24 March 2009

La Poste

Yesterday I had to mail my first letter back home. Not wanting to find out first-hand if the French mail service has inspired slang equivalent to going postal, I pulled up the La Poste website to get as much info as I could before burdening the post office with my confusion.

The website certainly defies any reputation for lack of efficiency or consideration of outsiders in France. It was fine art for the logically minded-- clearly laid out, with separate sections specifically for those coming to France and even those foreigners already living in France (hey, that's me!). I found the information I needed in about a minute. When I got to the post office itself, I was able to buy my international fare from a machine, which included a scale for weighing my letter, in less than another minute. Awesome from start to finish. Major props to La Poste for thinking it all through.

Since I'm healing and getting bored already at Longchamps, I wanted maps of the surrounding areas of Paris to help scope out more interesting cycling routes. Michelin maps and atlases abound here, not surprisingly, but our experience with them is that they're so busy with colors and other nonsense that they're hard to use for biking. Certainly they're no Touring Club Italiano maps.

Searching first at our local bookstore and then the gigantic fnac on av des Ternes (a Borders/Tower/Best Buy hybrid), I found an Institut Geographique National map of Ile-de-France that has 100 bike routes on it. Now this was an unexpected score. None of them is especially long, but they can easily be linked to explore most of the outlying areas. Tres, tres cool!

As can be seen in the photo above, the rides are quite a ways from the city itself, and the scale of the map is such that the actual roads are difficult to make out. So I needed a higher-resolution atlas of the whole department as a reference tool. Finding an atlas, even finding one in the right scale, wasn't a challenge. Finding one I could use, though, was near-impossible. 

We have a whole series of atlases (made by ADC, mostly) of the counties in PA, NJ, DE, and MD where we ride most often. A grid with page numbers on it is laid over the county, and it's pretty easy to navigate from one page to the next: as long as you move east and west within the county, you just turn the page and the map continues. For moves north and south, you have to skip some pages to find the next horizontal run, but the page connections are clearly marked, and the grids align in all directions, so it's easy to explore the region by browsing the atlas.

The atlases I found of the greater Paris region are instead broken out by townships, with each township getting as many pages of maps as its size warrants with an index of streets. I still haven't figured out what determines the order of listing of townships, but it isn't proximity, that's for sure. Instead of being an unbiased presentation of the area, then, it's a collection of mini-atlases. I guess this works if you know exactly where you need to be, but for understanding the interconnectedness of a place, it's very perplexing. Most of these atlases don't even indicate on the margins of the maps what the adjoining page is. So you need to look up the next town (presumably you have a non-French atlas to figure that out) in the master index, and then go.

Sometimes exposure to a new paradigm can be exciting or enlightening, and I kept thinking that there was a logic I hadn't yet discerned, and that as soon as I uncovered it, all would make sense. But if the atlases are a glimpse into the workings of the French Mind, then either the French Mind's root directory is bureaucratic administrations and departments, or it likes collecting maps of places it already knows. Perhaps both. As tools to understand the geography of a place you don't already know, these atlases are nearly useless and as much as La Poste website made being that aspect of a foreigner here very easy, the atlases, intentionally or not, severely handicap outsiders.

In the end, I bought an atlas of Ile de France from Plan-Net that is set up by administrative borders, but at least tells which pages connect. That this accommodation for the non-native does not make sense to the makers is belied by the fact that none of the adjoining pages actually align vertically or horizontally or even use the same alphanumerical grid. It's as though each of the 300-some pages was made by a different individual and then assembled together into the atlas.

Maybe it's all a deliberate effort to thwart another German expansion. Regardless, I say give La Poste a crack at it.

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