11/17/2013

Travel Diaries: Paris II

Here are some more entries from my Paris travel diaries.


Sinking Feeling

The French have long been known for their ability to provide beautiful, convenient, and functional plumbing fixtures. What the Romans did for highway traffic, the French have done for bodily functions.

Here you can see the second sink in my hotel bathroom (Fr: salle de bain, or room of bath, a more proper way of saying it than the coarse English version). At first, I was confused not only that there was a second sink, since I typically only use one at a time, but also that it was positioned so low, making it impractical for washing my face or hands or anything else I tried the first few times.

Then I realized that it was a convenience for allowing inhabitants to use the sink that is the most appropriate for their situation. In particular, I found this sink, positioned right next to the toilet (Fr: toilette), to be extremely convenient for brushing my teeth while I was engaged in the use of that neighboring toilet. Sure, the other sink worked well enough and a second one was not strictly necessary, but it was truly a luxury experience to always have a sink nearby whenever I needed one.

By the way, "convenience" is so inherent to the French approach to bathroom fixtures that it is obvious from the language itself: the word convenience in French is commodité, which is derived from the word commode, from which we also get the English synonym for toilet. Voilà.






Keeping the Paix


The street of my hotel (or hôtel, en français) is Rue de la Paix (translation: rue of the paix) is so affluent that people commonly leave money lying about, like the 10 Euro (translation: Euro) note seen here. (Note: As of the time this was written, the exchange rate for 10 Euros is roughly equal to ten Euros).

To some extent, this occurrence happens because it is simply too costly for these wealthy people to bend down and pick it up; the massage and chiropractic fees incurred alone would make that money irrelevant. But more importantly, dropping money is just another step in a long journey of charity that the French people have practiced since the early Gaulois (translation: the Gauls) first allowed Caesar to enter their country and partake of their resources and people 2100+ years ago.

Later developments reinforced this attitude, as the French nobility, in 1789, kindly stepped down from the government and out of their large country estates, in order to disburse their wealth to people that were more needy, more numerous, and much better armed.

In fact, the neighborhood in which I ran across this demonstration of social welfare is named for this attribute. Paix of course means peace, but is in fact a complex and subtle play on words, connoting also the many "pieces" of money that needy citizens will find there on any given day, and of course the English word pay.

I was so overcome by the generosity of the wealthy pedestrian that left this gift that I had to pause, take this picture, and then take the money to go buy half a croissant at a local café.


Cross Purposes

Interesting fact: "Walk" signal buttons at intersections in Paris are intended only for disabled people, or people with long white sticks, as seen in this photo from a Paris intersection. This dynamic initially caused me some surprise (Fr: surprise), because with the level of traffic and pedestrians in that city, it seems quite dangerous to discourage others from using these buttons and instead make them cross the streets at their own risk.

But then it dawned on me (Fr: moi); the traffic engineers are simply optimizing for the most common case. That is, rather than making signs and signals for everyone, and potentially confusing everyone in the attempt, they have targeted them at the audience that they know needs them the most. More importantly, they know that everyone else will eventually become disabled, probably soon if they continue trying to cross Parisian (Fr: Parisien) streets without a Walk signal.

Those French engineers think of everything!




Clean Slate

One things that's always impressed me about the French is their fastidiousness. They simply cannot tolerate mess of any kind, and will go out of their way to ensure that things (Fr: choses) are as clean (Fr: propre) as possible at all times.

This is evident from the attached picture, taken of the bath/shower in my hotel room in Paris. If you look closely, you can see that the shower curtain barely meets the edge of the bath. At first, I thought this was a design flaw, because I'm used to more primitive cultures where the shower curtain far surpasses the edge of the shower. Often, there is even a complete door (Fr: porte), sometimes with a rubber gasket which completely prevents the water from leaking out of the shower basin.

But I finally understood the cleverness of this French design (Fr: conception) when stepping out of my shower one morning into a standing puddle of water in the bathroom: it's about cleanliness.

How many times have you watched the dust balls roll around on the bathroom floor, or wished you still had the flexibility of your youth to bend down and pick up that hair ball the size of a small dog? This frustrating situation didn't happen to me once in my entire time in Paris (Fr: Paris), because of this sophisticated shower curtain system. The daily flooding of the bathroom floor meant that dust, dirt, and dry clothing stood no chance against the cleansing power of fresh, slightly soapy water cascading from the shower into the rest of the room.

In fact, this somewhat obvious (now that I finally understand it) fact can be seen in the French language itself. The translation of "bathroom", salle de bain, starts with the word salle, which is a variation of the word sale, meaning "dirty." Thus the French phrase for "bathroom" means, literally, "dirty room," and the most important feature of any such place would obviously be a way to keep that room clean. It is, after all, fitting and propre.
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