Saturday, 22 February 2014

Paris vs New York

It's hard to think of any cities in the world which are quite as iconic as Paris and New York, at least from an Anglophone European perspective. Cities whose street names are legendary, whose facades are familiar, and where even the public transport systems have qualified as settings of many a cinema classic. And so, when Understanding Frenchman and I took our first trip across the Atlantic together and exchanged the Eiffel Tower for the Empire State Building it was probably inevitable that we made a few comparisons.

Before anybody takes what follows too seriously, I should make it clear that we spent a grand total of seven days in New York, and that even after living in Paris for four years, I'm still trying to make sense of the place, so nothing that I've written is anything but my own subjective, and possibly superficial, opinion. I'm quite happy for people to disagree with me or correct anything I've said, but please be nice to me. (I know what Parisians and New Yorkers can be like!)

Parisian Style vs New York Style

To put things in context, we arrived in New York in the middle of a snow storm and spent most of the week wearing hiking boots, ski gloves and cagoules, so any attempt to pass judgement on anyone else's fashion sense is entirely hypocritical. Understanding Frenchman and I differed on this one: he thought that New Yorkers didn't make nearly so much of an effort as Parisians, while I was impressed with both their creativity and the fact that so many people looked good even in the face of metre-high piles of melting slush. And next time it snows in Paris, I am definitely investing in a pair of designer wellies.

Paris: 0 NYC: 1

Paris Metro vs New York Subway
I never thought I'd say it, but with its clanking trains, complicated timetable changes and the fact that stations several blocks away from each other can share the same name, the New York subway makes the Paris metro look modern, user friendly and efficient. NYC does get some bonus points: the subway runs all night, every time the train pulls away from the station you start singing Moby in your head, and the sheer enthusiasm of the "Stand clear of the closing doors, please!" announcement are all big plusses, but Paris still wins this one hands down.

Paris: 1     NYC: 0

Paris Street Names vs New York Street Names
Admittedly, the New York system is simple. Just look at the numbers on the street signs and you'll know exactly where you are and how far you have to walk to your destination. But in the long run, I prefer to get lost every so often for the privilege of walking along streets named after the Elysian Fields or reminding myself that in the days before NafNaf, Gap and Sephora, the Faubourg Saint-Antoine was once a hotbed of revolutionary fervour and not just another shopping street.

Paris: 1 NYC: 0

Parisian Traffic vs New York Traffic

Our American friends expressed deep concern about the dangers of New York traffic and the high number of accidents but nothing we experienced in NYC compared to the adrenaline rush of being still on the pedestrian crossing as the lights change at the Place de la Concorde ... or the Place de l'Opera ... or the Place de la Nation. We were pleasantly surprised by New York drivers' courtesy and care at every crossroads (especially as, with cars that big, you could do a lot of damage!)

Paris: 0     NYC: 1

Big Coffee vs Little Coffee
I had high expectations of American coffee. You can't warm your hands or your soul around a tiny cup of Parisian espresso (and if you try with a café crème, you'll probably find it's lukewarm), so I was looking forward to big doses of caffeinated comfort in New York, but I was actually a bit disappointed. There's a reason Americans can spend the whole day slugging on those huge cups of hot beverages without getting hyped-up like the Duracell bunny: what's inside tends to be flavourless and somewhat insipid. The verdict? No points for either city - go to Milan instead.

Paris: 0     NYC: 0

Parisian Rudeness vs New York Rudeness

You know that moment in Sex and the City where Carrie drops her birthday cake on wet tarmac and gets yelled at by a group of workmen? I spent a fair amount of our time in NYC in fear of having a similar experience, after seeing people getting bawled at for crimes as diverse as stepping away from the immigration desk a moment too soon and turning to the left instead of the right when looking for their seats in a Broadway theatre. New Yorkers, it seems, have no compunction about making other people's mistakes very, very public. Nevertheless, on balance, I decided that I prefer this to the Parisian version where you often don't even realise someone has been rude to you until it's far too late to make a comeback.

Paris: 0     NYC: 1

Parisian Politeness vs New York Politeness

Apart from the above-mentioned incidents of public humiliation, we found most people in New York to be very polite and friendly. People were patient when we failed to swipe our metro cards correctly and helpfully explained to us the value of all those tiny coins funny names when we tried to count out change in shops. What we found weird though, was the way that salespeople would be incredibly helpful on a first meeting, but if we went back to look at something for a second time, had no recollection of who we were. We also quickly understood that the question, "How are you?" doesn't really expect an answer. So, helpful and welcoming as New Yorkers were, the points for this round go to Paris, because when a Parisian makes up his mind to be nice to you, means something profound.

Paris: 1 NYC: 0

As you can see, this post has been very carefully engineered so that neither city came out on top. Because while it's always fun to compare, I'm here to share experiences, not sit in judgement. But I do have more thoughts, of the deep and less deep variety, on this subject. Watch out for more posts coming soon.


  1. I've never been to NYC, but it was fun reading your take on it! (And I tend to find French style too conservative and samey-samey myself.)

  2. I agree with you 100% on the Paris metro vs. New York subway. I find the subway in New York to be extremely confusing whereas the Parisian metro is so convenient, efficient and simple in it's layout and use.

    I also completely agree with your observations on traffic...Parisian drivers are crazy and you can never be sure what they are going to do, whereas in New York it is much more organized and less chaotic. In fact, not to be biased as an American or anything, but I think this holds true for driving in all of France vs. driving in all of the US.

    I don't mind American coffee, having grown up on it an all, but I do agree that after living in Europe, it can seem quite flavorless and insipid. As for the rest, well I haven't been to New York since 2006 so it's hard to say but I have a feeling most of your observations were pretty spot on.

  3. I like that you included traffic comparisons. I will never understand how to cross the street at Place de l’Opéra. There are no walk signs. Luckily you can just gaze at the beautiful Opera while waiting to cross.

    I have to agree that the NY subway system is complicated—and I’d add that the stations can be grimy and steaming hot in the summer—but for me not having to run to catch the last metro trumps that.

    The “Stand clear of the closing doors” voice seems to make an impression! I never realized it until two French friends, whom I know separately, imitated it in amusement. The funny thing is that a Welsh friend and I are entertained by “Attention à la marche…”