Autumn has decidedly descended upon Paris; daylight hours are dwindling, the parks are awash with yellow and red, and brisk mornings have Parisians frantically digging out their jackets from deep inside their shoebox apartments. With the summer holidays well and truly behind them, the French now have their eyes set on their winter ski get-away, and are already comparing tips on the best slopes during their lunch breaks.
Despite the temperature drop, for the first part of the month the city was uncharacteristically bathed in sunshine. This was fortunately the case on Sunday 27 September, when Paris held its debut “Journée Sans Voitures”. From 10am to 6pm, cars were banned from the city centre; in the outer districts, vehicles were slowed to 20km per hour.
Strategically, the initiative came as Paris gears up to host COP21 in December, the most important climate conference since Copenhagen in 2009. Yet the event was also embedded in Paris’ battle against chronic air pollution that frequently surpasses EU safety levels.
Thousands of smiling Parisians young and old flooded the streets by bike and on foot, excited to relish the historic beauty of Paris without the stress of the city’s habitual noisy, chaotic traffic. The atmosphere was festive, as citizens came out in full force to reclaim their city. The iconic Champs d’Élysée was returned to its former splendor, as a total car ban allowed Sunday strollers and bicycles to promenade in the afternoon sunshine.
Unfortunately, “less cars day” better characterised most of Paris’ centre. Buses, taxis, police and emergency vehicles, and the occasional rebellious car maintained a steady trickle of traffic throughout the day, unashamedly nudging the bicycles to the side of the road and causing pedestrians such as myself to seek a truly car free environment down on the banks of the Seine. At 6pm on the dot, traffic roared back to its usual levels, leaving Parisians wondering whether what they had experienced from 10 to 6 was just a dream. While the day achieved its objective in highlighting how much more pleasant the city is with less vehicles and smog , it also demonstrated that there is still a way to go in shifting mindsets from the car-dominant paradigm.
October also seemingly heralds running season in Paris. Almost every weekend has had an event, from the Paris-Versailles classic to the Nike 10km. While I used to somewhat chauvinistically criticize the French for not being as sporty as Australians, it turns out my first impressions were mistaken. Data from runners recording their sessions in the application Strava shows that Parisians run both further and faster than their counterparts in London, Barcelona, Berlin, New York, and...Sydney and Melbourne .
As with every month in Paris, October’s cultural agenda has been packed. From museums throwing open their doors for the “Nuit Blanche” (White night) to a celebration of good wine and food at the “Fête des Vendages de Montmartre”, there has been no shortage of events free to the public. This is on top of the hundreds of exhibitions, plays and concerts happening all over the city, all the time, offering an overwhelming number of cultural indulgences. The variety of options is endless – but sometimes, all one wants is to take refuge in a show that reminds you of home. This is how I found myself with my Chilean husband and, it seems, the entire Chilean population of Paris jumping to Chico Trujillo in a red cabaret-style tent one weekend. On another evening, I sat transfixed watching the musical Cats, letting the soundtrack that my parents played countless times and that I massacred on the piano as a young teenager wash over me. Well, almost…unbeknown to me when I bought the tickets, it was in French.