Until the 1990s, To Britons Paris seemed almost as exotic as Jakarta, and more so than Sydney or San Francisco. There was that famous smell of the French Métro, the mix of perfume and Gauloises cigarettes. There was the bizarre sight of people drinking wine on pavements. There was all that philosophy. The exoticism of Paris became such a staple of English-language writing that comedians began to parody it. “I come upon a man at an outdoor café,” writes Woody Allen. “It is André Malraux. Oddly, he thinks that I am André Malraux.”
Those first trains connected two fairly insular cities. I had returned to Britain from Boston the summer before the Eurostar was launched, and after the Technicolor US, I was shocked by dingy London. Tired people in grey clothes waited eternities on packed platforms for 1950s Tube trains. Coffee was an exotic drink that barely existed, like ambrosia. Having a meal outside was illegal. The city centre was uninhabited, and closed at 11pm anyway. Air travel was heavily regulated, and so flying to Paris was expensive. Going by ferry took a whole miserable day. If you did get across, and only spoke the bad French most of us learnt at school, it was hard to communicate with any natives.Now, London and Paris have converged somewhat; London has shaken off some of its Anglo-Saxon austerity and embraced a more Continental lifestyle, with outdoor bdining, late-closing bars and gourmet food markets, and even got a taste for French-style grands projets, not least of all St. Pancras International, the Eurostar terminus. (As for coffee, I can only imagine that, before 1994 or so, anyone requesting coffee rather than tea would be met with a mug of Nescafé Blend 43 or similar.) Meanwhile, Paris has shed some of its Gallic hauteur and become more London-like:
But with the inventions of the internet and Eurostar, and globalisation in general, many Parisians began to see that there was a wonderful new life to be seized if you spoke English. Paris could choose to become an inhabited museum, a sort of chilly Rome, but if it wanted to remain in touch with the latest ideas, the Parisian establishment would have to learn English. By and large, the younger members did. The canard that Parisians refuse to speak English is a decade out of date. As I write, every car on the street outside my office is festooned with a flyer for English lessons for children. Parisian parents are now so keen to induct their toddlers into the global language that speaking English has become a weapon for us Anglophone parents in the battle for a spot in a crèche.Of course, some differences remain (French children are apparently quieter and cleaner than the mowfy brats of Britain, while Britons dress more colourfully, in "weird youth-culture outfits"), but they're becoming less distinct, as more people commute or travel between the two cities. (London is apparently now, by population, the sixth-largest French city.)
Kuper goes on to describe a bright future for western Europe, largely due to its compact geography, further amplified by the promise of high-speed rail. Indeed, shiny, aerodynamic high-speed trains seem to be the unchallenged future of travel, with air travel, that darling of the 1990s, looking a bit shabby, between rising oil prices, the Long Siege and things like the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud.
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