Paris for Tourists
Living in Toronto, I've always dismissed the Eiffel Tower as a puny little thing over on the other side of the world. After all, it's only 318 metres tall and the CN Tower is 553 metres tall. The thing I didn't know was that there are elevators that go to the top of the Eiffel tower -- and each elevator takes a curved path through the structure. With the top deck over 300 metres up, it nears the height of the CN Tower's observation deck. Combining that with the flatness of Paris makes the Eiffel Tower feel bigger. Just about every building in the central Paris is 6 storeys tall. There's really only one skyscraper in view, the construction of which made the city government pass all sorts of laws which basically say "oops — let's not do that again."
For the benefit of the metallurgical engineer who just happens to visit, they have a little exhibit on the first level which talks about all the paint they use to protect the tower every five years. Since the tower is made of iron (not steel) it would corrode rather nicely if not covered with a good layer of paint (or perhaps chemical inhibitors). This year the Eiffel Tower is an uninteresting colour, somewhere between light brown and dark brown. Funny, they listed all the colours they've ever used, and none of them was the colour I thought they used all the time — black.
Arc de Triomphe was pretty much as I had imagined, except
that like the Eiffel Tower, I didn't know people could go up to the top.
Well, it's a little bigger than I thought, too. I was envisioning something
maybe twice the size of the Princess Gates at the CNE.
Avenue des Champs Elysées is a wide, modern street. Most of the things we found here were things we'd already heard of. Either French things that have been exported internationally, or international things that the French have imported. Renault, Peugeot, and Citroën all have offices here. McDonald's, Planet Hollywood, and the Disney store all have locations here. I took a picture of a big movie theatre which was showing The Man in the Iron Mask, Jackie Brown, U.S. Marshals, Flubber, Titanic, and The Big Lebowski. Talk about English influence....
The Obélisque is an ancient Egyptian monument at Place de la Concorde at the foot of the Champs-Elysees. One of many attractions undergoing restoration while we were touring, it was given to the French as a gift by the Egyptians in the 1800s. A news item I read shortly after I got back to Toronto said that a proper pyramid originally sat atop it, but it was never put on. The pyramid will be added in May 1998.
Everyone I talked to told me that the Louvre was overrated. Still, I wanted to decide for myself. We lined up outside for about half an hour (it was Wednesday afternoon, cheap time at the Louvre), then we got in. Actually, that just got us into the building past the x-ray machines (wouldn't want anyone to spray paint eyebrows on the Mona Lisa, don't ya know). Tickets and admission were further inside. Once we got in we were pretty worn out so we got a bite to eat. One Louvre ham and cheese sandwich for 26F ($6.00) and one Louvre Coke for 20F ($4.80). After eating I checked out the Louvre bookstore and found scores of books detailing all the art in the Louvre. After browsing several books, scanning the ticket lineups, evaluating the size of the museum building, and considering the pain in my feet, I decided that my interest in the type of art in the Louvre just wasn't enough to warrant further suffering. We left.
Notre-Dame was undergoing some cleaning when we visited. The first
floor was pretty much wrapped up in cloth. Between the sheets we could see
several of the statues that line the top of the first level. Compared to other
buildings in Paris, it wasn't as imposing as I had imagined, but when I saw it
I wasn't aware that it was completed in 1330! We took some pictures but didn't
actually go into the cathedral. Too
for me. Across the street there was a souvenir stand, the
proprietor of which greeted me with "Hello, Canada!" as we approached
with me wearing my Toronto Blue Jays
Pont Neuf (New Bridge) is a bridge that caught my attention. It crosses the Seine via a small island in the middle of the river. The bridge is 238 metres long and was built in the late 1500s and early 1600s by order of Henri III. The neat thing is that not only is it still standing, it's still being used. Of course, in those days with no steel-reinforced concrete, the main thing they had to worry about when building a bridge, was supporting the weight of the bridge itself, so I suppose it's not apt to be subject to much wear and tear. Pont Neuf was, however, undergoing some cleaning and waterproofing while I was in Paris, though only at the north end.
Les Invalides is an impressive palace that was built under Louis XIV, to house French soldiers wounded and disabled in battle. One wing of the building has now been turned into an army museum. In the rear of the palace is a building housing the tombs of Napoléon and several others.
The Musée de l'Armée captures the military history of France from the dark ages to the end of World War II. Inside the front doors of the museum is a small room which displays the more primitive types of weaponry, your basic bearskins and stone knives. Down the hall they have a ridiculously huge assortment of armour suits, helmets, and swords, in varying shapes, sizes, and artisitic detail. The upstairs is divided into two sections, one for each of the World Wars. The World War II wing was chilling. It was indescribably eerie to see pictures showing Nazi banners hanging down the front of buildings I had just walked by the day before, with tanks in the foreground. The rooms are ordered so that one progresses through the war sequentially, from the initial defeats, to the formation of resistance, to the final victory over Germany. Not sure where I was in history class when they covered Charles de Gaulle; I only knew him as the French leader who miffed the Canadians with his "Vive le Québec libre" speech.
We took a brief look at the Sorbonne. Like some of the other sites, we didn't actually go in, but we went through into a courtyard inside the front gate. The courtyard was dotted with historical names. In one corner a group of students were sitting on steps beside a statue of Victor Hugo. Across from us was a doorway with the name Hermite (of polynomials fame) above it. That had some geek appeal.
Paris for the More Easily Amused
So those are some of the tourist sites.... Now what's Paris *really* like? Well, one of the first things I noticed is that cars are way different. The cars are generally small enough to make a Honda Accord look like a monster truck, and about 90% of cars appear to be made by Renault, Citroen, Peugeot, and Fiat. I saw some Fords here and there, some Toyotas, some Hondas, and one GM vehicle (a Pontiac Trans Sport if you must know). The most popular car I could see was the Renault Twingo. It's the cutest little thing since umm.... well, it's cute. The Ford KA was the coolest car I saw. Shaped like something approaching an egg.
Parking in Paris is amusing to watch. Just about every car has a big big rubber bumper as opposed to the easily damaged painted plastic one you find on most North American cars these days. And they use them. On several occasions I found cars parked and actually touching each other. Most of the time there was an inch or two between. In Toronto this would be grounds for assault and battery, but well... what's a little impact and friction between big rubber bumpers anyway?
I had the privilege of being driven around in Paris one evening. It was then when I discovered the competitive advantage French Formula One drivers have. Many of the roads in downtown Paris don't have lanes! Every street light is essentially a new starting grid on a racetrack. If there's a little open space over there.... Vroom! It's yours!
Coffee. Everyone tells me that Paris is famous for its cafes. Ohhhh, how I longed for a Second Cup. You see, in Paris, they serve coffee in these things called cups. Not the styrofoam or paper types you and I are used to.... They're some sort of ceramic material. And they're small. Not exactly great for take-out. When you buy your coffee, you have a couple of choices: stand or sit. If you stand at the counter while you drink your coffee, you'll get the best price. If you want to sit down, you'll have to pay more. If you want to sit down, you could sit down inside or on the patio outside. The premium you pay for sitting down is some function of how fashionable a street the cafe is on. As a result of these ermmm cultural differences, I restricted my coffee drinking in France to airplanes and hotels. McDonald's at least serves their coffee in paper cups, but they only have one size: small (of course they don't call it that).
As for food, we kind of lucked out in that our hotel was across the street from a grocery store. That saved us a fair bit of money on eating out, and gave us a chance to check out how the locals live. We picked up cheese (not being brave enough to go to a real cheese shop), drinks, fruit, and snacks. Couldn't help noticing that in France they call Corn Flakes Corn Flakes, not the Flocons de Mais that we get on the boxes in Canada. In a totally unexpected blast from the past, we went to the checkout with some apples and found that (oops) we were supposed to get them weighed back in the produce department. There was a bakery next to the hotel so we picked up fresh baguette to go with our cheese every day. Mmmmm.... Note: It's quite common to see a Parisian walking the streets with a two-foot-long piece of bread. Don't worry -- it's not stale enough to be used as a weapon.
Pigeons. Believe it or not, Paris has more pigeons than Toronto. And they swarm. On my last day in Paris I was checking out a piece of artistic sidewalk when this massive flock of pigeons came bearing down on absolutely nothing (edible) on the sidewalk beside me. As they landed I could see them slamming into each other, they were so closely packed. Pigeons in France appear to speak the same language as pigeons in Canada.
As all the famous sites can attest to, Paris has a lot of history. We in Canada have our Confederation, our Casa Loma, our War of 1812.... Yawn. Whereas a building from the 1800s in Toronto would either be gone or turned into an official heritage museum, people in Paris actually live, work, and whatever else in buildings built in the 1700s. We have a construction industry, and they have a restoration industry. All around town are little plaques on the sides of buildings that tell of events past. Voltaire died here in 1778. A police officer was killed here by the Germans on August 19, 1944. A 20-year old student was killed here on August 25, 1944.
Those aren't the only cool signs in Paris. Their crosswalk signs are much more friendly than ours. Street signs are conveniently located on the buildings at each street corner. In Toronto we have signs that say "Post No Bills". In Paris they have a sign saying basically the same thing, followed by the date the law was enacted -- 1881. Surprisingly people seem to pay attention to these signs, in stark contrast to the way they treat No Smoking signs. On any given subway platform there are at least three people smoking, even though (like Toronto) smoking is not permitted in the subway system. Unfortunately all the French they taught me in school wasn't quite enough to allow me to unleash a tirade upon these fine people.
Of course, unless I put a big sign on my head that says I Can't Understand You If You Utter More Than Four Syllables, no one knows I'm not French. So it was rather humorous to be asked for directions four times in Paris (yes, the camera might have given it away but Paris is also a tourist haven for French people). While I wasn't much use to others, I'm pretty good with a map and never really got into a position where I'd have trouble getting back to the hotel. The subway is challenging, though. The map is a twisted mass of colour-coded, numbered lines, and some stations connect up to five different routes. That can lead to a bit of confusion when it comes time to transfer (not transferring is of course not an option -- there is no single line that goes from where you are to where you want to go). A simple safety tip if you're ever there: Draw up a battle plan for each trip. Know each stop you're going to transfer at, and the name of the last stop on each of the lines you're going to use. In Toronto, we have Kennedy, Kipling, Finch, and Downsview. McCowan if you want to count the Scarborough LRT. In Paris there are over 20 endpoints to deal with. Armed with a little knowledge, the Paris subway is pretty good.
On the subway I came across one of the many quirky little differences between here and there.
The subway doors have a handle on them, for one. If you want to get off or on the
train, you pull the handle up and the door opens. The doors open (once you pull the
handle) and close automatically so I wasn't quite sure what the purpose of the handle was.
I thought it might be to keep the trains cool in the summer until I was told they don't
have air conditioning. Erk. Subway musicians play on the trains in Paris, usually
mid-way down the car. I saw a few with accordions, and one with one of those hand-crank
music box things. No monkey, though.
Well, that's it for now on Paris. We now take you to the next stop on our trip, Chamonix.
© 1998-2004 Derek England. The author makes no guarantee as to the accuracy of the information contained in this document as he got hit on the head four times while traveling in Europe. HTML 4.01 Standard
Stuff On Paruda's Radar
Paruda, also known as Derek England in what some people call real life, is a Unix geek in Toronto, Canada. When not applying his geeking skills to working for the man, he likes to draw cartoons and serve as overbearing overlord on Stick in the MUD.