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Modes de Navigation 27/03/2010

Posted by brendan in La Vie en Paris, Leçons Culturelles.
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Place Denfert-Rochereau

Nothing exposes tourists like hesitation on corners. The entire native population of Paris is genetically hardwired to safely navigate intersections, roundabouts and narrow one-way streets. There is a plane of consciousness from which I am disconnected. Little old ladies bravely venture forth to confront speeding cars while I stand patiently, and foolishly, waiting.

Traffic lights adorn major avenues but otherwise there are no observable signs. Certain streets have the right of way and drivers magically know which they are on. Everyone drives fast, but then stop on a dime when a little old lady decides to cross. My standing on the corner frequently frustrates this entire transportation system.

Scooters are more manic. They hop curbs, zip down sidewalks, run the wrong way or slowly creep behind you while looking for an open parking spot. The legions of mopeds take the place of every self-centered, smug and self-righteous San Francisco bicyclist except without actually being insufferable.

Between the lack of posted rules and six lane roundabouts, pedal to the metal maniacs and wrong way riders you would imagine the streets of Paris to be littered with casualties. I have observed, in six months, exactly one collision which took place at a stop light, involved very low speeds, and resulted in absolutely no vehicular damage or human injury.

Pedestrians are similarly in-tune with one another. The Parisian populace is at its peak when packed into the winding corridors of métro stations. Roaring over stairs and down hallways, spilling out onto platforms and flowing into trains each individual navigates their trajectory with grace and ease. A finely greased wheel of efficiency and speed, polite when necessary but rarely is it necessary. Suitcase lugging tourists cause more disruptions than rush hour crowds.

Another World

Busy streets replicate the underground’s success. Narrow sidewalks host a ballet of careful gains, tight maneuvers and acrobatic agility. There is no posturing– everyone ducks a shoulder and squeezes against their friends or a wall to maximize passage. But instead of two million people acquiescing it’s the result of two million people absolutely convinced that they have the right of way and will get to where they are going. I am the only person who has to stop behind an elderly couple dragging their sweater-wearing dog because I did not position myself well enough to circumvent them and the column of approaching people.

However the system collapses during off-hours. Nothing is more distracting to a pair of unoccupied French eyes than a window display. This can be a pharmacy carrying the same collection of lotions as the three other pharmacies within a block, this can be a real estate agency hawking ridiculously expensive flats no one can afford. It takes very little to monkeywrench the gears of a pedestrian and, once snagged, they will stop dead in their tracks.

The second most common form of traffic breakdown is conversation. If two people are walking along the sidewalk it is guaranteed that at some point when it is least opportune they will stop in the middle of everyone’s way to engage in conversation. It doesn’t matter if they were engaged in conversation prior to stopping, they will have to stop to continue a portion of whatever is being discussed. This is not true of crowds attached to cafés, bistros or bars. The French love standing outside buildings, talking and waving their drinks and cigarettes around. However they are all acutely aware of pedestrians competing for concrete and will invariable adjust to allow passage. It is only when two French were previously walking that they will stop and become lost in their own world, or lost in the exact assortment of bric-a-brac displayed in the same store every day for the past six months.

One major exception to the rule is children. The scions of Paris are some of the most spoiled and coddled brats on Earth. Concepts such as discipline and responsibility are not part of the childcare program. Little kids recklessly ride razors forcing everyone out of their path. The supermarkets are crowded with rugrats oblivious to anyone over three feet tall. There is no reeling in, yelling to behave, moves to correct bad behavior. Proud parents completely ignore abuses by their offspring, content that one day the department of education will break children and fine tune their navigational systems.

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