The French are Smart (most of the time)

Paris, I will love you always, but you have a rival: Bordeaux. Capital of Aquitaine, a port city and Unesco heritage site, this rival for my affections has so much going for it. Where to begin? Bordeaux’s port offers a mile or more of riverfront mansions,that date to the 18th century. The beige stones of their facades are reflected in the  soft light that bounces off the  River Garonne . This thrilling run of  beautiful buildings is not interrupted by anything ugly.  This is the first smart French idea for today’s post: when you build something beautiful, don’t mess it up.

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The historic city centre resembles Paris, the Hausmannian part, with massive carved stone buildings and wide boulevards. It is all familiar to a Paris lover, in a very good way.


There is also a beautiful medieval cathedral, to rival those in Paris and Chartes.



But, while la vie Bordelaise has much in common with the good life in other French cities, they have implemented an idea that is really different and really smart. The entire city core is traffic-free. All pedestrian, no cars. It makes you feel like this.



Silent electric trams offer pedestrians an alternative to walking.



The air of Bordeaux is so clean and breathable. Without traffic,it is so much quieter than other cities. And so much more relaxing: you are strolling without having to be vigilant about cars. I have never experienced this in a city centre. Have you?

Another smart idea, this time one also adopted by Paris, the presence of public sculpture.

016d2a538c4c1dfa80aff73d4b78beaa86697ae83f_00001 This one looks much like La Bastille, no? But here’s something different:

01ee590dc595dcb73139079af0c258256373ccb08d_00001 Cool, isn’t it? If you go past on the right, you think it’s an abstract sculpture, still very nice. It’s only from this angle you see the face.

Why don’t we have public sculpture everywhere in our cities? It makes the city experience so much more vibrant and enjoyable. Here’s a modest proposal. How about we take 1% of every construction project that gets approval and put it into public art?

Okay, it’s time to stop fawning and admit that occasionally, the French go wrong. I feel that in the interest of balanced reporting I should bid Bordeaux adieu and point out a couple of things I have noticed in Paris that  don’t seem very smart to me. Here’s #1:

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PInk socks. For men. Not a good idea.

In my  first week over here I was at a dinner party of distinguished Parisians, and the 60-ish man introduced as an important art expert was wearing pink socks. Then I started seeing them in vitrines throughout the city. I personally am not ready for this. It is  not a gay thing. I can’t imagine my gay friends wearing pink socks. For example, my friend Jordan, who occasionally sports bright blue hair, would not be seen in pink socks. Neither would I. If you are older than ten years of age you should not wear pink socks.

Phew,  glad I got that off my chest. More seriously, here’s another idea that is not very good: sunbathing. No one seems to have explained to the Parisians about the dangers of sunbathing. There they are, everywhere, upturned faces, taking the rays. Sunbathing,_Paris_June_18,_2006

_40676816_paris_203longap This practice is not good and health authorities should take action to inform the public. As I’m sure these doctors will do, once they stop taking the sun.



Time to talk trash. Enough of the finer things in life that  have recently occupied our attention. When it comes down to it there are a number of things that make a city livable and Paris has got’em all. What I’m thinking of today is the sound I wake up to each morning, a “scritch-scratch” sound from down on the street. It takes a moment to orient myself, although I have already begun to dream in French. That scratching noise is what makes it so enjoyable to step out onto the sidewalk each day. It’s our green team of cleaners. They come EVERY DAY. They have extremely cute little green vehicles and matching emerald-green overalls.  They sweep, pick up cigarette butts, torn bits of paper and, yes, dog poo (so that old saw about poo everywhere in Paris is simply not true). Another team is picking up the garbage or the recycling EVERY DAY. Once it is picked up, folks whisk their garbage cans back inside, tout de suite. This town sparkles, and do I like it.


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Shop keepers do their bit and there is always someone ouside shops scrubbing. 012d7a7bb2e376cfc07c9506fcd0df195397d65e61

This enormous public work must cost a lot, but  imagine what you could do if you didn’t have to spend millions on snow clearance.  I gather that the green guys (and gals – in our old neighbourhood we had one who came to work with full makeup and stylish coiffure) are well paid because they seem so happy. They are always  chatting and joking   as they work. In some neighbourhoods they have a device that brings water up from the sewers to wash the gutter and send detritus back down again. What happens then?…. Don’t know. Hope it gets cleaned before it goes back in the Seine.

Interestingly, the French have just created a device called the ophone. This story has been big recently, so  I won’t go into detail. If you know French people, you know how driven by the olfactory sense they are. My young friend Hadrien is a great example. When you give him a gift, maybe a pair of socks or a book, he thanks you warmly and then smells it. It’s just part of his process.  So the French have created an ophone, which you can program to release scent to your correspondent. The group working on this  decided, just for the fun of it,  to create the scent of 18th c. Paris. What would THAT be? Apparently, “skunked wine, and gingivitis -tinged sputum,” amongst other things we should not mention.Today, the Paris street smell would have to be mostly soap.

I will not be visiting the sewers of Paris  – there is such a tour, over in the 7th arrondissement- but I am grateful to the role they play in this pleasant life of Paris. And I hope that no one ever texts me the scent of the 18th century.