This is the Paris public bike scheme: vélib’ (“vélo libre” or “vélo liberté”: free bicycle or bicycle freedom). The photo unfortunately is not by me but from Wikipedia who explain that the bike is free for the first half hour, and then cheap. The chap is I think returning a bike (not necessarily to the same place where he picked it up) or taking one out, using his card. The bikes aren't attractive to steal, and have built in lights that work. I saw loads of them on the street, especially on the plentiful bike lanes. ((http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f7/Velibvelo1.jpg)
That's one thing out of several that I really liked about Paris (I'm just back, never having properly visited before). Another is the free rein that's given to creative designers, e.g. of street furniture and Christmas decorations. And architects: the Pompidou Centre is awe-inspiring -- no longer need we think of buildings as being about walls. And there's the exhilarating new Musée du quai Branly, devoted to the indigenous people of other continents.
I'm sorry I didn't take my camera. I'd mistakenly assumed that I'd only end up taking tourist snaps. I'm also sorry I can no longer speak French.
My conclusion (after four days): Paris is better than London. Certainly for someone of my age it is, someone who doesn't want to be marginalised by youth.
The people are nice, the atmosphere in public places civilised, bars friendly. I felt comfortable being out at night on my own. If I didn't want a meal in a restaurant I could go in a bar and have a good home-made snack with my drink - the other night it was smoked salmon 'tartine', i.e. a sort of open sandwich on something like pitta bread.
In London pubs used to be comfortable and welcoming; and pubs, not restaurants, often had the best sites, like by the river. (So in the really nice places all you could do was drink, since Brits didn't go in for eating out.) These days many pubs do food, and it's often ok, but most are run by chains, have nothing local about them (including the staff), are noisy (hard surfaces -- a problem for us deafer ones) and are dominated by youth or sports tv or a lethal combination of both. Not an atmosphere than suits me, and I really don't like London pubs any more. There are pubs near me, but I'm not tempted to make any of them my local.
In Paris, on the other hand, I'm sure I could find myself a local bar (or bar/bistro) where I'd feel comfortable. Many unpretentious restaurants are in good locations like near the river. I spent one evening sitting by the window on a quiet and unheritaged side street (quai de Montebello) by the Seine. I couldn't see the river because an embankment was between us, but the buildings in my view were clearly the other side of it, and the few leaves on the trees this side were silvery with light reflected off Notre Dame. I couldn't think of anywhere as pleasant by the Thames in central London -- you'd have to go out to Hammersmith or Greenwich.
What I don't understand, though, is how Paris manages to be so pleasant. Don't they have teenagers? I hardly saw any, in the whole area I walked over, an hour in each direction from the Opéra. I didn't see hoodies or Croydon Facelifts or track suits in any numbers (or, come to that babies or prams). Or litter from drinks and snacks.
Come to that, I didn't see babies either.
Surely all the bad kids can't be out in the notorious banlieus?
Yet Central Paris (the part inside the Peripherique motorway) is full of apartments. As far as I can tell, people live on the four or so upper floors of most of the standard 19th century buildings. So don't families live in them? If yes, don't their teenage children go out and get together?
Perhaps families do live further out, where accommodation is more affordable. But kids from the outskirts of London nevertheless head into the centre for drinking and clubbing: why not in Paris? (It's true that plenty of teenagers also live in central London in council flats - I don't know if there's the equivalent in central Paris.) Perhaps Paris facilities just aren't geared to teenage congregation and drinking? Or perhaps the city just won't stand for kids behaving unpleasantly. Or perhaps the teenagers are doing their homework.
I don't know the answer. Next time perhaps I'll take the camera and look into this more systematically -- perhaps by walking right across central Paris, on more than one line, and then taking some excursions outside the Peripherique. Or read something about the sociology of Paris.