Reading the very funny list of what he might miss in Paris by David Lebovitz on his self-titled blog reminded me that yes, I too once made an attempt to fit into the Parisian way of life. I swished down the street in elegant attire. I spoke in a clipped Parisian accent. I cultivated "euhs" in my speech. I licked the shop windows lusting (ever so discreetly) after the chic (or not so) clothing inside. I walked and walked and walked and walked -- I'm not a fan of the metro-- and had the most gorgeous jambes while I lived there. I drank my coffee black and serré. I spent my spare evenings wandering the corridors of some of the world's most splendid museums, and I had my spot as a regular at my favorite brasserie (where they still remember me thirteen years later).
I most competently sought out obscure addresses with my handy Paris guide that should be replicated by every city in the world, particularly Tokyo where I believe the buildings are numbered chronologically... In thirty minutes I could arrive at nearly any destination (if I took public transport, preferably the bus).
I was pretty darned proud of myself when I took my friend's portfolios of model wanabees to the major agencies (Elite, etc.,) where I'd set up interviews carefully ahead of time. I felt elegant and well-received, and yes I was proud they were impressed by my French and my demeanor. Hey, what girl wouldn't want to feel pretty and respected at a top modeling agency? All your worst nightmares could be confirmed, or not, in such a place.
I learned to talk and argue and defend my point of view. I learned to flirt and to handle relatively aggressive male attention. But, I never learned to adjust to Parisian sidewalk behavior.
I've a theory that in Manhattan, we all walk quickly, but it's a socially agreed upon choreography of avoiding slamming into fellow pedestrians. It's a dance of running, dodging, jumping, swirling. And never, but never have I collided with a fellow pedestrian in NYC, even when I've been deep in conversation with a friend and relatively clueless to the world striding past. However, in Paris, more than once, walking abreast of a girlfriend (speaking in French mind you), I was slammed in the outside shoulder, and I mean slammed. It was frightening, shocking, disturbing, and more than a bit of, "what the????" I mean, was I taking up too much sidewalk or what?
Yes, I can move quickly, and be impatient, but I'm not rude. I value being considerate... which is a bit out of place in Paris, though not always. If you are not polite and say Bonjour Monsieur, or Madame, or Mademoiselle, you will not get good service and you will most definitely be in the position of the rude and boorish one.
Meeting students at my graduate program, finding certain interesting, I tried to propose an out-of-class get-together. "No, I already have friends, I don't have time for anyone else." Oh... that's an interesting point of view.
At work at the Centre National de la Photo, and later with the photo book editor Robert Delpire, I worked hard and did extra. Fine. But I also answered the phone with a full "Centre National de la Photo, puis je vous aider?" and my boss looked at me like I was crazy. The standard response to a phone call from who knows who? (world-famous Henri Cartier Bresson, a minister, a student, a Swedish colleague) "Oui." And you leave the caller to explain his mission, and then pass him onto someone else, not necessarily with an explanation or introduction, so it's up to him/her to explain him/herself all over again.
Paris was a world where I experienced being alone. After my rich social life in super friendly Seattle, and the member of the family work life in Japan, here I was on my own. I was able to call friends of friends occasionally, and be invited to a nice dinner in someone's home: "Bonjour, je m'appelle Madeleine. Je vous appelle de la part de Mme. D. Brodin, elle m'a donné votre numéro et.... Je suis actuellement étudiante à Paris... etc., etc.," But, it was very very difficult to find friends. So, I took to my evening habits of walking everywhere. I went to two dance classes a week (and briefly dated my Antonio Banderas look alike teacher, which was fun if brief), to my brasserie on the Ile St. Louis on the weekend, and to museums during their evening hours. I worked and I studied. I took in the amazing array of films, old and new, in the hundreds of cinémas in Paris. I picked up a copy of the Paris Spectacle every week for 2F and checked out the phenomenal art exhibitions and the numerous galleries and museums or free Sunday church concerts. I explored flea markets and took walking tours as outlined in the Guide Routard.
It was a time to look at works of art at my leisure, with ideas swirling in my head unshared, un-compared. It was a time to admire buildings, people, dogs, parks, skylines, in my own way and at my own pace. It was a curious and unusual for me. I'm terribly social, as many in my world will agree, and yet, I don't shy from being alone. It is often a preference, and vastly superior to being tugged along at another's pace on occasion.
I wasn't yet an adamant foodie, but I certainly enjoyed good food. A fellow dancer in class was married to the dairy shop owner in rue Daguerre, and from here I purchased yummy cheeses, fresh butter, artisanal crème fraîche and discovered the currant rolls from Poilane (in 1995 mind you, a bit ahead of the craze to follow). I sated my sweet tooth on tarts and éclairs et réligieuses till I could walk past a pastry shop and no longer drool -- that took a couple of months, but now, I know they're there, and when I need one, I can have one. It is no longer necessary to throw myself upon their mercy to satisfy the sweet cravings of a little girl whose mother was careful to raise her with few to no desserts in the house.
I walked down Rue Mouffetard, shopping along the way for a slice of pâté, some runny cheese and a gorgeous fresh peach or two for lunch. And I discovered La Maison du Chocolat nearby my office by Étoile. One, two, perhaps three amazing ganâche filled chocolates? I didn't dare get myself a whole box. But you're perfectly welcome to purchase chocolates by the gram, and carefully saying, Bonjour Madame, and Merci Madame, and ça sera tout Madame, goes a long way to a polite-if not warm-welcome.
I think as a young American female (I was 27 at the time), what was most frustrating was being hit on and followed way too often by strange men. Okay, I'm told it is to flatter us. That men feel it necessary to do this to stroke our egos. That actually, you should start worrying when this stops! But, as someone who likes to lie on a lovely green lawn (in between the visits of the Luxembourg Gardens' Lawn Guards) with a good book in her hands soaking up the unusual and sincerely welcome sunshine of a late Parisian spring... well, it's damn annoying to have a somewhat normal looking young man start talking to you, and then, ask you to come watch him jerk off in the bushes. Good Lord, is that what a gentle "please leave me alone" gets you? So I learned to be brusk and never to say a word, never to make eye contact. They did not exist, they were beneath my notice, and thus, I could have some level of peace.
On the flip side, when working the Photo Art Fair in Paris, I would greet potential clients as they walked into our booth to look more closely at the photos. I'll never forget the man who looked at me, startled, and said, "on se connait?" Ah, no, I don't know you sir, I'm simply a pathetically naive and friendly American who says hello to people who walk into her space....
Yes, I had ups, and downs. It's a gorgeous city. I love knowing it well, I love visiting, I loved my charming apartments, my studies, my free student entries to museums, theatres, the opera, dance, and so much more. What an incredible time in my life. Though oddly, I came to Paris via Seattle and Kobe Japan, not directly from NY. Had I done the latter, I might have fit in better.
Would I live there full time? After moving to Provence? I think not. But that's another story.