The Null Device

London and Paris, before and after Eurostar

An interesting piece by Financial Times writer Simon Kuper on the cultural impact of Eurostar; how the cross-channel train service between London and Paris (Brussels doesn't rate a mention) has transformed the cultures of both cities; before, things used to be much different:
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.

There are 3 comments on "London and Paris, before and after Eurostar":

Posted by: Greg Wed Jun 30 13:50:11 2010

People are *commuting* between London and Paris? That's amazing. How long is the travel time?

I took two Eurostars last year and was pretty impressed. One could certainly get work or reading done.

Imagine the impact that more and faster trains would have on Australians' thinking about place. Real-estate prices here depend almost entirely on proximity to a major CBD. I know some people commute into Sydney from regional NSW towns like Wollongong. If more people could commute from regional Victoria to Melbourne, or even Tasmania to Melbourne, it would transform real-estate. Perhaps we'd return to living in villages. Imagine country towns specialized to particular demographic types or employment classes who all commute to the city. I guess suburbs are like that already.

Posted by: acb Wed Jun 30 14:03:09 2010

London St. Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord is nominally 2:15. Some of the trains stop in Calais and Lille, and apparently there are some (undoubtedly ridiculously well-paid) professionals who live in the north of France and work in London.

One thing the TGV has done for France was to transform villages along the route (ones well away from Paris) into dormitory suburbs of Paris. Britain's railways are nowhere near as fast, but even now, real-estate developers are trying to market towns in Northamptonshire as "Londonshire". If Australia cashed in on the Chinese resource boom and invested in a HSR line from Melbourne to Sydney, I could see, say, Seymour or somewhere becoming a dormitory town of Melbourne. The Greens proposed a while ago having the line go on to Brisbane, which would turn Newcastle into a virtual suburb of Sydney. (Tasmania would have to wait until a breakthrough that makes tunnelling an order of magnitude cheaper, though.)

Posted by: Display name Thu Jul 1 10:33:16 2010

Viewed from France, Eurostar is just too expensive for 90% of the French population, espacially compared to buses or ferries.

Yet, it's amazing to see how Eurostar problems always get on top of the press titles : even if most Frenchies just don't care for rich people toys : farniente is just way cheaper and socially enjoyable

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