First Person
An Oregonian in Paris
By Paul Raether
August 24, 2007

Today was my first-ever day visiting France. I walked and people-watched around the Arc de Triomphe, disguising my US country-of-origin by wearing a New Zealand rugby jersey I had hastily purchased at Charles de Gaulle airport hours earlier. The sun was shining and the temperature perfect for the casual attire the French model for the rest of the world.

A US citizen traveling abroad should not have to be ashamed of his country, but being embarrassed over its actions upon the world stage over the past nearly six years is both acceptable and imperative if we are to maintain our representative democracy and our leadership role among nations.

There seems to be nothing one could hate about New Zealand. They are a nuclear-free zone full of contented grazing sheep more used for wool than eaten, they have no troops occupying another country under false pretenses, and I have never heard of them ramming their culture, their beliefs or their values down anyone's throat. The few objectionable activities coming out of Oceania mostly seem to emanate from the former penal colony to the north. The Kiwis could have treated the indigenous Maori better (as portrayed sensitively in the film Whale Rider), but recently this minority has been empowered by New Zealand reggae bands, whose concerts even the white-collared and white-skinned ruggers reportedly eagerly attend.

I learned firsthand today that the reason (some Americans charge) that Parisians are "rude" is that Parisians, in fact, barely give a rat's ass about the rest of the world, until the Kaiser, or the storm troopers or Stalin come marching in. Fortunately most of the time that doesn't happen, but when it has during the last century, they have had economically healthy and militarily strong Allies to come to their aid, so the philosophy did seem to more-or-less work. Such is France, with their weird computer keyboard layouts and unconventional quirky cars. Enter the adjacent Teutons, which of course they have, over and over again, with disastrous results. Now the Germans send to France only their near-perfect automobiles and their nude sun bathers. Perhaps we may be witnessing during our short lifespans the evolution of humankind into a wiser and more peaceful species. More like social bonobos than aggressive chimpanzees. Uplifting to think so, anyway.

It's pretty nice here. It seems that most Parisians possess sufficient self-assurance that they have little need to vicariously concern themselves with the Lives of Others. One woman shopkeeper responded to my "parlez-vous anglais" with an innocent "why would I need to (speak English)?" (I am not sufficiently creative to have fabricated this encounter, and did not plagiarize it from the web). Perhaps the wine with dinner has something to do with it. That would bode well for Oregon.

Such linguistic hubris and energy independence must be threatening to would-be emperors and publicly-admitted wannabe dictators who seek global dominance by keeping the world dependent upon the petroleum which they just happen to control. Or think that they do. But in "Old Europe" they don't use proportionally nearly so much petrol as do we thanks to:

- Walking. To get somewhere. To get exercise. There is no apparent need for double-wide wheelchairs here, despite the calorie-dense and palate-friendly food.

- The Metro subway system, which was incidentally a model for our own nation's capital's extolled and functional mass transit system. France never ripped out her passenger rails at the behest of corporate oil, auto, and tire interests.

- Use of rail transportation for freight. Despite two infrastructure-consuming wars, France also has continued to maintain her freight rail system for over a millennium. Consequently the likelihood of catastrophic bridge failure such as occurred earlier this month in my ancestral state of Minnesota is probably a good bit less likely to happen in a country where the passenger routes are not subject to daily pummeling by overloaded triple trailers ferrying goods that could be more safely and inexpensively transported by rail, were the free market to truly prevail.

- Commuting by bicycles, scooters, and motorcycles. Compared to cars, these vehicles do pose quantifiably increased personal safety risks to their operators. However this is less true when a critical mass of users is achieved and both riders and larger vehicle drivers become aware and educated as to safe operation and use of safety equipment. More cyclists on the roads means each additional cyclist increases the odds that the SUV driver with a cell phone in one hand, and a latte in the other will see the cyclist before running her over. Bikes, both motorized and not, due to their superior maneuverability, are less productive of traffic jams and vehicle gridlock, which alone is recognized as a major source of pollution and climate change. Bicycles and motorcycles require much less space for parking, the latter often producing no requirements for parking lots, or even worse, concrete jungle parking structures. Urban planner Alan Durning of Seattle is an expert on this. His website sightline.org has led the way for green transportation planning in the Pacific Northwest.

- 50 mpg minicars and diesel hatchbacks and sedans. Europeans have been driving smaller, fuel efficient, fun-to-drive, yet safe vehicles for several decades, during which period our automakers took back and shredded the pioneering electrical vehicles that could easily have been on our roads today. Instead they have thrust upon us gargantuan 10 mpg SUVs that insulate drivers to the degree that they have run over children with no awareness of doing so even despite being sober. However, in the Pacific Northwest, we are now blessed with the largest biodiesel production facility in the US. I believe we may be even ahead of France in this regard. Wow!

Portlanders can now even heat their homes with locally-grown and processed biodiesel. PSU did this with one of their buildings last winter. Look up portlandgreenheat.com. Think there are lots of Priuses in Portland? There are. But what about in eastern Oregon, or western Louisiana? We share their air and their climate. The latest generation of fuel-efficient cars in Europe are diesel-hybrids that achieve the lofty goal of 100 mpg. So you bike to work? Your food and toilet paper still must be transported by non-human-powered vehicles. Locally, the Daimler-Freightliner company has Sprinter diesel vans available that are reputed to go 27.4 miles on each gallon of diesel at 55 mph. DHL, FedEx and your plumber or electrician have begun driving these same vehicles that transport wine from Burgundy into the brasseries of Paris. Another nice Portland-Old Europe connection.

Going through security at PDX I met a Daimler engineer and his family who brought his family from Stuttgart to spend two weeks vacationing throughout Oregon after he was so impressed with our area while here on Daimler-Freightliner business. Once one the plane, I was fortunate to sit next to and privileged to converse with a bright young woman engineer who grew up in Belarus in the former Soviet Union, was educated in the USA heartland, and is currently weighing high tech career opportunities in both New York City and Portland. People who get around the world know about Portland Oregon. Our city council and progressive professionals and business people are aware of this.

Today in Paris I noted only one SUV, a Range Rover, among hundreds of little Smart Cars, also a Daimler product that you may have seen around Portland. This SUV was parked; maybe someone had to make their home in it. A few nuke plants do help generate France's electricity, of course. Efficient fluorescent or LED lighting is inconsistent with French ambiance, but the 10,000 RPM of a scooter engine is apparently not(?).

When the French don't get what they want from their government, they simply go on a national strike and shut the machine down until it gets fixed. Again the French history may be relevant. The minister of whatever is more likely to concede or at least compromise if he thinks not only his job, but his head may be on the line.

If our Portland City Council holds up Paris as an example of successful urban planning, we should all be both reassured and proud. Eating pommes frites in Little Beirut sure beats freedom fries in Flint. It's all gotta be enough to give Mr. Cheney angina. Or worse.

Paul Raether M.D.



About the author:
Born in Midway Hospital in St. Paul in 1953. Central Lutheran Grade School -> Highland Park HS -> St. Olaf -> U of M med school -> Mayo Clinic (phys med and rehab) -> married wife DeeAnn a PT on 10-2-82 -> Oregon where we thrive and mold with our loving dogs and literary cats. Running, gardening, green issues, reading, NPR, Air America, and baseball in no particular order.

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