Last week, I returned to England for the first time since Christmas. I got the Eurostar back, and as such, went directly from central Paris to central London within the space of a couple of hours. Inevitably, this prompted my brain to make comparisons galore between the two cities/countries and I thought I’d share a few of them with you. To be taken with a pinch of salt, perhaps….
Crossing The Road
Pedestrians are apparently some kind of subspecies in the eyes of Parisian drivers. Green man? What green man?
No, it’s not that the green/red men don’t exist in France – they do, as do the standard three-colour traffic lights we use in the UK. And there most certainly is an obligation to stop at a red traffic light. And give pedestrians right of way when they’re crossing. It’s just that in Paris, no one cares. Consequentially, I have become a rather aggressive pedestrian (who knew such a thing existed?); the scowl when drivers continue on with callous disregard for the lights demanding they stop and miss walkers by inches as they cut around those crossing in the supposed-safety of the green man has now evolved into me actually turning around and throwing my hands up in the hair at the culprits, muttering expletives in both English and French about ignorance and rights of way. I probably look like a crazy lady. I don’t care. Call it Pavement Rage.
Almost needless to say, this is not a problem in the UK, Land of the Queue and Lovers of Rules & Regulations. Once upon a time, I was very wary crossing the roads in London, nervous of the looming buses and impatient taxis. Ha. This most recent trip saw me sauntering casually from one pavement to another like the whole city was a flipping pedestrianized zone. To be honest, I was probably more at risk of getting run over than I ever have been in Paris, I was so relaxed by contrast.
The Metro/Underground Experience
This isn’t a hugely enjoyable experience anywhere, particularly during rush hour, which I have become well-accustomed to on my Paris commute, but had never experienced on the other side of the Channel until last week. I have to say, crammed into the sardine-tin-on-tracks that passes for a vehicle on the Underground, I suddenly developed a new-found appreciation for Metro Line 9, which, until that moment, I had disliked rather a lot. Why do the ceilings slope like that? Who thought that was a good idea? If I, at the lofty height of 5’5” feel like some kind of giant, ducking bent-necked to lean against those standing-seat things on the Underground, clearly there are some dimensional issues at play.
Also, a little ventilation would be nice. I had forgotten just how thick the air is on the Underground. Yuck.
Ahh. British pricing. Beautiful, magnificent, glorious, cheap British pricing. I actually spent a lot more money in my five days back than I usually would have done, simply because everything cost SO much less than it would have done in Paris. I actually laughed, more than once, when presented with a bill – just because I couldn’t believe how little I was paying. Grocery shopping has been a particularly painful experience since moving – yes, the quality and variety of the food is superb, but you bloody well pay for it and my weekly shop has all but tripled in price. Minced meat is a luxury I can no longer afford. I’d probably bankrupt myself if I had to buy shampoo, conditioner and shower gel all at once.
When I first moved into my apartment here in Paris, there was some work of the scaffolding-y variety going on several streets away, which I had to pass each morning on my way to work. Unsurprisingly, there were always a number of men clad in hi-vis vests and hard hats knocking around the area. Now, please do not take this as a sign of vanity or conceit, but a vast wealth of experience had, over the years, instilled in me certain negative expectations of groups of men on the street (and especially men in hi-vis and hard hats) and as such, for a good week or two, I marched past the scaffolding with my head down and my face set, waiting for the catcalls… which didn’t come.
Pleasantly surprised, I realized I could relax and stroll past the way I would on any other part of my journey, and indeed, the only time any one of them said anything to me, it was to ask me to wait a moment whilst they lowered something down to the ground on a pulley – and then thank me and wish me a “bonne journée”. Not a leery grin in sight. And in fact, I have not been wolf-whistled at, shouted at from a car, beeped at from a car, shouted at from across the street, or otherwise heckled in any way, shape, or form since arriving in Paris over five months ago. A pity it’s something that’s even noteworthy but there you go. I got used to it very quickly – almost as if it was normal or something.
Therefore, I was most unpleasantly taken aback by the middle-aged, dentally-challenged, cockney gentleman – in hi-vis and a hard hat no less – who took it upon himself to issue a series of what I think were supposed to be complements, in a rowdy holler from the other side of a pedestrian crossing no more than a ten-minute walk from the first station I exited in London. Charming.*
Nor was this an isolated incident, by the way. I was heckled in a similar manner a total of no less than four times across the couple of hours I spent in London. At least the cuplrits stayed put this time – on my last visit to the city, I was actually chased fifty metres or so along a street in Camden by a fellow so drunk I’m genuinely surprised he hadn’t simply passed out at some earlier point. He was offended because I had ignored his loudly-slurred request for a kiss as I hurried past the pub he was staggering around outside. Clearly a mistake on my part; passed up a real keeper there. Fortunately it was only about midday and the street was full of people – so not the terrifying experience it could have been if he’d been drinking at a more, er, conventional hour.
Nearly Bumping Into People
Yes, this is a category. I’m clumsy, okay? Several times across the couple of hours I spent wandering around London last Wednesday, I either had a near-collision with a stranger on the street, or else (more often) myself and a fellow pedestrian, approaching each other from opposite directions, did that funny little dance, where you simultaneously try to move out of the other person’s way, and accidentally end up doing a couple of mirrored side-steps instead. I am pleased to report that each of these incidents was resolved exactly as it ought to have been – with polite laughter and amused eye-rolling on both sides.
Sadly, it seems Parisians are not generally entertained by such foolish antics. Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t encountered anyone getting annoyed by it either. It’s just that, once you’ve sorted yourself out and are able to proceed without walking into each other, a Parisian accidental-awkward-dance partner will generally do just that – proceed – without so much as an upwards twitch of the mouth. They won’t even catch your eye most of the time. Once or twice, someone has caught my eye and looked a little startled before returning my slight laugh with a sort of deer-caught-in-the-headlights giggle of their own. But that’s about the extent of it. Perhaps the British are such an inherently awkward nation of people that we’ve evolved to adapt to these frequent would-be-embarrassing situations without shrivelling up into a little red heap of mortification. With their inbuilt cool collectedness and laisser-faire attitudes, perhaps the French simply have no need of such mechanisms. They don’t find these situations embarrassing, so they don’t need to find them funny either. Makes sense.
But I am British, and I am awkward, and I do laugh at these encounters. So it’s nice when I’m not the only one.
In the UK, “thank you” is a perfectly acceptable response to “thank you”. Ditto for “sorry”. This is not the case in France, where’d you’d probably be looked at with some bemusement if you “merci”ed to a “merci” – and rightly so. I would hazard a guess that the same goes for the rest of the world, for that matter. Classic illogical British over-politeness. Bless us.
*At least the cars were respecting the red lights. Silver linings and all that.