Sometimes in life you just need to run off to Paris. So I did.
It was certainly time: I hadn’t set foot in France in 10 years, which was particularly odd given that I had twice lived there, once for a month in Provence and once for a better part of a year in Paris. That’s when I got the gift of French language skills. Unfortunately, being away from France for so long those skills had necessarily gotten really dusty, and for various reasons, now was the right time to find them again.
So I just spent a little over a week in Paris. I wasn’t a tourist. I didn’t see a single museum or historic site (at least not purposefully; in Paris you kind of can’t avoid seeing them accidentally). Instead I sublet an apartment and settled into my old home.
In many ways it felt like only yesterday since I’d been there, but the truth is that I left it nearly 15 years ago, and over and over I was reminded by how much has changed since. Back when I lived there they had JUST converted to the Euro, but still used French Francs. They had JUST built the 14th line of the Metro, but not the next several RER lines or tramways. The Internet had only just become popular back then, during that Christmas when everyone got “Internet in a box” (the hot item back then was a box containing a 14.4 modem, CD with Netscape, and a subscription to Wanadoo), but otherwise it was a country still attached to Minitel.
Back then I knew the rare places where you could find sushi (mostly in the 5th and a few spots in the 6th), but now it’s on every block, while bistros and other local cuisine has become much harder to come by. And now when people “take a coffee” it may well be from a Starbucks or McDonald’s “McCafe.”
It’s also much harder now to practice one’s French – English is everywhere. The Internet is everywhere, even in the Metro. What I noted about Germany seems true for France too: pan-Europeanism has replaced a lot of local cultural identity.
But, as a French friend reassured me, that is what the French want. Tastes have changed, he said. What you now see in Paris is what they have changed into. And to be sure, plenty of profoundly French hallmarks remain. There are still boulangerie-patisseries and boucheries on every block. Even supermarket food is French in style and reflects the local demand for quality and French ingredients. The Metro runs well, except when it doesn’t, just as it always has. The streets are still French, the buildings still French, and the people still French. But French life now includes a kind of global cosmopolitan openness it didn’t so much have before.
As well as far more bagels, donuts, cupcakes and burritos than there used to be.