PARIS — No sooner had Monsieur Los Pasos, the building concierge, left us in the apartment on Rue Raffet than we threw open the windows and long-closed shutters, the better to survey what would be home for the next month in Paris.
We looked out on the shrubby entrance courtyard and the tree-lined street beyond leading to the sprawling Bois de Boulogne just a five-minute walk away. No farther were most of the shops we would need, and the ubiquitous Metro and several bus lines linking us to the city at large.
Twenty years had passed since I last lived here, then with a young and growing family. So my wife, Joan, and I decided to devote this year's vacation, sans enfants , not to traveling but to updating Paris' charm and livability. Though the intervening decades have brought brief visits to the city, they had scarcely provided time to catch up on many of the urban developments that have taken place.
The apartment, rented from a Massachusetts couple through an ad in Harvard magazine, included two comfortably furnished rooms, a small dining alcove, an even smaller kitchen and an old-fashioned bathroom with a tub, a bidet (surmounted by a useful clothes-drying rack) and a gravity-fed toilet. The monthly rent worked out to about $37 a night.
It proved a fine and peaceful launch pad for our forays into Paris, the Ile de France and day trips to the slightly more distant cathedral cities of Rouen to the west and Amiens to the north.
We had time, too, to rent a car for a week's off-season ramble through Brittany and along the Normandy coast--with the extra pleasure always of returning "home" to our apartment in Paris.
If we had just been passing through town we might have been struck most by the new and well-publicized public spaces developed over the last decade. These include the bustling Pompidou Center in Le Marais, Paris' oldest neighborhood; Pompidou's new neighbor, the Fo rum , a bustling commercial-recreational complex emerging on the site of Les Halles, the displaced wholesale market, and the technology museum under construction where beef once became steak at Patin on Paris' northeast edge.
But as residents, some more homely improvements also impressed us.
For one thing, the hypermarche , or super-supermarket, has definitively arrived. Those operated by the Inno (for Innovation) and Euromarche chains in our neighborhood of Passy-Auteuil offered a vast selection of meat, fresh produce and wines as well as nonfood items, and featured as modern a checkout system as we have encountered.
Less welcome, but probably necessary, given the inevitable growth in vehicular traffic, are the parking meters and self-park vending machines that have sprouted along streets where motorists once merely placed cardboard disks on their cars' dashboards--a low-tech but effective means of parking control. By setting the hour of arrival in one "window" of the disk, the deadline for leaving was displayed in another.
On the other hand, the antiquated telephone system of less than a decade ago has been thoroughly modernized. By adding an inexpensive computer, le Minitel, callers have access to services not yet available in this country, where regulators are still scratching their heads over whether local phone companies or outside vendors should be allowed to provide them.
Meanwhile, in much of France, phone customers can punch up on their Minitel screens a selection of menus from restaurants and starting times for movies as well as order a wake-up call, look up phone numbers and buy or sell stock.
"We don't have Minitel," confided former neighbor Jacques Bloch, an importer of gems, as we sipped Champagne in the garden of his home across the Seine in St. Cloud. "But it enables my son to lose money more quickly at the Bourse (the Paris stock exchange)!"
As for TV, the two channels available 20 years ago have increased to six, accompanied by commercials, alas, but also by a welcome increase in independence from the government.
Although there are more French-produced TV entertainments, the most popular series continue to be made in the U.S.A. They include "Deux Flics a Miami" ("Miami Vice") and "Columbo." The latter has made actor Peter Falk enough of a celebrity, in Columbo's rumpled raincoat, to inspire one advertiser--Moulinex--to hire a Columbo look-alike to promote its appliances.
And TV 6 carries the CBS Evening News each morning --with French subtitles.
On more basic terms, Paris has never been cleaner. Green-uniformed crews riding green-and-white vehicles pick up the garbage and sweep down the gutters daily, although they seem to be waging a losing battle to Paris' sizable population of otherwise urbane dogs.
Along such heavily trafficked pedestrian areas as the Champs-Elysees, however, the cleanup crews, riding under the banner Proprete de Paris, have begun patrols of motorcyclists whose machines vacuum up after the hounds.