Wednesday, January 28, 2009

An American in Paris: Notes on the French

Obviously I have only been in Paris for three weeks... but after these three weeks I have come to a few general conclusions as a foreigner that I want to note...

1. The French love kissing.. its true, just like you hear, like in the movies, etc. And not in places you think either, but places that Americans might consider strange and somewhat obnoxious (especially for those without anyone in Paris to kiss). They s'embrassent in the Metro stops, on the metro train (where sometimes I find it hard to stand without toppling on an old, frail French woman), in the streets (they especially love to stop in front of people)... which brings me to my next conclusion on the same topic. I sometimes wonder whether the French enjoy their kisses (which often come between sweet nothings passed back and forth, audible enough for those around and can be anything from a peck to a minute of embrace), or if its an elaborate play, designed and coreographed by the French government to "garder l'air" of Paris as the city of love that we all believe as Americans who learn about Paris. This sounds silly, but the French government seems to have a pretty good control... on a lot of things that Americans would not find necessary. I'm not sure whether I believe yet that the French kiss for their own satisfaction or for the satisfaction of those around them, it seems to be too spontaneous and common, as if they are looking for a crowd of foreigners to stop and look and say "Oh my, Paris really is romantic, isn't it?" In addition, I find myself seeing all French lovers as having what we might call "puppy love." This applies not only to the youth, but through the young adult faze and even to people around the age of 50, who also seem to enjoy stopping in an alley or in the middle of a crowded street to kiss for no less than 25 seconds and whisper sweet nothings. The love seems to be an act, crafted so cunningly by some puppet master as a cruel joke to all those of us who had the misfortune to grow up anywhere else. No one in Paris appears to be single (this rule only applies to public places, not to bars or clubs however... for reasons that both make sense.. why would a happy couple frequent clubs, and also for reasons I have yet to understand). The puppet master is always at work, and dare I say does a very fine job. Don't turn to quickly or you may bump into two people with locked lips.

2. I've noted this before, but the French are eternally cold... which is perfect since they can do nothing without a fabulous scarf wrapped around their necks. The problem is, they seems to bring it upon themselves. Stores, cafés, schools, and even bars are cold in Paris, so they are forced to wear layers.. which sadly hides their thin and beautiful bodies. Its not only that they are cold, but that they seems to fear, loathe, and admire those who feel differently. This applies especially to exercise, for which the French seem to have a predisposed distaste for. Example: Gyms in Paris cost around 300 euro a month... if that doesn't stop you from exercising, I don't know what will... additionally, the gym at our school is a pathetic excuse for a place to work out. As I run down the Promenade Plantée, I notice I am the only one wearing shorts... the few French who are running (for excercise) are bundles up in sweatshirts or sweaters, pants, gloves, hats, you name it. Now I am writing this as of January 28th, but it is around 40 degrees, easily running weather in small shorts and a long sleeved shirt (underarmour perhaps) in the States. Not only is it the attire, but the looks I get for wearing what I am are a mix between horror, curiosity, jealousy, and confusion (as if to say... "how are you not on the ground in a block of ice poor boy?")

3. The French are not rude, as I will attempt to explain, but they come across as such. (they are instances where of course they are rude, by any definition) The French instead have a notion of time, abstract from any real sense of the word, and certainly abstract from any understanding that Americans hold. Often there are instances where being American does seem to warrant extra rudeness, but often I notice behavior to ALL people, even to the French, that I would consider rude by American standards, especially when it comes from people in the service industry who we would expect must be extra helpful and polite. For the French, time standing is different from time moving. When they stand (and sit), time does not actually move forward, and if it does, minutes last hours. Thus, meals in France (nice ones at nice places) take hours and have many courses. There is no hurry to eat for the customers, or to serve (for the waiters and staff). In lines, people seem fairly patient, even though one usually waits at least 10 minutes, sometimes even 20 or so, to check out at a grocery store (keep in mind, people don't buy cartloads, they buy 5 to 10 items.. in America there would be no lines at all for this). When they move, time apparently flies by at light speed, as if they are all on fire and its following them and the only way they can avoid a terrible and tragic death is arriving at their destination and sitting down. They have no time for people in the street who are in their way (unless of course, refering to my first point, they must stop and kiss... its as essential as a glass of water apparently). If they don't get from point A to point B in half the time it would take an American, they feel shame greater than a traditional tribal family must feel when one of their own takes a spouse from a rival village. One would assume that slowing down the moving and speeding up the sitting would suffice as a perfect middle ground, but this is not so, for reasons I do not yet comprehend. 

4. After a few weeks in Paris, you might be inclined to think that the city sits amongst a vast desert, three times as large as the Sahara, because for some reason, water in this town is as hard to find as the lost Ark. First of all, there are not bubblers (water fountains for those not from Milwaukee)... but thats not even the issue here. Sitting down at a French restaurant, water is not immediately brought to your table (GASP! I know... as Americans we are used to heaping glasses of ice water immediately as we enter a restaurant and never being able to finish it). Instead, you must ask (with great care) for "de l'eau" in a carafe. Make sure to ask for it in a carafe or they will bring you expensive Evian.. no, no, you want the free stuff. The problem is, they bring you but a small wine bottle of tap water, often enough for only 4 small wine glasses of water that sit upon every table in Paris... even when you have 6 or 7 people. Apparently, Paris is always in a drought, because to get another bottle is a task so epic, the combined might of all of Mount Olympus MIGHT be enough to force your French waiter/waitress to bring you another carafe... ten minutes after you asked. And don't even THINK about ice.. no, in France there is NO ice (this is an overstatement of course) but it appears they only enjoy filling your glass with ice when you get a 15 euro drink from a bar or club, diluting it enough to taste like.. well... water and ice). Even McDonald's appears to be suffering from constantly broken ice machines. It's all very unsettling. Safe to say, when you leave a restaurant in Paris, you are as thirty as a camel and now you have the difficult task of sticking it out until you return home or buying a 3 euro (5 dollar) bottle of Evian at the nearest market.

5. One positive thing... you don't have to leave a tip! When you see a price, both tax AND tip are included. This is, beyond imagination, one of the most amazing things about living abroad. (It is also why American waiters/waitresses hate foreigners). When you go out to eat in America (of course I'm speaking about a high school/college age) with your friends, the most difficult task is figuring out the tip, who has enough singles or change to leave, and then who owes who a dollar because they only have a $20. In Paris, NO MORE! The price you see is the price you pay. That's all I have to say about that... just in case you think you have to leave a tip, you don't (although it's appreciated.. its rare)... so don't... you're already paying up the ass as it is. Oh, this applies to drinks at bars too... WOHOO!


  1. The no tip thing is valid here. I appreciate it quite a bit because we take cabs a lot (usually costs like $2) and don't have to worry about tipping!

  2. About the kissing; I moved to Argentina from the USA, and noticed how people kiss here as well.

    I think we Americans underestimate how many psychological layers of kissing sophistication exists around the world. Kissers may act oblivious but in some cases they know who's watching even with their eyes closed. I'd have never have guessed this was even possible, but I've um...seen it with my own eyes.

    I wonder if Parisians are even that oblivious to the outside world when they kiss. I'll have to see for myself soon.