We just wrapped up about a week in Paris. Danielle has a friend who is also a writer she met at last year’s Bread Loaf conference. She was generous enough to provide us with free accommodation in her parent’s apartment in the 20th Arrondissement for the week. We were in a part of Paris home to many leftist activists and a large population of Parisians of North African heritage. This meant there were boulangeries, restaurants, grocery stores, and other shops featuring the cuisine and cultures of of Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria alongside more typical French restaurants.

This was an interesting week to be in France because of some news that swept the world the days before we arrived. In case you missed it: A French police officer killed Nahel, a 17 year old of Algerian-Moroccan descent, in Nanterre last Tuesday. Nanterre could be considered a second tier suburb in American parlance, though it’s not exactly apples-to-apples. While there have been some notable events outside of the suburbs (Marseille and Lille, for example), we saw almost no protesting in the city of Paris itself. The New York Times managed to snap a photo of a shattered window at a Nike Outlet and some apparent protesters being chased down the Champs-Elysees by police, but we didn’t experience anything close to that during the day and evening.

I was a bit surprised by the lack of protesting in Paris proper and that’s whole other post. I wasn’t surprised by the poor coverage of it by the American press. There’s an impulse for American press to attach events to known landmarks by how far it is from there. For example, if there’s a Twitter account called @blocksfromthewh that picks up news articles about events “frighteningly close to the White House.” (It’s possible Elon destroyed this fun thing that happened on Twitter, I’m not sure.) Here’s an example of a community that was a victim of gang violence “seven miles from the White House.” It may be close to DC, but it’s a different state. Nothing happened at the White House. Yet for some reason the Washington Post seemed to think that proximity was relevant to the story.

The consequence of this constant relative-distancing was people outside France getting the impression that Paris was in peril. These protests were big, people were injured, fires started, and President Macron wouldn’t have canceled his state visit to Germany (the first in 23 years) if it wasn’t a big deal. The community is grieving and deserves justice, but Nanterre and Paris are different places with different histories of violence with police, even if they’re “only” 15 minutes away by train.

Anyway, the feel good hit of the week was none other than the American classic: KFC.

Two children, left to right, Láslzó and Lucy at a restaurant booth with food in front of them. The restaurant is a French franchise of the American fast food chain: KFC.

László and our host’s daughter Lucy got to play together which was great because we could tell László was craving some English-speaking companions after about two weeks abroad with lots of potential friends, if only they had a common language. French KFC serves basically the same things American KFC does except for the addition of fried cheese and corn on the cob to the menu of sides.

The second highlight, and László’s main priority for the visit was the Eiffel Tower. This is one of those places, like the Washington Monument, the Capitol, or, I imagine, the Acropolis or Pyramids, that you’ve seen millions of pictures of your whole life and is somehow still impressive to behold in person.

The tower staff were on strike the day we visited. A scheduled strike, we were told. Fortunately for us, the grounds below the tower were still open, and a boat tour we did later in the week got us a vantage from the water so we could take it in from all angles.

The whole of Paris is preparing for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games which will be held in and around Paris. Rather than displacing people to build giant, mostly single use sports infrastructure, Paris is scattering the festivities around the city, suburbs, and even some places further afield. Apparently the plan is to have certain open water swimming events in the Seine which seems … deadly … but I am absolutely rooting for their success.

The Seine is certainly among the more polluted urban rivers in the world, and we got to tour one part of the infrastructure that is part of the solution: The sewer museum (Musée des Egouts). Paris’s sewers are old. Napoleon-era old. Some of it is still in service, which much of it was added since. Getting the sewers to clean more water and clean it better is a big part of the plan. But, similar to how when it rains in Milwaukee there are sometimes sewer overflows, Paris has a combined sewer system and rain has a major impact on sewers in Paris and some untreated water still ends up in the Seine.

A dimly lit tunnel corridor in the Paris sewer system. At the end, a painting of a rat with grasshopper arms.
A grasshopper-rat inside the Parisian sewer. This is a working part of the sewer system and it smelled the part.

Another part of the plan, then, is building a giant underground tank to store the city’s rainwater when it does rain hard. Like Milwaukee’s Deep Tunnel, it will fill with water that would otherwise overflow the system, then slowly release the water back into the system, get cleaned, and return to the river. It’s worked pretty well for us, reducing the number of sewer overflows to about 2 per year from more than 50, and the number of gallons from more than 9 billion to as low as 1500 some years. Hopefully it goes as well for Paris.

It’s kind of incredible how much stuff can be put underground without hitting a water table or undermining the bedrock upon which the city is built. The entire system of tunnels behind Paris’s transit and highway system is built beneath the sewer which is itself quite deep. This rain water tank will need to sit somewhere in there too. It’s an impressive feat that engineers are able to figure these things out.

Four pools on the side of the river Seine. A long yellow buoy blocks off the pools from river traffic.
These pools will one day be open for swimming in the river. It’s a ways to go but this seems like a sign of progress.

And then of course there were the playgrounds and other kid-friendly recreation opportunities. A place we visited called 104 Paris (Le Centquarte) had a Petit Maison, a child-centered play and educational space alongside its dance classes, food vendors, and a ticketed Disney exhibition. Like Madrid, we visited many playgrounds, including one with misters that would turn on in one-minute or so intervals. These were of great relief to László who was getting a bit sick of us wheeling him around and just wanted to play with kids.

Paris was truly a great time. By staying with friends, we got a pretty decent sense of what it might be like to live there, and not only the dreamy imagination of tourism. (We certainly got that, too.) I’ll probably have another post, maybe on my own blog about the bikes and built environment of Paris, which I also found really fascinating. I recommend it; it’s Paris, who wouldn’t?