You might expect to encounter a philosopher in a trendy Paris cafe near the Sorbonne, knocking back an espresso, but in reality, it’s not the sort of place you strike up a conversation with a complete stranger. Consider instead the humble laundromat. If you travel more than a few days, sooner or later you have to experience one. It seems mundane, I know, but in Paris they just do it differently – and therein lies a tale.
Washing clothes seems simple enough – almost everywhere it’s the same: work out the coins, shove in a few clothes and put the coins in the slot and away it goes. Except in Paris. In Paris they take a perfectly simple idea and overthink it – which is okay, but you then have to follow the train of thought. It comes down to politics and a culture of philosophers.
An individualistic culture that is all about efficiency and commerce, like the US or Australia will have each machine take its own coins and it is self contained and modular, that way, if a machine breaks down, you swap it with a new one and the system keeps going.
In Paris the logic is based on a fundamental philosophy of centralised bureacracy. So the machines are all governed from a central machine that handles the financial transaction – separate from the process of handling the clothes. Each machine has a number, so you put in your clothes, note the number and key it into the machine across the room that handles the money. This applies to the detergent dispenser, the washer and the driers. One machine, many numbers.
The instructions are there on the wall – taking up most of the wall. In French. And some letters are missing. It is an easy 9 step process, across six notice boards.
Fortunately travellers are all in the same boat when confronted with this unique system, and there is a cameraderie among travellers – so there is usually someone who can introduce you to this seemingly complex system. That means people talk to each other.
Complete strangers you would never otherwise meet start talking, and that is what happened.
This day, I was in first thing in the morning, trying to puzzle out with my schoolboy French, when in walks an African Parisian. He quickly sized up the situation, and explained in perfectly good english how it worked – quite logical really.
He saw that I had a book to read – in English – on the Shakespeare and Company bookshop. He asked where I was from and I told him.
‘I studied next to an Australian, in Boston,’ he replied. ‘I was there for three years, and he told me a lot about Australia.’
I asked him what he did and he told me was a mathematician – and that at his university the mathematics department was part of the philosophy department. I noted that I had taught French philosophy at university in Australia. ‘I prefer the German philosophers myself,’ he said, and we proceeded to to discuss in some depth the relative merits of the French versus the German Continental Schools.
It could only have happened in a laundromat – in Paris…