel, I've never slept on a comfortable mattress in France. Somehow people here are happy to sleep on something very thin, hard, and sometimes not even flat. Apparently, chain stores that simply sell plush mattresses are a uniquely American phenomenon. Here you are lucky if you get an Ikea mattress that my sons are happy to sleep on.

From what I'm used to, plumbing systems are inadequate, from the typically low water pressure level to the lack of adequate hot water. Good luck if you are to find more than one toilet in the house, and you can simply forget being able to dispose food at the kitchen sink, since food disposals would overwhelm the undresized waste pipes. Even though you can find them here and there, it would seem that the French haven't quite figured out what a shower is, opting instead to turn a bathtub into one by simply mounting a shower head to the side and improvise an odd solution to hold a curtain to keep the water from getting the floor wet. Household appliances are understandably small not very powerful, thus requiring multiple wash cycles. You can expect have room just for a washer situated under your kitchen counter, while drying your clothes will require a bit of inventiveness on your part, since you no place to hang them in your Parisian apartment.

A view from the balcony of an apartment in
the  6th arrondissement
Stair handrails are not required, so you better hope your little ones can negotiate the steps without falling over the edge. Plug molds cover electrical wiring that is mounted on the wall surface, since your apartment likely predates Edison. The location of switches will take some getting used to, since they were likely put in after-the-fact. The weather this time cooperated, with temperatures blessing us with virtual "outdoor air conditioning", so the lack of an HVAC system was not noticed (a heatwave would be another matter). Though it may not be much to look at, your average stick-framed garden apartment in 'burbs with gyp-board walls, popcorn ceiling and vinyl floor will function a lot better than the more fashionable pied-a-terre in the center of Paris. You will likely find some exquisite decorative details and a view to the Eiffel Tower in the latter, but you will probably be able to enjoy a hot shower and cleaner dishes in the former.

Things get a bit better when you move further away from Paris, where houses are bigger, the cost of living is cheaper, and newer construction is more prevalent. The problem is that living close to France's few traditional city centers (e.g. Paris, Lyon, Bordeaux) is more important than one's own preference for space and comfort, and choosing to live a semi-rural lifestyle is tantatmount to living in exile. The way the city exterts an overwhelming gravitational pull on French life is best encapsulated by the saying "Paris et le desert"--in which there is Paris (home to 20% of the country's population) and the "desert", meaning any place outside the Ile de France.

The Price for the Beautiful Life

First, beyond being merely expensive, which is a given in the one of the world's most beloved cities, your apartment will be small-- really small.  It is not unusual for upper class households to live for many years within less than 500 square feet of space.  Murphy-beds and mattresses folding out of couches isn't unusual, and living rooms often double as bedrooms.   In a dense city, and especially in Paris, your living room isn't really inside your dwelling but rather outside in the city streets.  What are the numerous cafes and brasseries below anything other than temporary living rooms of the inhabitants who live in the apartments above? Given all the neighbors above, below, and next to your apartment and their needs, it becomes pretty difficult to receive a few guests in your apartment.  It's more practical to gather  around a coffee table outside sipping on coffee or a glass of Kir, even if it will cost you quite a few Euros for the privilege.  This arrangement definitely enlivens the street and makes for a memorable communal experience, but at the expense of maintaining any real privacy.  If you're in need of any kind of personal introspection or simply some "alone time" be prepared to do it in front of everyone.

Second, your apartment will likely be historic, with all the charms and drawbacks that go with it.  The tall  stately windows with faux balconies will let a lot of light and air in your space along with framing exceptional views of the city.  Your ceilings and walls may even feature whimsical classical moldings that root your place to a past glorious era, while the wood floor with herringbone pattern echoes the stately salons of the larger aristocratic residences further out from the city.  Your apartment will likely date from an era before modern plumbing and electrical appliances. Toilets, vanities and bathtubs will have been squeezed into the apartment wherever there was a tiny bit of space, with little regard to head room or minimum door push-pull clearances.  Kitchens seem to be have been installed in was once either once a kind of boudoir or utility room, meaning that getting to it may require passing through a bedroom.  You will marvel at the ingenuity of how previous owners managed to insert so much utility with so little counterspace.
Third, did I mention that this lifestyle is expensive? Beyond the high rent, costly living rooms (brasseries and cafes are not cheap, which may explains McDonald's popularity here),  there is transportation that has to be budgeted.  Those metro tickets add up very quickly, with subscriptions to commuting running to hundreds of Euros per month, and the cab rides through town operate on a very high price floor.  There are savings to be had by not owning a car to be sure, since you can depend on the city's highly reliable transit system , which never goes on strike, right?  Luckily you have a bike-sharing network at your convenience, which seems to work out pretty well, as long as you don't carry much with you.  For everyone else, they  will own a car in spite of the lack or high cost of parking, just so that they are insured of their autonomy beyond a transit system which has yet to renovate any of their stations or trains (and still smell like B.O. and urine).
14th arrondissement apartment
You can live in Paris on a budget (Good news! Wine, cheese and baguettes in the grocery stores are relatively cheap, and all pretty high quality)  but that’s just the problem: You need to have money simply to enjoy Paris.  And not just a little--a lot of money.  This was put into major relief when I compared my recent experience in which I was a financially secure professional to the time when I explored the city in depth as a poor college student and  as a penniless high-school student.   I finally got to enjoy the city in the way many people elsewhere tend to imagine, but it depended on a set of very fortunate circumstances,  contacts, and lots of savings budgeted for the trip.  Without these pieces in place, life in Paris loses its romance very quickly, which is what I most remember during my younger days.  Being a native French speaker, it was more difficult to maintain this idealized image, since I was able to absorb and immerse myself in what was being discussed in the national media at the time.  It clearly rid the illusion that the average Frenchman had it pretty good, even though it always seemed to me that life outside Paris was so much easier than life within. Paris is for me largely an aesthetic experience more than it is a practical one.

The Challenge of Getting Around

For all of its extensive public transit networks, Paris is woefully deficient in the capacity of its roads. I say this as someone who has depended on public transit and started driving relatively late in life. A global capital like Paris should be able accomodate traffic in all of its forms, particularly the one travel medium that continues to grow faster than any other: cars. Not only is the main ring road, "the peripherique" constantly plagued with traffic jambs ("bouchons"), its secondary ring road, the D86, doesn't fare much better either. Only two lanes in each direction are provided, charged with feeding onto major destinations such as the Stade de France (80,000+ seating) and Charles De Gaulle Airport in Roissy. There is little redundancy to compensate for special events, such as major rock concerts or the Paris air show at Le Bourget. 30-minute taxi trips from within the city to the airport stretch to 2 1/2 hours. As new tourist attractions for visitors such as amusement parks open up in the suburbs like Senlis and Marne-de-la-Vallee, easy access needs to be ensured, especially for those drivers who have to battle tha nasty car traffic around Paris' periphery. And long metro rides coupled with shuttle buses to these attractions waste a lot of time, as my own recent experience with my kids proved.

The lesson here is not that that Paris should continue to build more metro lines, commuter rail networks or even bus routes. This city can proudly claim to have the most extensive transit system in the world, and there are only diminishing returns onto adding onto a network in desperate need of renovation.   A new tram line is currently under construction that will link the outer arrondissements in a unified loop which only exarcebates the car traffic problems in these areas.  The lesson is to relieve the amount of economic pressure on a city that cannot structurally cope with it due to its essentially 19th century infrastructure and planning. As has been the national only during the last few decades, Paris needs to spin off its central economic role to other parts of the country. If you were to study a map of the region, you see that it is essentially of diagram of the Sun King. All major highways radiate outward to the rest of the country, which means that all traffic merges onto the ring road at nearly equal intervals along the circle, thus producing predictable bottlenecks. It's an elegant, or dare I say it, a Cartesian way of planning a road network, but it doesn't respond well to the actual way traffic flows over time. And time is money, and I've never wasted so much time as in the traffic jambs around Paris, and this is coming from an experienced Dallas-ite!

 A Contemporary Cultural Dilemma

Unfortunately, Paris has become  a less French experience.  Everywhere you go in the city you will be surrounded by people speaking other languages and coming from other countries.  It has become cosmopolitan like London and New York, with English functioning as the lingua franca among businessmen, tourists and immigrants alike.  The traditional cultural anchors that helped maintain a unique French identity are now long gone: music, art, television, even architecture have changed resemble something  more Anglo-American.   Were it not for the language,  its countless of historic landmarks that crown the city as well as Haussman's brilliant urban and architectural legacy, one would find it a bit difficult to know where one was.  So strong is Paris' historic architectural heritage, its scale, its consistency, and its inviting baroque whimsy, that it probably is the main reason visitors enjoy this city so much and continue to come back. 

Paris' contemporary heritage is weak by comparison, which defines its outlying districts (La Defense, the eastern arrondissements), and much of its surrounding suburbs, where most people in the area live outside the attention of tourists (other than the tiny number of architects and students, almost no one comes to Paris to see its contempary architecture or anything built after 1945).  There in the region's periphery you can find an endless series of twentieth-century urban and architectural follies,  ill-conceived projects  often monstrous in scale that project coldness and alienation, that quickly begin to wear a brutish veneer of graffiti imposed by their  disgusted inhabitants.  This periphery continues to sprawl, as more natives get priced out of the city's central districts to make way for foreign investors.  Unlike those lucky few who can afford little slice of Parisian heaven made possible by the ingenuity and taste of the past eras, this contemporary urban  blandness is what most people in the Paris region usually put up with, and it is what drives me personally to seek calm, beauty and an authentic "Frenchness" out in the provinces.  There the landscape takes hold, the local vernacular add richness, and the people are more down to earth and tied deeply to their home town.  The provinces are where one can find the La France Profonde, where one can experience the culture at a primordial level while obtaining a feeling of peace and contentment fueled by the surrounding beauty.

It seems that in order to get the most out of experiencing a special place like France, one has to first accept a slower pace of life.  It eases the transition from the frenetic, hyperstimulated and attention-starved reality of our modern cosmopolitan lives to an opposite, more focused reality we desire.  The French try to impose a more relaxed pace in various ways, from the 35-hour workweek to lengthy vacations and finally to closing business completely on Sundays.  Even with this, Paris' role as a global economic and cultural capital and as a home to people from all over, this becomes difficult.  In spite of its enviable infrastructure for slow living, such as its numerous sidewalk cafes and bars, its splendid urban parks and countless museums, life for most people in Paris is fast-paced and quite exhausting.  "Paris-Metro-Dodo", which describes the daily routine of commuting to the city and back, encapsulates the lives of its habitants more closely then people leisurely sitting at cafes while listening to accordion music that many of us would like to imagine.  Still, not too far away, one can revive oneself with the smell of cows, rolling hills and pastures, and friendly farmers selling you their Calvados spirits or bottled Apple Cider. The old stones are everywhere, with some ancient structures dating almost a 1000 years.  They provoke a powerful visceral reaction due to the way they interact with nature, weather, and time.  It's pretty much heaven for me.

This is what heaven looks like for me. View from a house in Normandy near Bayeux.

Everyone is entitled to experience beautiful surroundings, and to live an aesthetic kind of life that leaves us more fulfilled emotionally.  The chaos of the big city, much less a global capital like Paris, makes this difficult despite its cultural riches.   The beautiful life awaits just outside these places, only if one is willing to embrace simplicity, peacefulness, and disregard the shallow epithets from urban elites of such places as 'dead' or boring.  You will instead find the locals extremely polite and helpful and a bit more knowledgeable about the world that you would expect.  They lend these places respectable dignity, and are excellent stewards of their region's deep cultural legacy. And you say you want to live in Paris?


Unknown said...

Great post, Corbusier! i guess even the most romantic city in the world has its own problems. One cannot really tell unless one has lived there, I suppose...

corbusier said...


Thanks for reading! My main point is that it's one thing to visit and it's another to live in a place. Even the most elegant city in the world tends to lose its luster after a certain time living there. Paris never ceases to captivate, and it was especially when I was visiting and lucky to have all the necessary resources to enjoy my visit that the city really enchants. Without such luck, the charm evaporates rather quickly.

Benedict Augustine said...

I liked this post. Almost a century ago, Chesterton and Belloc also talk about the inhuman frenzy of the city and the need for moderners to reexamine the small town. Nowadays, commentators call this idea "scaling down to 'human dimensions'."

I remember expressing the same grievances of city life with a cousin of ours. My wife and I chose to remain in Paris for the duration of our two-week sojourn, and the routine wore on us after a while. Everything's expensive, the metro is unpleasant (and sometimes unreliable), and coping with the bathrooms and kitchens brings no end of frustration. Then again, we hoped to spend our time in the hallowed streets of gay Paris, which helped us move beyond those petty matters. Before we came we were mesmerized by the image of us sitting at a cafe by Seine, placidly sipping our lattes, happily watching the people who go by. Unfortunately, everyone has that image in their head, so when it came to realizing that dream, we found every cafe was packed and every latte cost at least 8 or 9 dollars! We tried to live the tourist life a few times, cost and crowds aside, and to our chagrin, we'd usually end up arguing because the whole thing was so aggravating--similar to shopping at Costco or Walmart on a Saturday afternoon.

You spoke truly when you stated, "Paris is for me largely an aesthetic experience more than it is a practical one." One really does have to visit Paris for its art. If he doesn't, it's a pointless expensive delusion of a trip. The museums and churches will bring no end of gratification for the lover of beauty. I learned to be thankful of my art history courses when strolling through the art galleries and church aisles; they opened my eyes to many of the Paris's innumerable sites, and the overall evolution from Gothic to Classical to Romantic to Modern.

In regards to France losing its identity, I would add the diminishing role and value of the church. The French churches have now adopted many of the new age conventions one sees in American churches. If you go to Notre Dame, you'll see this uncomfortable juxtaposition first-hand. In the nave of the church where the priests and congregation celebrate Mass, they've switched the crucifix for some nondescript gold-painted cross, and beneath it they've constructed the bland unadorned altar that clashes terribly with the elaborate furnishings of the rest of the church. Taking communion, I could see the famed Rose stained-glass window out of the corner of my eye while looking ahead to this drab modern centerpiece. If art ever reflects the inward spirit of its people and culture, this modern-Gothic contrast perfectly illustrates the moribund modern faith paling in comparison with the vibrant Medieval faith. Like you said, one has to go out into the provinces to find it again along with the other wonders of French culture.

enguerrand said...

when living in paris, the apartment is just for sleeping and the rest is really living, social, aesthetic (as you call it). i don't know about you, but i like living the moment and the hustle of the big city. it can be a drag dor the stupid stuff but it certainly can be interesting when you meet people that you otherwise will never meet in Rockwall. some choose to eek out a day-to-day living in Paris and actually own those lofted attic apartment living in the conditions you deplore, ridicule, or find hazardous. but who are you or i to judge this is an improper way of living? yes, it's true the matresses suck, spaces are cramped, plumbing traffic sux, and metros smell, but i can tell you from my experience, i will meet at least two to three people in paris in one day who are more interesting to talk to than anyone i've met in texas for an entire your, except my wife. life in the usa burbs gives comfort but little real time the end of the day, the true blood poor parisian probably enjoys a pleasure of life everyday that you would pay $2000 to to enjoy just for one day,

corbusier said...


Maybe it betrays my age, but I've tired of the hustle and bustle of the city. Sure it can be stimulating for someone who lives a mostly quiet life day to day, but I've had more than my fill of the urban lifestyle during my twenties. At this point in my life, I don't move someplace "to meet interesting people" since that kind of thinking tells me that I've decided to limit who I choose to come in contact with and that any other aspect about people not deemed "interesting" enough for me is therefore without value. You imply that Texans as a general rule are boring, and that the Texas suburbs are even more so. Nevermind that research and my own experience attests to American suburbs being actually more multi-culturally diverse than the cities they surround and that I've met many interesting characters in my supposedly vanilla enclave. What I like about where I live is that everybody is to a degree aspirational, in which they look forward to improving their lot while being invested in the community's overall wellbeing.

In most average districts in Paris and its surrounding suburbs, I get the sense most people are simply getting by, career advancement is very slow, ambition stops at earning a simple livelihood and no further. With these kind of limits, there's no wonder they seek constant stimulation from the montony by chatting about random topics at the neighborhood cafe.

As for me, I'm overloaded on the stimulation I get from my job and my kids to really seek for it all that much on casual conversations at the cafe. Instead I seek for peace and quiet and the comforts of nature. That's why I find the provincial cities in France far more attractive than Paris--it's more affordable to live a fulfilling life, and there's enough urban activity in their historic cores that offer the stimulation that you may desire.

In conclusion, if things were to suddenly fall apart living in the US and I had the option of repatriating myself in France, I would easily choose provincial capitals such as Angers, Besancon, Strasbourg, Aix-en-Provence or Toulouse to live in over Paris.

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