I'm back from Paris, where my wife and I spent nine days. We went well outside the tourist parts of the city, but in even that spare time, I found that there were observations about life there that are compelling to an American who is befuddled by our current debate about public funding and the individual good:
1. Parisians are friendly people. With the exception of a snippy little man in an information booth in Gare de l’Ouest, every person I came in contact with was thoughtful and kind. If you try a little French, they appreciate it, and all I possess is the ability to create broken sentences with verbs in the present tense, with the words for hello, thank you, I'm sorry, please, and good night. Many Parisians have sad expressions and furrowed brows, but they are not unpleasant to Americans. Our fashionable disdain of the French is based on popular media stereotypes, and we are probably as nice to them as they are to us.
2. There are no fat people. It's extraordinary to visit a place where overweight people are the exception to the rule. The people jogging in active wear on the sidewalks are mostly visiting Americans (though not this American) but back home, we are mostly large, containing multitudes. I can't say that the diet of Parisians is all that healthy, and many people smoke, though not as many as you might think. They drink well after the late summer sunset (around 10 pm) but not to the excess that you see on Saturday nights on South Street in Philadelphia.
3. A walk down any busy street in Paris for an American is striking because very few people are on their cell phones. Very few are playing with their iPhones. In the evening, the native diners are talking and eating, and conversation consumes the dining experience. Though we finished our dinner, we practically had to beg the waiter for the check - not because he wasn't doing his job, but because people are supposed to sit and talk well after their meal is done. Since tipping is not as important there as it is in the U.S., it's less important to attend to the specific needs of the costumer, but it's also seen as bad business to rush people through their meal. On two occasions, people were turned away from restaurants we were in when half the diners inside were just finishing or had finished their coffee.
4. Scooters are everywhere, which isn’t particularly green, but the city has successful a bike rental program called Velib. Even in a city where the traffic is bad and unruly, the bicycle is recognized as having even more of a right to exist than it does in even the most nominally progressive of American cities, like New York. My own city of Philadelphia has recently let one of its very few (and relatively cheap to maintain) bike rental programs die for no apparent reason and with no real plan to replace it.
5. Walking is important, and it enhances life in Paris. In as large a city as Paris, the car does not philosophically rule (though when push comes to shove, the car always has right of way over the right of the pedestrian crossing the road, which I found inexplicable). There is excellent, efficient and predictable public transportation. There are active small business storefronts everywhere. I don't know what kind of business they do, and I don't know about incentives or tax breaks, but if business is doing well, it's because there is also the expectation that people will be walking or biking by the shop windows, not driving by.
6. Big book chains are the exception in Paris. Small bookstores are everywhere. In Philadelphia, we are down to barely a handful of really good, small bookstores while the colonizing force of Borders has retreated, leaving a desolate browser’s landscape in its wake. In Paris, there are also longer, more casual lunch times during the workday. France is not an economic superpower, whatever its pretensions, but the environment values small business far more than anything our own economics are currently capable of imagining.
In all of this, I was compelled to wonder, in an admittedly generalized fashion, and using these random examples, about the relationship between the individual to society. As an American who has watched his national politics made paranoid by an increasingly distorted view that the values of the individual are inconsistent with the needs of the community, I wonder at how easily some Western societies (admittedly in a famously metropolitan area) are able to walk the line between the two without making desolate their landscape of thought.
It makes me wonder: is it really unfeasible for our society to find ways to discourage our addictions to food and chemicals, or to a consumerism imbued with an escapism that de-humanizes us on an individual level? Can we not encourage healthier ways to live in our culture? Can we not find ways to develop a culture that values a simple face-to-face conversation more than an over-reliance on texting one another and using social websites? If we cannot, why not?
Paris is not paradise by any stretch. Charles De Gaulle Airport is a nightmare. There are no helpful signs, even in French. People have plenty of jobs at the airport, but no one appears to think for himself. We had no bags to check, we had already checked in online but were unable to print our boarding passes, and this combination was too difficult for airport personnel to fathom, and no one would print them out for us before we went through passport and security checks because "it's not my job." Finally someone did after we had to wait on line with people checking their bags. It wasn't a business model that encouraged personal initiative.
France as a whole has cultural problems that are evident in Paris. Its wide avenues and monumental designs (some of which are visible in Washington, D.C., whose original design was created by a Frenchman) speak of an imperial sense of entitlement that compelled the French to believe that it could conquer other nations, strip other cultures of their native languages, and yet vainly defend itself against Nazism's evil by simply relying on the integrity of its republic alone.
You will hear that France is a more diverse society than ever, but you won't see any more of it in Paris center than you do in Philadelphia Center City. Take the B train to the airport, and the scene changes. The Parisians of Arab, African and South Asian ancestry live on the margins of Paris' glory. And France's presumption that it can force Muslim women to remove the burkha in public is, I feel, an inherent violation of individual values that Western culture purports to defend. And though the people of the city seemed horrified by the events in Oslo, one senses that even in Paris that there is an inherent sense that Islam is an “inferior” ideology. I feel we Americans have learned more from our history and can comprehend the casual sense of evil in such sentiments.
But the pleasantries of Paris can be instructive to Americans. For example, I was struck that among all the bicyclists, no one that I could see was wearing a helmet. Children did not wear bike helmets. This may be a terrible example; there are lots of silly theories we can use, some of which might even bear some grain of truth about how Parisians think bike helmets are aesthetically displeasing and inconsistent with good style. Personally, I feel naked riding a bicycle without a helmet in Center City Philadelphia, but I don’t know if I feel safer. I've been told by parents here in the U.S. that if your child is seen without a helmet, you get the feeling that someone will call Child Services on you. But are we any safer than Parisians? I found a very old study that showed that Bostonians rode with fewer bike lights than Parisians, and I remember that in England, I would have been pulled over by a cop for not having bike lights, not for missing a helmet.
What makes for good safety on a bike? More generally, what are the best ways to enhance individual life in both a diverse and a plural society? In our struggle with the American sense of the individual, transcendental or rugged, do we need to start listening more often to Western societies struggling with their own definitions (and not just Parisians)? When I consider how personally relaxed I felt in one of the most densely populated cities in the world, I have to wonder what it was that was so pleasingly foreign to me, other than the language.