We’ve just returned from our long-anticipated trip to France, and it was everything I could have hoped for. I absolutely fell in love with the history, the architecture, the arts and culture, the food and wine: I could go on forever. And though I was happy to return to the comforts of home — sleeping in my own bed, understanding the language — there are some things I really wish I could have brought back with me. Here are my top 6:
1) Efficient and citywide public transportation. It can be crowded, stinky and sometimes unreliable (only one train broke down during our stay, but I know this and worker strikes are a somewhat common occurrence), but I would do just about anything to be able to trade in my highway commute for the subway or train. We took the Metro to every corner of Paris and the intercity bus throughout the Cote d’Azur; it was an affordable and easy way to get around, and it was great for people watching and, in the case of the bus, scenery viewing. I know expanding Phoenix’s limited light rail service to the outer reaches of its sprawling metropolis is very unrealistic. But I would be a daily rider if I could.
2) Drink-in coffee shops. My disdain for Starbucks was already great, thanks to their systematic crushing of the neighborhood coffee shops I love, but its take-away culture (which I suppose I can’t blame on Starbucks entirely) is just another example of how Americans always have to hurry, hurry. Where is it that we think we have to go? I love the coffee shops in Europe that serve your café in proper cups with saucers and a spoon. It encourages you to sit, relax and savor that morning ritual, rather than treat it as a part of the morning commute. If school didn’t start so early I would totally spend a part of my mornings in a coffee shop. And while they obviously have to use a lot of water to wash the cups, that has to be the better option for our planet than the millions of Starbucks cups we throw away every day.
3) Specialty vendors on every block. I don’t know if Paris or Nice needs quite so many boulangeries, but I love that they have them. Being able to stop for bread, sweets, cheese, meats, wine, fruit and veg, etc., all in their own expert shops and all within the same block is my idea of perfection. I don’t need a supermarket that gives me everything in one place. I’ll take artisans who are so proud of their goods they just do that one thing over those superstores any day.
4) Smaller is better. I am a small person so I don’t need much of anything to be satisfied. Here in the States, I often feel I’m being punished for my moderation — I pay the same for my 16-ounce drink at 7-Eleven as those who buy the enormous Big Gulp. My kid-sized popcorn at the movies is 1/10 the size but only $1 cheaper than the jumbo, which comes with a free refill. McDonald’s has never asked me if I want to subsize my fries. But in Europe, small is king. Much of this is due to space constraints, as in their cars (I once traveled across Ireland in a VW Bus and would not recommend it). But the small sizes reign in other areas, as well. Beverages are smaller — beers and sodas come in 25-cl (about 8.5 fluid ounces) options and if you order a café in a shop it will be served in an espresso cup — and meal portions are typically smaller as well. I, for one, do not love the feeling of stuffing myself so full of food that I can’t walk out of a restaurant. While in France, we enjoyed several multi-course meals that managed to satiate us without sending us into food comas. I would love to close all the Claim Jumpers and Cheesecake Factories and replace them with simple restaurants that focus on quality, not quantity.
5) City rental bikes. Both Paris and Nice offered rental bikes throughout their cities, a really great idea for locals and tourists alike. The weather we encountered on our trip did not allow us to partake in the system…and to be honest, I would have been a bit afraid to ride a bike through the busy Paris streets. But a ride along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice would have been delightful. You pick up where you want, drop off where you want — what could be easier than that? Downtown/midtown Phoenix could totally use a system like that.
6) Pay public toilets. It’s always comforting to know you can find a fully stocked and clean toilet when you are out and about — even when looking at centuries-old landmarks. The toilets are at least 20th century. That is more than worth the 35 cents you pay to the attendant.