09 September 2007

Back on the street again

After our quick but very pleasant walk through the courtyards and gardens at Fontainebleau, we got on the freeway (l'autoroute) in my friends' rented VW Passat and zoomed up toward Paris. Evelyn and her group were headed out to Charles de Gaulle airport to spend the night in a hotel before flying back to the U.S. the next day. I was going into Paris to see friends.

Le Boulevard Périphérique à la Porte d'Italie à Paris

The whole trip made me realize again how different my life is now. In California, I had a VW Passat. It was a fast, smooth-riding, spacious car, so unlike the little Peugeot 206 runabout I have now. I zoomed up and down the freeways to work and back four or five days a week. I sometimes felt like I lived in my car — it was a living room on wheels.

Being on the crowded motorways (to use the British term) that lead into Paris now startles me just slightly, since we have no such roads and no such traffic within miles of Saint-Aignan. Instead of zooming up the freeway, I stroll up the gravel road through the vineyard with the dog, enjoying the peace and quiet, the solitude, the greenery.

The Porte d'Italie station on the new light-rail line
along the south side of Paris

As we approached Paris, I showed Evelyn's husband where to exit the highway and crossed my fingers that there would be an easy way for my friends to get back on the ring road — le boulevard périphérique — so they would have no difficulty getting to the airport.

And it did turn out to be easy. A big piece of construction equipment had been parked at the curb on a wide street near the Porte d'Italie, one of the main access roads into Paris. I don't think it was a legal parking area, but we were able to stop the car right behind the big machine for a few minutes without impeding the flow of traffic. I got my bag out of the trunk and we said our good-byes. Evelyn took the wheel and I watched as the silver VW disappeared down a ramp and blended into the confusion of cars on the highway below.

I suppose I could have rented one of the bicycles
scattered around Paris at Vélib' stations like this one.
It would have been an easy ride across the city.

And there I was in Paris on foot. I considered taking the new tramway over to the other side of the city, where I could transfer to a subway that would take me to CHM's neighborhood. Then I looked at a subway map posted at the tram stop and realized that I could easily walk a block to a subway entrance, make one quick change, and then go directly to the subway stop that is nearest CHM's building. I did that.

Modern Paris manifests itself at the Porte d'Italie.

Walking the streets of Paris and riding the métro makes me feel free. I can go anywhere I want in Paris — the city is a world unto itself — without being tied to the ton of sheet metal, pistons, and gears that is an automobile. I don't have to worry about traffic or parking. I'm out in the air, or down in those long subway tunnels, among the people — not cooped up the way you are in a car.

Isn't this a funny name for a bakery? The word stop
is used as a noun, not a verb, and pain
in French
means bread, not discomfort. It's the Bread Stop.
The name works in either language though.

You see things differently when you are on foot. I think a lot of us have forgotten what it is like to be outside, on the streets, in a city where you feel safe and free. We are used to zooming around in a ton of steel or sitting patiently in traffic jams. Or walking through parking lots. Or being inside a mall.

Newspapers, magazines, postcards, and subway tickets —
a Paris street scene

When I lived in San Francisco and commuted to a job in Silicon Valley, my feet never really touched the ground. I came to that realization one day. Mornings, I would walk down the stairs from my living room into the garage below, get in my car, press the button on the genie to open the garage door, and drive 30 or 40 or even 50 miles to my office.

There, I would park close to the front door of the office building and walk 20 or 30 steps on the asphalt of the parking lot. The only walking I ever had to do seemed to be in parking lots. What a life!


  1. Paris and NYC are great walking cities. The Passat is a large powerful car, but I prefer the smaller hybrids that we drive here in the states.

    We saw lots of folks using those new bikes. We thought about trying them out, but thought that might be risky business.

  2. The only reason I have a car is that I want my daughter to keep practising on driving, and she can't afford a car at the moment. I never drive around Paris; I walk as much as I can. I have a Navigo pass, which allows me to take the bus or the métro as much as I like.
    Getting from one point to another in Paris is just so easy when you don't have to drive.
    As for the velib, it's all very nice in August, when the cars ar away, but in the winter, I think riding a bike in Paris is really dangerous.


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