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We knew that there was a heatwave about to hit France before we left London, so I won’t comment too much on the temperatures. Suffice to say that even 40°C without high humidity is extremely nice – we had no problems with it at all.
One of the first things I noticed (apart from they have left-hand drive cars) was the limited road markings and the casual disregard for those that are there. Most of the streets we encountered were one-way, with the only markings being for a bus lane, which the taxis appeared to use as well, without batting an eyelid. The general principle, when driving a car, is to move forward as far as possible and as quickly as possible – if the person in front of you doesn’t move within a second of getting a green light or other right of way, toot your horn.
The pedestrians are perhaps worse than the drivers, because they just cross the roads when nothing is moving. Although, having said that, at all of the intersections we encountered the cross signals were automated, so you couldn’t get any satisfaction out of standing there tapping a button incessantly. When crossing the street, if a car can move but you’re in the way, expect to be tooted at.
One of the most efficient forms of transport appears to be bicycle, with many people riding to work, even in their suits and in the hot sun – I’m not sure how that works at the other end. The big surprise to me (and perhaps I noticed more because I’m a male) was the number of women in dresses, short skirts, and even mini-skirts riding bikes – mostly with a well-placed item in the basket on the front of the bike.
We only used the Metro once, and it seemed about as easy as the London underground, albeit that you seemed to have to go further to reach the desired platform. One comment I overheard from another tourist was that when they took the Metro in the morning (our trip was late morning), the passengers kept piling in and everyone was expected to squash up, despite the lack of available space. I don’t remember seeing the same thing in London, but perhaps the trains run more frequently there.
The worst people in traffic appear to be the motorcyclists – they will drive on the wrong side of the road (even when there’s an oncoming or turning bus), they all move to the front of the queue of cars, they will ride through pedestrian crossings (while pedestrians are crossing) – they just don’t seem to give a damn.
For all of that though, we only saw one minor nose to tail accident while we were there. The only other disruption was traffic being diverted as some “VIP” was driven up to Les Invalides and Musée de l’Armée.
The roads and paths themselves are also interesting, with a large number of those we encountered being uneven cobblestones – we even witnessed new cobblestones being laid, so it’s not like that because they have been there for centuries. It did make walking on them for long periods of time a challenge and DW, with her foot injury from years ago, was experiencing problems from this.
On to the people. It has long been believed that the French are arrogant people who would barely give you the time of day if you can’t speak their language. I am pleased to report that in Paris, at least, this is generally not the case. I believe that it would be easy to do most of the tourist activities and dine out in Paris without being able to speak French. However, they are very happy if you can even speak a little bit of French to them, where possible. Perhaps this is more indicative of the tourist industry, since the only exception to this (that we experienced) was from someone not generally dealing with tourists. There was only one restaurant where the waiter spoke entirely in French, even though he knew we weren’t French and he could manage some English, but that gave me a chance to put my schoolboy French to good use.
Another thing that struck me about the people is the number of them who smoke – it was very noticeable and it was difficult to find places where there was nobody smoking. However, I rarely felt I was breathing secondhand smoke or that the smokers were in anyway endangering my health.
Facilities are interesting – we struggled to find a laundromat (15 minutes walk away), although there were reportedly a lot of them around. Pharmacies (or Chemists, if you prefer) are also quite abundant. However, it wasn’t until our second-to-last day before we noticed the local supermarket – it was down an escalator from a side street just around the corner from our hotel. It’s nothing like the supermarkets we have, but there are many places to buy everyday essentials.
Rubbish bins were more common than in London, but all the smokers just seemed to chuck their butts on the ground. This provided a full time job for many people sweeping/cleaning the streets in the morning.
It’s not uncommon to see plenty of water on the pavements in the mornings, before the sun dries it up. We eventually noticed that this was because many people out at night, and those who live on the streets, just pee anywhere, including on walls and doors of houses, churches, shops, etc.
Having experienced the tourist version of Paris and witnessing how everyone gets around, I can understand why we see so many tanned and trim French people. I think I would like to experience other parts of France as well, after improving my language skills, but I don’t know that it would be enjoyable working in Paris – it seems like a high stress region.