I’m not sure exactly what it is but its definitely there. Its in the air, or the water. Whether its seeping out of the catacombs or hitching a ride on the excellent city wifi I I don’t know but something’s definitely changing in the city of love. A certain je ne sais quoi.
My first visit to the city was twenty-four years ago. A young man I traipsed all over, excitedly discovering for the first time the world famous landmarks, drinking wine and coffee, binge eating croissants and trying to suck up as much of the culture as I could. It felt like I was drinking from the proverbial fire hose and after a few days I was gagging and looking forward to returning to country where at least someone would say thank you if you tipped them, regardless of its size.
My opinion of the place, and by extension the country, was formed during that visit and it didn’t really change much over the intervening years. That for all its architectural beauty, the arts, the food and liberal attitude to life, Paris is a rude place. Not a friendly city.
This is no more true than it is for the Parisian waiters. Their abrupt unfriendly approach to earning tips is world famous. It’s expected that your change is thrown at you with a scowl rather than handed with a ‘thank you sir, please come again’. When you are sitting cheek by jowl in a bistro enjoying lunch for four around a table barely the size of a dinner plate you should be thankful. Thankful the waiter has deemed you suitable to be allowed into his establishment in the first place without even a basic grasp of French.
Like most British people I am embarrassed to say my ability with languages other than English is woeful and doesnt extend much beyond speaking English slower, louder or even sometimes with an attempt at an accent. As if speaking English in a caricatured French accent will either help them understand me better or at least have an endearing effect.
In Paris it does neither, it just seems to annoy them more, as if I am disrespecting them, their language or in some cases, judging by their reaction, their mother by not being able to speak to them in machine gun speed French.
But after twenty-four years of visiting the city for pleasure and business I had become used to this rudeness. I’ve come to expect it and even weirdly look forward to it. At least you know where you stand with the Parisian waiter. It might be somewhere lower down the pecking order than the stray dog rummaging through the bins out the back but at least you know it.
The city has changed little over the years. Yes there are new buildings, the smoking ban and wifi everywhere but its essentially the same place it always was.
They seem to violently oppose anything which might even hint at a different way. And why should they do anything else? It’s their city after all.
So you can imagine my surprise when I visited last week and had all my preconceptions and biases shattered. Something drastic has happened to Paris since the last time I was there.
It started off innocently enough. A friendly man in a bar who didn’t seem put out by my Allo Allo! accent even to the extent he offered to help me with directions. I didn’t give it much thought, I put it down as an isolated random act of kindness which can occur in the most unlikely of places.
But in retrospect I should have been suspicious even well before I arrived.
Travelling as I was on the TGV during one of their weekly strikes I had steeled myself for the journey from hell. I expected middle of the night cold waiting rooms, a smelly bus or two and a scheduled meeting the following morning barely met. None of this occurred however. I arrived on time having been fed and watered by friendly SNCF staff – it didn’t occur to me at the time that my good fortune was actually part of a larger seismic shift.
The man in the bar smiled as he left and I went on my way, the importance of these two incidents not registering.
And it went on; friendly smiles, warm welcomes, helpful advice, English menus, patience and grateful waiters.
After some time it did register but I have to admit it took me a while. I had this nagging something’s-not-right thing going on in my head but I had to sit down and think hard to really put my finger on what it was.
Paris has become friendly. There I’ve said it. Its true.
Yes the prices are still silly. Yes the traffic is still awful. Yes the airport is still the worst in the world and yes once you have managed to shoe horn yourself into your bistro seat you will still need a tub of Vaseline and a complicated nautical rope and pulley system to get yourself out again, but its all so much nicer if this is inflicted on you with a smile.
It would be an understatement to say they’ve had a rough time of late and are currently enduring a perfect storm, if you forgive the preposterously obvious pun, of floods, strikes and a screaming bright red terrorist threat level a few days before they host the European football championships.
All of this must have had an impact on the psyche of the Parisians but knowing their absolute determination to maintain their ideals in spite of everything, to not capitulate in the face of atrocious acts leads me to believe they have changed simply because they wanted to, or perhaps I have just been unlucky with all my visits there.
Either way, I now genuinely look forward to the next time I am fortunate enough to visit the city. I no longer dread working my way though the almost escalator free metro with a heavy bag or risking my life in a taxi from CDG.
And this in my book is a really really good thing.
I might even start trying harder with the pronunciation.
Liberté, égalité, fraternité