08 August 2007


It doesn't really look like this: Paris Plages at the Hôtel de Ville

August is — or should be — the ideal time to enjoy a couple of Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë’s most noteworthy innovations. For the fourth year, a stretch of road along the Seine has been closed to automobile traffic and a beach has been set up: Paris Plages. There are deck chairs, sand lots, palm trees, a swimming pool, and more steel-drum players than seem possible this far from Jamaica. Elsewhere around town, there are concerts and special events and activities: in front of the town hall, there are sand-filled volleyball courts. The idea is that not everybody in Paris can go on vacation for the month, and that we need a place to sunbathe and frolic.

New this year is the Velib’ program, whereby one can rent bicycles for a nominal fee, at automated bike racks. You pick up your bike at one station, you ride around, and then you drop off the bike at another station near your destination. Depending on the length of your ride, the cost is even less than that of a Métro ticket. Suddenly, there are Velib’ stations everywhere, and the city promises even more of them. Lyon has had a similar program, and I tried it last summer: it’s easy, efficient, and fun, even though Lyon’s hills make Montmartre look like a molehill. The initial response to the Parisian program has been excellent: one million rentals already in just a few weeks.

Delanoë, a Socialist, is a clever guy. Not only does the Velib’ program provide sport and amusement, it may also reduce car traffic and pollution in the city, and that’s one of the mayor’s primary stated goals. And Paris Plages amounts to a social program for people who can’t afford Club Med.

But sometimes Delanoë’s most ingenious schemes run afoul of realities. Shortly after taking office, he determined to open up city government to the people, and he hit upon a symbolic gesture: open house at the town hall. It’s a huge, ornate building, filled with art and history, both somewhat dubious, but most people never saw the inside of the place. So periodically, Delanoë would throw open the doors and greet visitors personally. This was a great plan, until a homophobic nutjob came in and stabbed our gay mayor in the stomach. City government isn’t supposed to be that open — and it isn’t, anymore.

Which way to the beach?
A Velib' cyclist (Velibertin?) on the street

The fly in the ointment of Paris Plages and Velib' this summer has been the weather, one of the coldest and wettest in memory, and very much in contention to be one of the coldest and wettest in history. Granted, the Velib’ program is supposed to function year-round, and Paris is grey and damp most of the year: we may as well get used to riding bikes in the rain. But Paris Plages operates only for a month, and thus far we’ve had few opportunities to treat the Plages as a beach.

On Sunday, for example, we had a scorching hot day. I went to the movies, with the thought that I’d return to the Plages on Monday and catch a few rays.

Naturally, the next morning the temperature dropped some twenty degrees and a storm front moved in. And stayed. As I write this, on Wednesday, 8 August, it’s been raining hard and incessantly for twelve hours. (This affects my DSL, so there’s no telling when I’ll be able to post this.) This year, recognizable summer weather has been limited to rare, isolated outbursts, few lasting more than a single day. Unless you count the month of April, when tank tops and flip-flops were de rigueur.

In cooler weather, the plaza in front of the town hall features not volleyball courts but an ice-skating rink. If next August is anything like this one, we’ll need to break out the skates, not the Speedos. And if this winter and spring bring anything like the mildness of last winter and the heat of last March and April, we’ll want the volleyballs and sunscreen.

Meanwhile, Al Gore should consider running not for President of the United States but for Mayor of Paris. Because the weather is starting to make me nervous.