TALES OF TWO CITIES
I started the series “City of Light” to record many of our experiences during our recent two and a half week vacation in Paris. My posts were full of excitement, enthusiasm and enjoyment for the fabulous places and wonderful times we had. The second series “San Francisco, Paris of the West” attempted to parallel the first, detailing outstanding experiences to be had in San Francisco, explicitly comparing our home town with Paris in a somewhat derivative, travelog style. The first series was enlivened by my personal experiences on holiday, while the second series was often confined by my personal history with the places and events where I live. So, lets begin this final compare and contrast with:
ARRONDISSEMENTS VS NEIGHBORHOODS
It’s apples versus oranges. Arrondissements in Paris (arrondissements municipaux, administrative districts) are not the same as neighborhoods in San Francisco. When we vacationed in the 14th Arrondissement at various times, we experienced several distinct neighborhoods within the 14th; the upper, middle and lower, all three exhibiting different architectures, residential characters, levels of commercial activity, etc. Sometimes a neighborhood, such as the Montparnasse, spans more than one Arrondissement (14th & 6th). San Francisco neighborhoods are more homogeneous, more geographically contained, easier to characterize, and San Francisco neighborhoods are a part of, or span governmental Districts. In San Francisco, for instance, Chinatown, a neighborhood, is in District 3, but spills over into 2. I take the neighborhoods of San Francisco more or less for granted, having lived here for so many years. This faulty comparison fallacy began when I used, as a basis, arrondissments in “City of Light” and neighborhoods in “San Francisco, Paris of the West.”
PARIS: REMINISCENCE AND LONGING
With this recent vacation, I’d been to Paris three times. My wife had been there four. We’ve shopped on rue Cler, avoided the pickpockets to marvel in the gloom of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris (6 Parvis Notre-Dame), visited Le Halles, above ground and below, wandered about the startling architecture in Parc de la Villette (211 Avenue Jean Jaurès), took the barge up the Canal Saint-Martin along the Quai de Valmy, first underground and then open air, caught the remnants of Paris 1968 left in Butte-aux-Cailles, climbed to the Basilique du Sacré Cœur (35 Rue du Chevalier de la Barre), then wandered the surrounding environs, and many more experiences. Yet, we can never get enough of Paris, nor have we seen everything the City of Light has to offer. Still on our wish list: the Opéra de Paris housed in the Palais Garnier for either a tour or a performance, the Musée Marmottan Monet, the neighborhood/village of Saint-Paul, the Musée d’art et d’histoire du judaïsme, the Marché aux Puces St-Ouen de Clignancourt, etc. There’s always something more to see and do in Paris.
The Paris Metro is the 8th wonder of the world, as far as I’m concerned. You can get almost anywhere you want in the city by using the underground metropolitan system. Sure, its crowded, some parts of it are old and decaying, other parts of it are plagued with pickpockets and crime, and the whole of it is not at all handicap friendly. But its still one of best municipal subway systems in the world. The underground musicians are often a delight, and it can be enchanting to hear music waft through the metro tunnels as you rush to meet your train. And there’s rarely more than a 2 to 3 minute delay between trains during normal operating hours. So what if it occasionally takes 3 lines to get to your destination. My love for the Paris Metro is on a par with my affection for the NYC subway system.
That Parisians are rude is a complete myth. Given our accumulated times respectively in Paris—over three months for my wife and over two months for myself—we have never encountered a rude Parisian. A clerk or waiter or worker occasionally can be harried or distant or unresponsive, but rude? We haven’t experienced it. As for the ordinary Parisian on the street, and aside from dodging them walking on the sidewalks, we’ve never had to deal with rudeness. Parisians in particular, and the French in general are exceedingly polite and formal. Once you address them properly (“Bonjour monsieur,” or “Bonjour madame”), and make some minimal attempt at the social niceties (“merci” for “thank you” and “excusez-moi” (“excuse me”) madame or monsieur), the average Parisian is more than willing to help you out. Throw in some self conscious attempts at speaking their language (“Je suis américain(e)” or “Je suis désolé, je ne parle pas français”) and cap it off with “au revoir” (“goodbye”) or “bonne journée” (“have a nice day”), you can get along just fine in most situations. However, if you ignore even these basic formalities and come off as a typical American, grinning from ear-to-ear, demanding information or service or attention, you’ll get what you deserve. My wife and I had exited the Cartier-Bresson Foundation on our first vacation along Impasse Lebouis and rue Lebouis, eventually walking up allies and along a strip of boutique shops to reach rue Jean Zay. A little lost, we flipped through our Paris Pratique to find Avenue du Maine and transportation to our next destination. A Parisian man came up to us, unbidden, and after the appropriate introductions, asked us where we wanted to go. He spent five minutes giving us directions, pointing out the correct, if distant bus stops to take, and bid us goodbye. We walked away hesitantly, still not clear about his directions or the route to take, given the difficulties in language and translation. Suddenly, he was by our side again, and again after the proper introductions, he said that his wife had told him he had better show us what to do. At which time, he took us over to the right bus stop, pointed out the right line to take, and then again bid us adieu. This happened more times than we could count while we vacationed in Paris.
SAN FRANCISCO: FAMILIARITY AND DISAPPOINTMENT
I’ve lived in the Bay Area for twenty-three years, and in San Francisco proper for nearly fourteen years. My familiarity with San Francisco and its surrounding communities, while not breeding contempt, has no doubt made me jaded with respect to the available attractions and activities. In a previous part of this series, I noted the differences in area and population between Paris and San Francisco. Compared with the urban concentration that is Paris, San Francisco is positively rural, an impression compounded by the infusion of nature throughout the city. From the beaches to the west of the Golden Gate Bridge to Crissy Field to the east, from the manicured expanse and many attractions of Golden Gate Park to the City’s rambling neighborhood parks, some of which I reviewed in this series, San Francisco has an airy, wide open feel to it. Throw in the numerous tourist attractions—Coit Tower (1 Telegraph Hill Blvd), the iconic cable cars, the Victorian “painted ladies” on Alamo Square, the cultural institution that is City Lights bookstore (261 Columbus Avenue)—and San Francisco’s quotient for charming, quaint and enchanting is extremely high. Having lived all these years in this city, I still haven’t seen and done all that I’ve wanted—actually walked the Golden Gate Bridge, shopped in China Town, climbed the Moraga Street tile mosaic stairs between 16th and 17th Avenue, explored the new, improved Presidio, etc. So much more to see and do before I die.
What’s so great about San Francisco is the temperate climate. No sweltering summers that force half the population to leave and old people to die, and no winters with sleet and snow to brave. Its pretty much good weather all year long here, thanks to being surrounded by water. My wife and I live east of Twin Peaks and we are treated to the City’s natural air conditioning, fog pouring over Twin Peaks to moderate the weather. The neighborhood microclimates are well known, yet the overall mildness of the weather is a feature that promotes casual walking by residents as well as year-round tourism. Being homeless, not a pleasant prospect anywhere, is mitigated by being able to hang out outdoors and live rough in this city. September/October is the best time to visit Paris (or for that matter, New York City). In San Francisco, its positively gorgeous.
One thing that I’m disappointed about with respect to San Francisco is the overall attitude of the people who live here. There’s an aloofness, a sense that people here just can’t be bothered. I wrote above discounting the myth that Parisians are rude. Now, having visited New York City off and on for the past thirty odd years, I know what rudeness is. There’s no mistaking the “go fuck yourself” temperament that’s part and parcel of your average New Yorker. San Franciscans are so self-contained, no, self-absorbed, so as to be detached from their fellow human beings. The proliferation of hipsters (who squat every available coffee shop seat) and the influx of techies into the City (who drive to and from work in their private, air conditioned Google or Genentech buses) has only made things worse. Say what you will about your average Parisian (or New Yorker), they aren’t detached from their surroundings or other people. Take your “individual looking at a map” test, not as some “thought experiment” but as a real life exercise. I described what occurred when my wife and I stood around a Paris intersection looking at our map. This happened to me many times when I was a tourist in New York, looked lost, and consulted my map. Invariably, some New Yorker would come up and ask “where do want to go?” perhaps not out of pure friendliness so much as an attitude that said “hey, I know this city like the back of my hand.” When I visited San Francisco as a tourist, but before I’d actually lived in the Bay Area, I would walk around different parts of the City, often checking out my map for where to go and how to get there. This happened on numerous occasions, but no one approached me to ask “where do you want to go?” Then, one time, when I was befuddled and staring at my map somewhere in the heart of San Francisco’s financial district a man came up to me and said, in a perfect Brooklyn accent, “so, where do you want to go?” Enough said.
LOVE: OLD AND NEW
This concludes my two series—”City of Light” and “San Francisco, Paris of the West”—on the only theme that remains appropriate to the subject. Love. Love for Paris and love for San Francisco. Thanks for following this blog.