The boyfriend, the dog, and I moved to Paris on a well-considered whim. Oxymorons aside, the idea was born after a couple of beers in May and we had moved by mid-June. But on this occasion, beer bred an adventure with unarguably sensible aspects. We wanted to leave London and spend less money without putting ourselves out to pasture. Paris may not spring to mind when one considers fiscal responsibility, but it turns out we could rent an Air BnB by the month for less than what we paid in rent alone in South London…with bills included! So we put the wheels in motion and began a 3- to 6-month stint as Parisienne imposters.
I’ve made several big moves before, and delight in seeing what a new environment will reveal about me. Seeing yourself in a different context is an invaluable human experience — like shaking up a box of yourself and seeing what parts slip away through the cracks, and what parts remain as your core. Paris has been no exception, particularly given that I knew only about five words of French before we left. Here are my revelations from the inside, as the grains of me sift down and settle…
I am living in a cliche
This place is seriously as charming as its hype. Any retail chains are scarce and nestled in beautiful buildings, or they’re French and I wouldn’t recognize them as a chain unless someone schooled me. The women are beautiful, with their slouchy tops and artless ponytails and high-heeled open-toes clicking neatly along cobblestoned streets with not the slightest tremor. The pastries are exquisite, and the bread so fresh and airy you could curl up in it and go to sleep. The buildings are stately, ornate, sublime. The city squares are peaceful. The bulldogs are plentiful. The wine is cheap. The language is sensual.
Much more than that, the French are more free than you will ever hope to be. They worship art, sex, leisure, and revolution, and it shows in everything from their hairstyles to their endless cigarettes. Yes, they’re drinking wine every day, but they’re sipping it because there’s plenty and who needs to get drunk when life is this beautiful? (I have not seen a single incident of alcohol-related abuse or disorder yet.) Need another example? Look no further than the cars parking on the street, slamming to and fro as they nestle their way into a parallel position. Their bumpers are bruised, dirty, dented, because they’re used as bumpers. Their doors bear marks in the dust where people leaned on them, rings on the top where they set their drinks. Treating someone else’s car as a coffee table means a culture that acknowledges the transience of material goods. And that, my friends, is true freedom.
I am living in a film
Our first apartment was in the center of Montmartre, around the corner from the famed Sacre Couer cathedral, whose bells toll proudly and intermittently throughout the day. This quartier has been the setting for many films (Amelie being the most recently notable) and has the curious condition of being an imitation of itself. Once a magnet for artist and bohemian types who frequented sidewalk cafes and met for creative sessions, it’s now a film-set–like recreation of that environment. You’ve got the unmistakably Parisian sidewalk cafes, and artists selling their works around Place du Terte, and lovely cobblestoned streets with ivy aplenty. But the bohemians are now American tourists, and Chinese, and Italian, and English. And the price of a meal or a drink is nearly twice what you can find elsewhere.
Maybe the cinematic effect works to its credit as well. The architecture is well preserved and there are two acclaimed museums in the area (Musée de Montmartre and Dali Espace). It never feels unsafe, because there are always people around. But I can’t help seeing film scenes everywhere. The first I viewed from a bench at Place Dalida, where I stopped on a walk with the dog. I watched a couple across the road having an emotional scene, arguing, crying, flinging themselves against lampposts and railings, while in the foreground another couple made out passionately. Love and conflict played out in dramatic opposition to each other, with me serving as the sole audience member. At its climax, the upset man slapped his girl and in an instant a dozen “extras” in the area surrounded him, driving him off with their French insults. I nearly cheered.
The second cinematic moment happened the next day, to the boyfriend, actually. He was wandering a side street near the Rue des Martyrs when a man stopped him so he could recite a page from the works of Chekhov. Despite the girl giggling at his side, he clearly intended a serious performance, and the boyfriend applauded, receiving a bow in return.
Last week we were having drinks outside a cafe called Le Progres, and a street musician warbled “Venus” in a scratchy baritone while he beat the melody out on his guitar. Playing music publicly takes courage. Playing a Bananarama song with teen-like enthusiasm when you’re about 80 years old and have no voice left warrants a total disregard for the seriousness of life.
I am woman
Seems redundant, je sais, but I’ve spent the past eight years in England, where men would rather burn their eyes with hot pokers than gaze at you meaningfully on the street. (Unless it’s midnight and the pub’s closing, obvs.) Their deference is as alienating as it is sweet. I was used to the overt appreciation of Homo Americanus…an attitude the Parisian men match, and then some.
Suddenly I notice men noticing me…often just a neutral look, but they don’t immediately look away. They look, they absorb, they judge. And only once have I felt uncomfortable, but even an inappropriate gesture seemed a mere miscalculation on his part. In general, the Parisian man is polite but bold, unafraid of rejection, even embracing it when it comes…making us both into a melodramatic spectacle: Look at the woman turning me down, ‘ere in the street, in front of you all! She breaks my ‘eart! Men flirt with me walking the dog, selling me things, even checking my passport to board the Eurostar. I have no interest in these men, but I want to shake their hand just for trying, just for being men, and being brave.
Becoming a femme fatale
The Frenchwoman’s quintessential style is something I didn’t realize I’ve been aiming at my whole life. I’m high maintenance posing as low maintenance, and that fits perfectly with the look: a bit messy but inherently clean, casual but well-considered. Join me in my quest for Paris style!
- Don’t look perfectly made up, like a Southern debutante. Some great advice I heard from a Frenchwoman is “Make up the eyes, or the lips. Not both.”
- Buy fewer clothes that cost more. Your smaller wardrobe will then always have something well made that looks great.
- Borrow from the boys. Turning a masculine item on its head is what French women do best.
- Wear heels. I can’t do this, for orthopedic reasons, and it’s devastating.
- Wear your hair back, or up, but make sure it’s slightly untidy.
I am speechless
That guy who made the inappropriate gesture? He deserved something. An eye roll at least, or a sharp manners check at most. But beyond lacking the language to deliver a perfunctory reprimand, I also can’t determine what cultural reaction to display, in that situation and many others. I’m reading a book on Paris culture, but there’s a lot of ground uncovered, and most of it can be chalked up to the mere peu of French I’ve grasped so far.
We’ve moved to the decidedly less touristy neighborhood of Canal Saint Martin. Amazingly, we can still live day to day speaking Franglais, but without formal lessons we’ll never leap the biggest hurdle: handling conflict in French. Case in point occurred when two girls hogged the single bathroom at Chez Prune. I went to knock on the door to encourage their ejection, then stopped short. I didn’t know how to verbally express such a thing. And I would have returned a blank stare to whatever sassy French response they may have thrown back at me. I have become passive by default. I didn’t even know I had it in me.
This is another undoing of eight years in England; I became confident in confrontation over those years—not because I enjoy it but because I got such great results. The English hate confrontation, and meet it with apologies…affected, maybe, but they backed down enough times that I began to invite confrontation, so hot was the fire of my ego. Cutting in front of me in the Tesco queue? Allow me to call attention to it, and regain my rightful place. Making too much noise in the cinema? I am American, hear me aggressively admonish.
In my Parisian world, I am an ineffective communicator. My speech, when I do dare to speak, is quiet, halting, often accompanied by an expression meant to convey “I’m really trying but I’m aware I make little sense and am hoping you’ll just pretend to laugh with me rather than at me.” And they do laugh, as I try to order another beer or see the wine list (carte du vin, not vin du carte!). I say merci when I should say bonjour, and vice-versa. I apply an overly articulate style in my French delivery, which everyone will agree is pretty much the antithesis of beautiful, lilting, flowing-like-wine French. And I’ve even been known to flee a bathroom cubicle with lightning speed, aware that I could not explain to the next girl waiting that there was no toilet paper.
At best I am annoyingly, passively polite; at worst, I am cold (at least I can get away with it here!). But most of the time, I am just really confusing/ed. I encourage you to remain in one country once you decide to embrace a language, because flitting back and forth across the English Channel once a week means I regularly thank and greet Londoners in French, lending myself an air of haute pretension I definitely do not intend. And after we spent a week in Italy, I was literally left speechless upon return to London, then Paris, staring at waiters, trying to remember which country I was in and what language they expected to come out of my mouth. I could laugh this off if it didn’t actually seem to be affecting my English skills; recently I ordered a tagliatelle in a London restaurant and finished by telling the waitress “You’re welcome”.
The written rules are made to be broken in Paris: don’t walk your dog in the park, don’t drink from glasses canalside, don’t jump the turnstile at the Metro station. It’s the unwritten ones you should pay attention to:
- Try to speak some French, if only at first. However crude, it’s appreciated and shows you don’t presume everyone speaks your language.
- Don’t take pictures with bystanders in them; the French are classy enough to care if they’re in the background of your vapid selfie.
- Don’t suggest the French are wrong; if there’s a mix-up, imply it’s the result of accident rather than personal error to avoid insulting them.
- Show up 20 minutes late for any social engagement.
- Order your drink before your food.
- Don’t expect to buy/receive rounds of drinks with Parisiennes. Pay for your own.
- If you don’t get what you want, look for le système D (Plan D). Turn on the charm and be persistent; there may be a way to win you hadn’t considered.
Even as I continue to be seduced by this city, I’m grappling with the melancholia of having to leave it in one week. I’ve never felt nostalgic for something before it’s actually in the past. I’ve spent six months completely out of context, forever an outsider, but have started to see myself as more than a background player. I suppose that means I’ll be back, but next time I’ll be speaking French.