Parisian Elegance, or How To Sell With Rats

Rats, caught in 1920s, and displayed in Chatelet in April 2010.

On a recent trip to Paris, my phone was stolen, depriving me not only of my photographs but also my pruneaux en armangac at Louis-Phillipe. They were exchanged for a trip to the Commissariat de la Police in the cinquiéme. As consolation my old phone yielded up this delightful proof of the enduring French art of window dressing, here alerting the passerby to the services of the local rat-catcher.

Zadig & Voltaire it may not be, but here we are decoratively and straightforwardly reminded of this most essential of services and our need for it. I missed “For the Love of God” on that trip, but this image of mortality more than made up for it.

Decoration and straightforwardness are the two qualities that I remember most from Paris. Obvious really, together they amount to elegance.

So here’s why Paris is elegant; it simply cuts the crap and stays honest. This is most obvious in the street bins. There is scarcely any litter in Paris, but there are bins aplenty. And these are plastic sacks attached to hoops with elastic. No solid container to stop them blowing the breeze, but no container for the street cleaner to wrestle with when he collects the sack. Why prettify a bin and make it more difficult to empty at the same time? Strip it down to the minimum and honestly say “We produce waste; let’s get rid of it quickly”.

Terrorism saw the bins of London and Edinburgh either sealed or removed entirely, and a rising tide of waste on the streets inevitably followed. The decision was understandable; decorated cast-iron makes for great shrapnel. Not so in Paris, where there is an honest, shrapnel-free, response to the truth that terrorism doesn’t stop shit.

It is the same French straightforwardness that is sometimes mistaken for rudeness. If a desired service is not provided, why would the merchant spend ten minutes offering unwanted alternatives. So much more elegant (and from my customer’s perspective, refreshing) to say “Non” than to flounder around offering alternatives which have not been requested. The notion that such floundering is good customer service is frankly perverse and degrading. It suggests that one of the two parties fails to understand the common language. At best, it says that the would-be provider thinks his potential customer’s time is of such little consequence that it can wasted in the pursuit of things neither asked for nor wanted.

And time brings us to those other aspects of Parisian elegance: speed and walking. Make no mistake: the two are entirely separate. Everything has its place, and if you want fast, there’s the Metro and RER. The rest of the time take a walk which is good for both body and soul. And because this is Paris, it is remembered that buildings are not invisible so no carbuncles to offend the eyes are permitted, no wilderness which turns out to be an enormous traffic island. Such would only mar a good walsk and my thesis that from elegance comes elegance. But all this comes from the honest admission that cities are for living in and that no-one wants to live in their car, on the Metro, indeed, in transit of any form, so the distasteful business of going from A to B must be dealt with as quickly as possible so that life may be enjoyed at A or B.

Ideally, of course, one would walk from A to B, and a current public health campaign urges the French to do just that. A women of a svelte form beams from the street in which she was presumably walking until stopped by the photographer. Destinations, a mere 10 minutes distant, are suggested: a café, the épicerie, the boulangerie. In fact, the entire campaign may in fact be summarized as bouger pour manger, or exercise to eat. Nicole is suggested, but I presume she could be met halfway for a coffee.

Such a form of exercise is possible in Paris where the épicier and boulanger continue to thrive alongside the supermarkets, not least because they close at two and reopen in the evening to catch people returning from work. Through this simple difference an entire class of business thrives and makes possible an evening walk to get les carrottes rapées or even a florentin. As I say, elegance comes from elegance.

Of course, if one wants further proof that speed can co-exist with a leisurely pace and exercise with good food, one need only go to the market at La Motte-Piquet-Grenelle, held every Wednesday and Sunday. Here the Metro line is elevated and under it shelters half a kilometre of market stalls, all the way to the next stop at Dupleix. Another list of food is not needed but – chêvre cindré. But how simple, how elegant! The city needs too eat, the city needs to move. The latter can shelter the former. And the stroll through the market, unlike the dash through the supermarket, finds a very comfortable position between exercise and the catwalk, that is if they sold pig cheek on the Faubourg Saint-Honoré.

This is not the only market in Paris, but one of many. It just happened to be mine. I passed another on my visit to the Commissariat. It was next to the boulevard Saint-Germaine, and yet the traffic on that road and on the rue Monge, both major thoroughfares, continued; nevertheless, the city must eat, and the city must exercise, and the city must relax so let the city walk to its market. C’est simple!

And having honestly admitted these needs and proposed such elegant solutions as the streetmarket and the elasticated bin strap, the elegant person will have to admit that streetmarkets are not without detritus, that bags split, and that rats breed. But, being in Paris, the elegant person only need take a walk to find the efficient solution. It’s well advertised.

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