Thursday, January 26, 2006

Paris Metro - Romance and good advice

Romance of the Metro

Abbesses, photo by Ted Welch

More reminders of Paris ! While driving back from shopping this afternoon, I turned on the radio and on BBC Radio 4 a story was being read: "Channel 17". I was about to switch it off as I found the middle-class tones and attitudes a bit irritating. But then I realised that it was set in Paris, and the narrator said what I had thought while there, i.e. the names of many of the Metro stations sound so evocative and Romantic: Barbes Rochechouart; Sevres-Babylone; Arts et Metiers; Michel-Ange Auteuil; Porte des Lilas; etc. Somehow London tube station names don't tend to have the same ring: Bank; Wapping; Euston; Holborn; Goodge Street, etc.

An efficient system too

Not only is it Romantic, but it's a very efficient system, here's praise from Jim, an American, and advice, particularly for his fellow Americans:

Using Paris's great public transit system

"The Bottom Line You will go crazy driving a car in Paris. Avoid traffic vortices and motorist's madness by riding one of the world's best public transit systems. Millions do it every day.

For many Americans, a typical vacation consists of flying somewhere, picking up a rental car at the airport, and using it as the basic means of local transportation. If you value your sanity, you must not do this when you visit Paris. As a typical American driver, you'll be way out of your league [unless your name is Jason Bourne, see my blog entry on The Bourne Identity]. You'll face excellent but impatient and aggressive drivers, many narrow and one-way streets, streets whose names change every half mile, tiny and dim traffic lights and nearly invisible street name signs, few lane markings, chaotic traffic circles, bizarre "traffic vortices" that seem to make it impossible for you to reach your destination even when you know exactly how to get there, and a dearth of parking among the worst in the world.

You could take taxis everywhere, but they're relatively expensive, not always easy to come by, and you wouldn't get to mix with Parisians and other tourists.


Fortunately, Paris has one of the world's best urban and regional transportation systems, and it's managed by an organization called RATP (English speakers often find this amusing, but the French pronounce it uh-rah-tay-pay). RATP (you can call it "rat pee") runs an extensive, highly integrated, and efficient network of metro (M) lines (this is a subway or underground system), city center to suburb rail lines (RER), daytime and evening buses (BUS), late night busses (Noctambus), trams (T), buses to de Gaulle and Orly airports, a funicular on Montparnasse, and a few other specialized services.

Using this system, you can go just about anywhere you choose in Paris proper or the Ile-de-France region.

Don't be Alarmed, But...

There are pickpockets in the metro, as well as around every significant tourist destination. I have been pickpocketed myself, brought down by professional predators like an antelope on the Sarengeti, as my partner put it, but I'll never stop riding the metro. Stay alert, watch your companion's back, keep your true valuables under your clothes, not in your pockets. You are most vulnerable when you are tired, as when you first arrive and are lugging your suitcases. Beware of anyone trying to distract you, as by dropping something on or near you. That's it. You may be pickpocketed in the Paris metro, but you won't be knifed or shot. That's the good news."

The page has lots of useful advice about the Metro, buses, etc. and Jim has also provided some other very useful pages of advice linked from this page:

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Science, hope and a long, connected life

Last night there was the first of a new BBC series examining alternative medicine. The first programme was about acupuncture and was a model of intelligent programme making; not only was the presenter attractive (always a plus), she was intelligent and informed: Kathy Sykes, a professor of physics, no less. The programme had drama, e.g. open-heart surgery with the patient conscious and anaesthetised by acupuncture. It was also a very good demonstration of the scientific method and the importance of keeping an open mind, but also examining things critically.

"There’s magic, mystery and the healing power of hope. Then there’s science. And never the twain shall meet, unless you’re Professor Kathy Sykes, whose odyssey through the controversial world of complementary medicine has converted her to the cause at a crucial point in her life.

Sykes is best known as the glamorous face of physics on BBC Two’s Rough Science, performing scratch experiments in far-off rugged zones such as Death Valley, Arizona. But she has ventured on to rockier ground for her new BBC television series Alternative Medicine: The Evidence, which explores the scientific no-man’s land between mainstream medicine and three popular but oft-derided therapies: spiritual healing, acupuncture and herbalism."

The programme on acupuncture brought together this 2,000 year old therapy, and the very latest scanner, which showed that the with genuine acupuncture the pain area of the brain is "deactivated."

"more space in my life, to be and breathe, rather than just to do"

The Paris connection - for me - comes from what she had to say about the effect of making the programmes on her own life; a Chinese doctor had told her that she thinks to much - i.e. is a bit of a workaholic, which she admits. Thus it connects with why I want to live in France, in a more sybaritic way, probably Paris for a while at least:

'... her most recent encounter with mainstream medicine, witnessing her father’s progress through the system, reinforced her conviction about the crucial role that hope plays in health. “Early on, one doctor said to him: ‘Three things could happen: you can stay the same, you can get better or you can get worse.’ My heart sank. Researching the series changed the way that I approached his illness.

“Before Dad started chemotherapy, we thought he was going to die. He didn’t have any hope. Then finally there was a diagnosis and the chemo began. Gradually, over weeks, he has got stronger. It was like a miracle that he had come back to us. He has his hope back, he’s in a wheelchair and he can write.”

Sykes is careful to leaven her enthusiasm with a spot of objectivity, adding: “It’s possible that he would have recovered like that anyway, but having the programme side-by-side with the value of hope has had a real influence on me.”

That influence extends to convincing her to change her own approach to life. She’s a slinky 39 but also a classic, quivering over-achiever. "I’m a sickly thing. I eat loads of fruit and veg and I love good food, but I work my socks off and then I get ill. I’ve known for years that I was not living in a sustainable way but recently I have tried to do something about it. I decided to spend half an hour doing nothing every day, just letting my thoughts drift. It’s where the creativity is. So this series has come at a good time. I’m going to carry on trying to make more space in my life, to be and breathe, rather than just to do." ',,8125-2000371,00.html

So often it takes something like the loss or near loss of someone close to remind us to look up from the daily grind and ask ourselves what is really important to us. I was lucky (as she is) to have work which I loved doing and know was worthwhile; but it did get a bit obsessive. Fortunately I was able to take advantage of the long holidays, which is harder for academics to do these days.

Paris showed me that in the right place I could have a much fuller, more satisfying life, where days did not slip by as one watched TV. Of course it was partly because it was novel, but it was so much easier to make new social connections there, which scientific research shows is likely to lead not just to a better life, but also a longer one:

Connected People Live Longer

"A massive study of 4,725 randomly selected residents of Alameda County in California found that those with the fewest close friends, relatives and social connections had mortality rates that were two to three times higher than those with high levels of social connectedness. Also, life expectancy tables show a difference of nine years between people with very poor social connections and those with very good ones."

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Paris: Romantics/Bourne Identity

Reminders of Paris on TV in one night: "The Romantics" and "The Bourne Identity", interestingly linked by that dominant idea in modern culture, individualism, as well as the individual's opposition to oppressive sytems. It's good to see this emphasis on themes I used to focus on in my lectures.

The Romantics
Sat 21 Jan

"David Tennant, David Threlfall and Dudley Sutton feature in the cast for this new series written and presented by acclaimed novelist and biographer Peter Ackroyd. The English Romantic poets from Blake, through to Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron and Keats were at the forefront of a movement between 1760 and 1830 which would re-draw the political map of Europe and North America, expand the limits of the human imagination and radically impact the way people see the world today.

Episode one [ much of it set in Paris] charts the development of the French Revolution and the birth of the individual in modern society.
The French philosopher Denis Diderot, played by Jason Watkins, insisted that men must reason for themselves. His friend, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, played by David Tennant, said that civilisation had corrupted mankind to free themselves, men must listen to their emotions. Rousseau's writings gave birth to a fresh hope for a new world of liberty, equality and fraternity. These ideas would fuel the greatest social upheaval in history - the French Revolution."

Peter Ackroyd points out how many of the (largely unquestioned) assumptions we have about art, artists and the importance of the individual were established in this period:

"THE IMAGE OF THE POET, and the writer, and the artist, is firmly fixed in the public imagination. They represent all the values to which we most loyally adhere; they are deemed to embody the imperatives of sincerity and spontaneity, of integrity and dedication. Above all, they must be original.

...The great triumph, however, lies in the spontaneous expression of feeling. They must be somehow apart, an observer rather than a participant. They may be in society — but not necessarily of it. Of course a writer is allowed, indeed encouraged, to have social and political opinions. He or she is permitted to speak out against the abuses of the day, and to write novels or poems that are relevant to the needs of the age. But a premium is placed upon personal observation and knowledge; if possible, the writer ought to write out of personal experience. Above all he or she must “express” that experience in eloquent and memorable ways. As a result there is an endless temptation to write ethnic novels, or gay novels, in implicit honour of the personality of the author.

Writers have been, and can still become, popular — almost celebrities — in a culture hag-ridden by the notion of celebrity. That is why they are allowed their foibles — drugs or drink (in modest enough quantities) are permissible. They do not necessarily need to support conventions. Their lives may be deemed wretched, or lonely, but that is part of the price of their genius. Suffering is beneficial. Genius is a word often employed. A genius is above the normal laws of society. He has a unique imaginative message that he may or may not care to impart. A writer is, in any case, a person of note. He or she has a duty to take himself or herself very seriously indeed.

These are all commonplaces, implicit in most discussions of what is now termed “creative writing”. They are not necessarily misguided but they are provisional and temporary. They have been learnt by several generations of readers and teachers, to the extent that they now pass as received wisdom. But they spring from a very particular phase of our cultural history. They are emanations of what we now call “the Romantic age”.

Romantics - Ackroyd

The Bourne Identity

Much of the film is set in Paris, including a pretty spectacular car chase, the hero driving a mini (appropriate for an individual against the system). But it is not just a simple-minded thriller set in pretty locations, as some critics claim.

While the Ludlum book which the film was based on was published in 1980, Tom Flynn relates it to post-9/11 America. While I don't agree with his acceptance of postmodernist claims that the notion of the self is SO different today, I do find his political analysis valid:

Post 9/11 – America as World Redeemer

"... Let us revolve back upon the question asked in the opening paragraph: Why was this film released in 2002? Perhaps the film's exploration of identity is befitting of a post-9/11 America identity crisis. Some in this country are exploring behind the façade of America's historical national identity, that of world redeemer. Analogous to Bourne's identity crisis in his amnesia, America has many possible identities to audition in post-9/11. Yet our current administration seems to have fallen back on that one identity of assurance - the world redeemer identity (others may call this imperialist), that top drawer identity, which is wrapped in the tattered flags of patriotism. As the Bush administration pontificates in the language of Ares and Athena about invading Iraq while comfortably cloaked in the myth of America as world redeemer, others want to shatter the monocular vision of us versus them that the world redeemer identity thinly disguises.

Remember that Jason Bourne, an assassin before his rebirth, possessed a singular self-assured sense of his Self not unlike the self-righteous willingness of America's present administration assuredness of knowing right from wrong that alienates other nations around the globe. While 9/11 had the potential to redress America's posture with the rest of the world, it seems we still stand unconvincingly in a guise of world redeemer and militantly chomping at the bit for a fight, like the one-dimensional aspect of Ares, the warrior.

The Separate Fates of the Hero and the Redeemer

"Jason Bourne, in his postmodern, post re-birth condition, finds some degree of resolution by the end of the film. He kills the central authority figure who was his controller [ he doesn't, he's killed by yet another assassin sent by the system to cover up this failure] he locates his love interest and the two are reacquainted with one another after some absence. Through his fumbling about with the combination lock to his identity, he discovers that the Ares warrior archetype no longer suits him except in the form of self-defense. He makes a hero's journey that parallels Joseph Campbell's expression of the classical hero's journey..."

Tom Flynn