We like to say that some things are unimaginable, incomprehensible to the human mind, even unspeakable. But then we manage to conjure up—and not only in our minds—avocado ice-cream, a book written without using the letter e, or genocide. Ecclesiastes was surely right: there is nothing, no matter how absurd, vile, or unnecessary, that has not been or, given human imagination, will not be some day.
But there is an exception. Can anyone imagine the RATP coming up with a slogan for the Paris Métro? Why? And what would it be? Unimaginable. The subway takes you from here to there, and everybody knows it. This clear and distinct French logic is lost on the managers of the subway in Washington who have decided that their Metro (without the é) needs a slogan. So they have come up with “Metro Opens Doors.” (They like it so much that the slogan will take you, if you want to go there, to their website, metroopensdoors.com.) It is utterly meaningless—or so I thought. But there is a meaning there and it highlights a difference between Paris and the District of Columbia, maybe even France and America.
When a Washington Metro arrives at the station, the train operator opens the doors on the platform side—all of them—so Metro really does open doors. When the Métro arrives at a quai, the passengers open the doors themselves, and only doors with someone wanting to get on or off get opened. Moreover, the passengers on the train can open the doors while the train is still moving. The Washington trains cannot move with an open door. Given the American habit of suing everybody for anything, this may make legal sense. But it points to something more interesting—the two societies coddle their citizens in very different ways.
The Frenchman knows that his job requires fairly short hours and is guaranteed for life, that children will have free day care and a university education, that retirement comes early and with a generous pension, that health care is on the house, the price of a baguette or a coffee at the counter is fixed: talk about opening doors for you. But L’État doesn’t mind if you want to open the door of the Métro while it’s still moving, figuring you know enough not to break your neck—or, worse, sue for an injury you brought on yourself.
Americans are on their own for day care, higher education, retirement (Social Security provides a fraction of what anyone needs to live, and that was always its intention), and all the other things the French pay taxes for. No coddling there for a nation of rugged individualists. But the state, or at least the transit agency, will tell you exactly how and when to get off the train. Which door would you rather have opened for you, France’s or America’s?
I can make the argument that neither form of coddling is right or at least is working. French labor policy, to use just one example, is becoming an anchor tied around the ankles of the French economy. The American habit of protecting us from ourselves is turning Americans into a nation of infants who expect to be told how to behave and, like little children, resent the nanny and her rules.
The French may have a slight advantage—and I’m not referring to the welfare state. Crosswalks illustrate my point. In Paris and Washington, pedestrians are told to cross at the zebra stripes, and sometimes they do. But the French coddling—or efforts at public safety—actually make sense. Parisian crosswalks are not right at the corner or intersection like those in Washington, but set back, perhaps as much as five metres in some cases. If I have to be coddled or play by the rules, I’ll take the French version.
Moving the crosswalk away from the corner gives the would-be street-crosser a better chance of being seen and not being hit by a driver. Given my expansive and carefree approach to crossing city streets, this is no small thing, but I’m pretty sure I could survive without it. I have in both cities and others, after all.
Any advantage to one city or the other is, finally, small. States by nature make us do certain things and leave us to figure out others on our own hook. The distinctions are no less obvious (or in some cases less pleasing) than the differences in cooking or the style in which it is possible to live our lives. I prefer the Paris subway and cuisine on the one hand, but—on the oft-cited other hand—like Washington’s entrepreneurialism and comparative scarcity of red tape more.
It is impossible to combine the two, I think, and that’s a shame. The differences remain. But the differences are a very good reason to go back and forth between Paris and Washington, to enjoy the pleasures of one while escaping the annoyances of the other. And then repeat the pleasure on the other side.
© Joseph Lestrange