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Parking lanes in Paris do not begin where the curb and the street meet at ninety degrees or end there, depending on your point of departure. The curb is included at least ten percent of the time, according to my informal scorekeeping, with one wheel sitting on it. Are Parisians, I wondered, not doués aux créneaux? But the puzzle, I guessed, had nothing to do with French parallel-parking skills which have always seemed pretty good and with less reliance on parking by Braille than I have seen in my American cities. Then what? All that was required to hack open the mystery and unpack its contents was a measuring tape and, good luck for me, I had one handy.
The parking lanes in Paris are narrow, 168cm (or 66 inches), with the dotted white line adding another or about five inches. (Handicapped spots get an extra 17cm or seven inches, but that’s not the story at hand.) Parisians do not, as a rule and for good reason, use the few extra inches and park on the white line. The streets, in residential neighborhoods especially, are so tight that parking that far out can cost the car’s owner a mirror or a walloping dent. Thus the desire to park as close as possible to the curb, which often means on it. The American rule that a car’s tires should be no more than a foot from the curb makes Parisians laugh, then cringe as they imagine the possibilities. They also look bewildered when I tell them that American parking lanes are nearly eight feet wide, as if to say, “Why, you could grow potatoes there.”
Parisians drive smaller cars, generally speaking, than Americans, but while cars can be shortened, there’s not much to do about the width if it’s going to carry two people side by side. Except for some of the forty-year old Fiats and Deux Chevaux, in which—at less than six feet measured on the outside—two anorexics would have trouble making out, the narrowest a car can be is just about the width of the parking lane. The popular Mini, Peugeot 307, and variants of the VW Golf are all just an inch or so less than the five and a half feet of a parking lane, and the Smart Fortwo is just a couple of inches narrower than they are. An Audi or a small Mercedes parks on the dotted line and hopes for the best—or the owner rents a garage and takes the Métro when visiting en ville.
It did not occur to me that taking a tape out of my pocket and measuring the width of cars and parking lanes was something that would cause outrage or mild panic, even though it did occur to me that being discreet—which means quick—would probably be a good idea, considering how many parisiennes evidently sit by their windows at all times of the day and night. My neighborhood proved me right, but I learned otherwise when my fieldwork took me to the Sixteenth Arrondissement.
The lesson arrived on the Avenue Montaigne, named for the writer and statesman who was best known in his own day as the great anticonformiste, a man who knew his own mind and believed in it—who, metaphorically at least, cut his own clothes and ate out of his own garden. Whether he would be honored by having a really swank shopping street named after him is dubious and of little interest anyway considering his private residence was the Château de Montaigne. But he likely would be amused to know that rich conformists—all clogging up the designer boutiques and the carefully touted restaurants on the Avenue Montaigne and in a sweat to be seen there—must probably think of him as the patron saint of all that is rare and expensively safe for them to buy or eat.
But Montaigne is beyond honor or amusement at this moment, and I am the one with the measuring tape approaching the Bentleys parked head-to-tail-to-head-to-tail like parading elephants taking five outside La Plaza Athénée. The eye tells me that the Bentleys would not fit in les places de stationnement on my street and, were one parked on either side of the street directly opposite one another, traffic would not get by. Here that is not a problem since there are two notably wide lanes in front of the hotel separated from hoi polloi traffic on the avenue by a low median strip, the kind usually reserved for protecting buses and bike riders. Some things, I suppose, only money can buy. But I wanted to know what had been bought, to the centimetre, so out comes the measuring tape and I squat down to measure the width of the car.
I’m never going to know if it was the squatting or the tape, but as soon as I was no longer visible over the Bentley, I heard shouts and very heavy footsteps coming right at me. Three car-jockeys, who looked more like car-linebackers, began clarifying their point of view—specifically, they wanted to know what the hell (or something like) I was doing, would I please stop it now, and while I was at it would I have the kindness to get lost, preferably quickly? The voituriers, all in the standard Parisian black pants and black long-sleeved shirts with their title stitched in script over where their hearts would be, were probably not going to assault me on the outside chance that I was actually a guest in the hotel or a diner in one of its restaurants, my lack of glossiness notwithstanding. But their presence was persuasive.
Maybe they thought I was going to sabotage a car—one of them had Arabic plates—by planting a bomb or just letting the air out of the tires. Explaining that a tape is simply one of the tools of my trade and that measuring the width of a car in front of a famous and famously expensive hotel has geo-sociological significance would have gone over their heads or been beneath their dignity. Pardon, messieurs, je ne voulais pas vous déranger, followed by a studied saunter away from them was a better idea. And besides, it was the truth. I did not want to annoy them. I just wanted to measure the Bentleys and the Bugatti Veyron a few spaces down.
And considering both makes are owned by Volkswagen, you might wonder at all the fuss. Well, they cost a lot more than a Jetta or a Passat and are bigger—the Bentley, I discovered elsewhere, is nearly eight feet wide and the Bugatti seven and a half, but these measurements are not the result of my fieldwork, so I can’t be sure. Giving other sources the benefit of the doubt still does not settle one last thing for me, yet another question of aching geo-sociological importance. If a Bentley came to my street in the Sixth Arrondissement and the chauffeur needed to park it, what would he do? Park by the curb and risk the ruin of his employer’s car? Or put a couple of tires, and they are wide, up on the narrow sidewalk and risk looking like un conducteur débutant, a guy with a learner’s permit? And what if the ladies with their shopping bags couldn’t get by? There’s so much to know and a measuring tape takes me only so far. Perhaps I could persuade a neighbor to buy a new car.