Category Archives: Understanding the French Way of Life

Paris Farmers’ Markets: Dos and Don’ts (Mostly Don’ts)

Many thanks to Sedulia Scott who writes the Rue Rude blog for allowing Posted in Paris to repost these words of sage advice.

Went to the marché, or farmers’ market, this morning and got a little carried away on the flowers– €49 later, I came home with some peonies, Easter lilies (which in France are called arum, but I just read that both names are wrong: this is not a real lily), some yellow freesia, and four bunches of lilies of the valley, which will last only a few days, but are a symbol of May. Children sell them on May Day here on all the street corners. Aren’t they pretty?

Today, as usual, the market was full of foreign tourists gawking at the lovely food and product displays. As the vendeuse was cutting the stems and wrapping up the flowers (she gave me some foliage for free), I saw out of the corner of my eye a tall, impatient American man, identifable by his khaki pants and button-down shirt, but also by his attitude. While the florist was taking care of me, he had gotten more and more annoyed. The florist was aware of his annoyance but not of its cause and looked puzzled. Finally he just laid down his money, pointed at the lilies of the valley in his hand and said, “Pour les fleurs,” and flounced off.Enfin, he would have if he’d had flounces. The florist made big eyes at me and said, “What’s wrong with him?” and then shrugged her shoulders.

What was wrong? He didn’t know the rules of the marché. I didn’t either when I first came to France. So, for your viewing pleasure, here are a few!

1) Enjoy the market all you want! It’s fine to walk through slowly and gawk at the gorgeous fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish, meat, and surprisingly high-quality linens, etc.

2) Don’t touch the food! This is not done. Mais non, non, non! The merchant will serve you.

3) If you don’t plan to buy anything, photograph discreetly if at all. Understandably, the vendors don’t love being the focus, year in, year out, of lots and lots of cameras of people who never buy.

4) At the height of the market, it will be crowded and you will have to wait your turn at popular, high-quality stands. If you are a customer, make a signal if the vendor doesn’t realize you’re not just a tourist staring. Then wait your turn. There may not seem to be a line, but there is. The French don’t love orderly queues. But the vendor notices who’s first, second and so on. If they make a mistake, it’s not usually out of malice toward tourists but because too many people are waiting. Sometimes there’s a long wait, that’s just how it is. When it’s your turn next, make a little signal with your hand. Whatever you do, don’t lose your temper. And remember to begin with Bonjour! and finish with Merci! Au revoir! 

While you are waiting for your turn, don’t expect the merchant to pay you the least bit of attention. This is the problem my American man, at the beginning of this post, must have had. The vendeuse was completely ignoring him to focus on me– this is the polite, correct way for a vendor to behave in France. The American was expecting her to acknowledge him and in some way say “Don’t worry, you’re next,” or “I’ll be right with you.” But to the vendeuse, that would be rude to me.

5) If you don’t speak French, no problem! Say Bonjour and then ask if they can speak English. If they can’t, there is always someone nearby who can and will come to your aid if you need it.

6) If you are not a regular customer, watch carefully what you are being given! The French way of privilégier-ing their regular customers means that non-regular customers are the ones on whom they try to fob off the less good produce. Feel free to point at an unsatisfactory choice and say, “No, not that one! That one.” French customers do this all the time. Smile!

7) If you come at the very end of the market, you can get some good bargains, but a lot of the best stands my be out of produce. Also, the market people have to spend quite a lot of time taking their stands down, and they aren’t happy to have a customer show up just as they are putting things into the truck. So try to get to the market before 13h15. (I have no idea what time to show up in the morning. I am not a morning person.)

And voilà, one of the greatest pleasures of France!

La Rentrée: Back to Paris

It’s that time of year again–la rentrée. The tourists return to their homes and Paris begins to bustle as it fills back up with residents readying themselves for fall. Summer is behind us, work has geared up and school is in session. Whether you’re new to Paris or returning from holiday, here are a few posts to help you and your family get into the French swing of things.

School Supplies
School Calendar
Back to School Clothes Shopping
Sports Equipment
The Rhythm of the Week
Making a House a Home
Getting the News
Making Sense of the Supermarket
Where Can  I Find…

Visit our categories section to find more extensive information on settling in the City of Light. There are posts on everything from dealing with food allergies in Paris to where to find the city’s 24 hour gas stations!

BLOOM

Each year since 1970 the Women of the American Church (WOAC) host Bloom Where You’re Planted, a program designed to help Anglophones settle into life in Paris. This year’s event will be held on Saturday, October 5th. The program begins at 9:00AM with a continental breakfast and chance to meet other participants as you take a stroll through the exhibitor hall. After breakfast, there are five whole-group sessions that discuss everything cross cultural adaptation to Parisian history with one of the city’s most informative tour guides and well known authors, Peter Caine. The morning sessions are followed by a buffet lunch and breakout sessions later in the afternoon. Topics for the afternoon seminars include cutting through red tape, the French education system, staying healthy in Paris, and much more. If you are new to the City of Light, BLOOM is an excellent opportunity to learn the ins and outs of your new home and connect with other English speakers. To register and see the complete program, visit the BLOOM website here.  The fee is  40 euros.  And trust us, the BLOOM book itself is worth the price of admission.

Bloom Where You’re Planted at the American Church in Paris
65 Quai d’Orsay 75007

bloom@acparis.org

Boulangerie Basics

Today’s post is re-posted with permission from Vingt Paris. Vingt Paris is a website devoted to helping its readers get the most out of life in Paris and its 20 diverse arrondissements. This post is part of a larger series exploring the city’s unspoken rules.

By Guillermom Martínez de Velasco

Who doesn’t like bread? It’s probably humanity’s oldest baked good, and when it comes to breadlove, Parisians take it to the next level. The Boulangerie is not just a place to get bread, it is a neighbourhood institution much like your local Alimentation Génerale or Brasserie. I know it may seem odd to think that something as meaningless as getting a baguette could go so potentially wrong. Therein lies the first mistake; a baguette can be regarded by Parisians as more meaningful than most of the things you’ll have to face in a typical city morning.

Out of taking the crowded métro only to change lines at Gare de l’Est; walking through streets full of vendors, noise, cars, unpleasant smells; walking up five flights of stairs constantly, and God forbid, breaking a sweat because of the heat; a baguette is the only thing that is constantly good. This explains why they take special care of the stuff made in their bakeries and why you should too! As these series of articles are meant to illustrate, protocol is protocol.

Unless you were lucky enough to have a real French bakery outside your place before coming to Paris, chances are you thought that the spongy white and brown square you had with toast, was bread. This is not to say that other countries don’t have good bread. It’s just that amazing bread is not as immediately available for the majority of people as it is for Parisians. Luckily, you live here now, so this is what you need to do:
  1. Find a Boulangerie and stick to it. Even though Paris is a big city, it manages to maintain a very local vibe within each neighbourhood. Say bonjour to the people next door, or the gardienne, or anyone in your building, everytime you run into them.  Eventually their replies will come with a smile. Once this happens, slip in the question: What boulangerie do they go to? Congratulations, from now on it’s yours also. Don’t even think about getting bread anywhere else.
  2. Arrive early. After midday bread will be stale and most of the good stuff, like croissant aux amandes, will be long gone. That doesn’t mean that if you walk by the bakery in the afternoon you shouldn’t wave at the employees. Remember, they make your bread and therefore hold the power. The customer is definitely not king in Paname.
  3. Say Hello. At the beginning you’ll notice that everyone seems to be getting warm bread while you, quite simply, aren’t. This is normal. Unfamiliar people get the less than fresh stock. Why would some tourist get the same bread that the gens du quartier do? I know it seems very basic but sometimes we tend to forget to say hello. Everytime you see your baker remember to drop some “Bonjour” “Comment allez-vous?” “Bonne journée” etc. This will make them remember you and, once they do, you’ll start getting the good bread.
  4. Respect your elders. At any given moment, there will be at least one old person in the Boulangerie. Bear in mind they have been going to the same place, most likely every day, for longer than you have been alive. They probably know the baker’s parents and even grandparents. Old Parisians are your gateway to good service. Be extra polite to them; let them cut in front of you, say hello and goodbye, talk about the weather; anything really. What you want is for them to one day step in for you, look the baker in the eye and tell him to treat you right. Befriend the cardigan and béret wearers.
  5. Get the right stuff. There are a lot of options in your standard Boulang’. Don’t be afraid to ask what they would recommend. Remember, this is not some teenager behind the counter working a summer job. The person usually lives for and because of bread. If you feel like choosing for yourself, there are also some failsafe varieties. For the sweet tooth, I recommend either croissant aux amandes or the classic pain au chocolat; if the places makes canelés, don’t think twice about getting some. If it’s a baguette you’re looking for get the tradition. French law requires it to be mixed, kneaded, leavened and baked on site. Freezing it is literally illegal.
  6. Holiday Bread Be it Christmas or Poisson d’Avril, most French holidays have an accompanying holiday bread. Get it, you’ll find that most of the time you’ll eat the whole thing faster than expected. If not, give it to someone as a present. Most importantly, anyone who’s anyone in the eyes of your Boulanger is getting one. You don’t want to miss out.

When and where to eat bread is mostly up to you. As a general rule, resist the urge to bite into your bread before you have reached your destination. Remember the ever-Parisian mantra of keeping it subtle. Was that you eating in public, like you couldn’t afford to give yourself five minutes of leisure time? Mais non! Even though this seems like a long and tedious process, rising to the status of Boulangerie regular is still faster than opening up a bank account (a month), or getting your titre de sejour (several months to a year).

French people don’t conceptualize time the way most other nations do, and even in the hustle and bustle of Paris, no one likes time to be more important than they are. Bread is one of those ways in which Parisians stick it to the man. Be it a 2 hour lunch break or a baguette with ham and camembert while on strike. Take the time to take your time, and enjoy the best bread in the world. After all, it’s just around the corner.

Banking Bloopers

Today’s post is reposted with permission from paris im(perfect), the blog of American writer Sion Dayson.  There’s little practical information here but Sion’s experience here is an engaging all-too-real tale about what happens when an American expat encounters the French banking system.   The moral of the story?  Life in France will be frustrating, even maddening at times but there’s usually a happy ending.

by Sion Dayson

For the first year I was in France, I kept all my money in a sock.

This was well before the global economic crisis, so it was not a protest against untrustworthy banks.

BFF Socks

No, the clothing/cash method wasn’t my choice. It’s because no bank would let me open an account.

Now y’all must remember, I came to Paris on a bit of a whim with not much of a plan. I moved straight into someone else’s tiny studio so my name wasn’t on any official document that could have helped me at first: the lease or gas/electricity bills (proof of stable address), payslips or work contract (proof of income).

Even after my name was plastered on everything from the phone bill to EDF (electricity bill – the best proof of residence) and I had just gotten married, this still wasn’t enough. We went to J’s bank where he had been a client for 15 years and they refused my request.

This became one of those tricky catch-22’s so infamous in France. To get my first carte de sejour I needed a bank account. To open a bank account, I needed my carte de sejour.

Euro

Thankfully, I had just gotten a job with Expedia, and through a personal introduction by a colleague to a bank counselor at the branch next door, they let me open an account (the personal introduction so often smooths over a situation, though funny that an introduction from a colleague worked, but by my husband, nope).

Anyway, I’ve been successfully banking for awhile now.

But my experience makes me wary. So when I received a check from England back in September, I made sure to ask the woman at the bank whether I needed to do anything particular with this (gasp!) foreign check.

The check was actually drawn in euros, not pounds, even though it was from the UK, so she said it would be fine. Just deposit it normally.

-Are you sure? I ask.

-Yes.

-Even though it’s foreign, I insist.

-Yes, no problem.

Ok, so I deposit the check.

One week. Two weeks. Three weeks. A month. No money in the account.

I go to ask about the status of the check.

-Oh, but it’s foreign, it just takes extra time, the woman says.

-How much time?

-You’ll see it in your account soon.

A few more weeks. I ain’t seeing nothing.

Same woman. I explain the same situation.

-Oh! But it’s foreign! You had to fill out a special form!

-I asked you if I had to fill out a special form the first time and you said no.

-Oh, but it’s foreign!

-Right, got that. So what do I do?

We have to track it down. She takes my copy of the deposit slip and tells me she’ll call the next day.

Next day, day after, week after. Nothing.

Go back. New man. Yay, explain the situation to someone new (and actually I am glad it’s someone new, as obviously original woman is not helping).

He makes some calls, photocopies my deposit slip again. Says he’ll call.

He doesn’t.

Go back again. Original woman. She says, oh! But we cannot do anything here. You have to go to your branch (I had deposited it in a different LCL bank than my main LCL branch).

Go across town (almost all of line 2) to my branch (it was close to the job I no longer have).

I recount the story again and say I was told they had to handle it here.

-Mais c’est faux, Madame! It’s false! Ce n’est pas nous! It’s not us.

(Of course not. Of course it’s never anybody’s responsibility.)

-Look, this check has been dangling in some vacuum for 2 months now. I was told to come here. You tell me to go back to the branch that 5, 6 times in a row has done nothing. Tell me exactly what needs to happen. What I need to say to them.

He shows me the form they will have to fill out, a “formulaire de recherche” I think it was called.

I go back to original bank. I say they need to fill out a formulaire de recherche.

-But of course, the woman says, pulling out the form before I can even finish.

OMG. I’m going to kill her.

So this sounds promising, right? They are “looking” for it. “Recherching” it.

Another month. Nothing.

I make an appointment with my bank counselor just to talk about this. I tell her to get on the phone with somebody who will sort this out right now. I’m not leaving the office until she does.

She calls someone. I hear her go “oh, c’est normal.” But then she kind of rolls her eyes, like, yeah, I don’t think this is normal, either.

Alright, is this post long and boring enough for you? Sorry, just a little longer to give you the full picture.

Because, oh wait, what?

Yeah, the story’s still not done.

I hear nothing after the phone call. I get an “avis de suspens d’une remise export a l’encaissement.” I’m not even going to try to translate because it’s still incomprehensible.

I call again. Give all of my information to some new person. She sounds capable. I feel like I’m in better hands.

Then she calls back 3 days later saying she needs all of the information again. They’ve lost it.

Are. You. Kidding. Me.

I leave her a phone message. I leave my bank counselor a message.

I am ready to give up.

And then, four months after the deposit and numerous trips to the bank, I suddenly see my account credited. Just like that.

This is the positive lesson out of all this: just when things seem dire and impossible, something magically happens and the problem is resolved.

The other lessons? If it’s foreign, it’s going to be a problem in France. (Also, get your name on an EDF bill right away).

And really. Sometimes I think I was better off with the sock. :)

Sion Dayson is an American writer living in Paris. Her life is not as clichéd as that statement sounds. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Girls’ Guide to Paris, and a National Book foundation anthology among other venues. She’s currently working on her first novel and blogs about the City of Light’s quirkier side at paris (im)perfect.    

Notes to Self

Today’s entry is reposted in its entirety from Chez Loulou: A Taste of Life in the South of France, the blog of Jennifer Greco.   Jennifer lives in the south of France with her husband, two dogs and a cat.  She is a chef, writer, photographer and French cheese addict.  

by Jennifer Greco

Olonzac Market Day

The expression “I almost had to give up my firstborn child” does not translate into French. Use it and they’ll think you’re certifiable.

Your neighbors and your hairdresser will never stop commenting on your weight gain or loss.

There’s a reason behind la priorité à droite. You will just never understand it.

The type of bra you prefer is a balconnet, not a banquette*.

As soon as they learn that you’re American, they’ll assume that you’re rolling in dough. The expression “rolling in dough” doesn’t translate either.

Stop trying to order your steak à point*. It will always arrive bleu*, no matter what.

That sweet looking, little old lady standing uncomfortably close to you in line at the boulangerie is trying to cut in front of you. Stand your ground.

It is de l’eau* or un verre d’eau*. Get that through your head already.

The day that you’re running late for an appointment in town is the day that all the streets on your route will be shut down for a manifestation.

You will never be able to pronounce the words grenouille* or moelleux*. Stop embarrassing yourself by trying to.

You will continue to have those incredible “oh my god I live in France” moments. Savor them.

As soon as you get comfortable and think you’ve got this whole living in France thing all figured out, remember that you really haven’t.
And remember to breathe.

*banquette – seat
*à point – medium
*bleu – rare
*de l’eau – some water
*un verre d’eau – a glass of water
*grenouille – frog
*moelleux – soft or mellow

The Skinny on Getting Married in Paris

Today’s post is reposted with permission from Parisian Party, the blog of Kimberley Petyt, an American wedding planner living in Paris.  Kim has been creating events for almost 10 years, both in the U.S. and in France.  Her firm, Parisian Events, caters to the English-speaking community in Paris – people who either live here on a long-term basis, or come to Paris just to celebrate their wedding or special event.  Her specialty is combining traditional American elements with classic Parisian elegance- and ending up with fresh, stylish, “oh la la” events that keep guests talking for ages after!

by Kimberley Petyt

le baiser de l'hotel de ville, doisneauFrom the classic Technicolor dance scenes of An American in Paris to more recent films like Moulin Rouge and Amelie Poulain- for many Americans, Paris is the epitome of romance. And what could be a more romantic place to get married? For most couples, after deciding to get married in Paris, the first thing they do is make a giddy, “so crazy this just might work” phone call to their local French consulate, where they are instantly jerked backed down to earth by their first official French Non: “Mais, mademoiselle! C’est impossible! You must live in France for 40 days before you can marry in France. Impossible! Why are you calling me? Au revoir!!” Click…. And for some couples, that will be that. In a flash they’re swept directly to Plan B, their local country club with a Paris themed reception, do not pass Go, do not collect 200€…

Some couples, though, will want to see the dream through- they may choose to have a legal ceremony in their own country, and then come to Paris for a symbolic ceremony. Symbolic ceremonies aren’t legally binding, but are as romantic and as meaningful as you’d imagine them to be. I’ll post more about symbolic ceremonies in the future. This post, though, is for the hard-liners- those couples that are ready to dance with the big boys, to run the gauntlet, fight the fight… Getting legally married in France as a foreigner will be one of the strongest tests to your “coupledom” as you’ve probably gone through so far. Forget about Couples Fear Factor: if you can survive this, you can survive anything…

The Nitty Gritty

What the curt civil servant at the embassy told you is true. In order to be legally wed in France, one of the couple needs to have lived in France, in the district around the city hall in which they plan to marry, for a minimum of 40 consecutive days before the wedding. Some sources say 30 days, but you have to add on an additional 10 days for the city hall to publish the Banns – a public announcement that is put up in City Hall for 10 days preceding your marriage that lists your names and your impending marriage date so that any estranged husbands or wives have one last chance to find you before you’re married off…

Before asking for that sabbatical from work, though, you should know that this one little detail is actually a big one. You must show 2 proofs of domicile (“justificatifs de domicile” )- a gas or electricity bill (a cell phone bill doesn’t count), a rent receipt, a lease, a French social security card, etc. If you are planning on renting an apartment here on a short-term lease in order to meet this marriage requirement, know that it could take several months before you receive any of the above documents. Another option is to live with a friend or relative, and have that person sign an attestation d’hébergement sur l’honneur. This is a statement swearing that you have been living at that persons residence, and that they take responsibility for you if you happen to be a drug trafficker or illegally downloading “Desperate Housewives” or something. There is a ton of small print on this one, including a huge fine and a short trip to the guillotine if its ever found out that you, in fact, Paris City Hallwere not living with them.

If you are able to meet the 40 day requirement, the first thing you want to do is to get the most recent list of required documents from the city hall (mairie) in which you plan to marry. Most of these documents have specific time frames in which they must be dated before being submitted, so it’s important to get the list as soon as you can. Here is a general list of the documents that you will need to be legally wed in France. It’s important, though (and I can’t stress this enough) that you get the official, most up-to-date list from the mairie in the district (arrondisement) that you are planning to marry.

A valid passport or a French residence permit (“carte de sejour”)

A birth certificate (”extrait d’acte de naissance“): Most city halls require that you present an original copy of a complete birth certificate (with full details of your parents) issued within 3 months of your wedding date along with a sworn translation. You have to get the translation from a sworn translator (”traducteur assermenté“). Sworn translators are listed at every “mairie”.

A certificate of celibacy (”attestation tenant lieu de declaration en vue de mariage ou de non-remariage“) less than 3 months old

An affidavit of law (”certificat de coutume“) Many mairies request an affidavit of law (”Certificat de Coutume”) in addition to the affidavit of marital Status from foreigners. The affidavit of law certifies that the American citizen is free to get married in France and that the marriage will be recognized in the United States. Only an attorney licensed to practice in both France and the United States may execute this document.

A medical certificate (“certificat médical prénuptial”): You both must get a pre-nuptial medical certificate which says that you were examined by a doctor “en vue de mariage.” (Don’t get nervous, girls- it’s just a standard check-up plus a couple of blood tests: blood type, syphilis, rubella and toxoplasma…) The marriage banns cannot be published until medical certificates have been submitted to the mairie. The certificates must be dated no earlier than two months before the publication of banns. Any qualified doctor can perform the medical examination (the Embassy publishes a list of English-speaking doctors).

Proof of domicile (”justificatifs de domicile“) (see above)

A “certificat du notaire“: If you are planning on having a pre-nuptial agreement, you must go through a lawyer (a notaire) who will provide a “certificat du notaire” which must be submitted to the mairie as well. It must have been drawn up no more than 2 months prior to the marriage.

If there are no pre-nuptial contracts, then you will be married under the communauté réduite aux acquets. This means that what each of you owned personally before the marriage, or whatever comes to you afterwards through inheritance, remains your own, individual property. Only that which is acquired during the marriage is owned equally by both parties. (If you’ve ever seen or read Le Divorce, this scenario may look very familiar to you…)

If either of you were previously married, you must provide a certified copy of the death certificate of the deceased spouse or a certified copy of the final divorce decree.

In addition to all of the above, you will also have to choose and provide information on your witnesses (”temoins”)- 2 to 4 people who will act as sort of your best men and/or maid of honor, and sign the registry after the marriage ceremony. You will need to provide their names, addresses, their professions and photocopies of their passports with your dossier.

All of this needs to be presented to the Mairie in time for them to check and approve your documents before posting the Banns- they typically ask for your completed marriage file 10 days before their publication, but I usually suggest that my clients submit their dossier sooner than that- the curt civil servants will almost always insist that there is a document missing, sending you into yet another frenzy of frantic phone calls and emails.

When all has been accepted and approved, you will receive word from the Mairie of your wedding date and time (you can request a specific date and time ahead of time, but they will assure you that nothing is confirmed until the dossier has been approved). Keep in mind that you must be legally married in a civil ceremony before you will be allowed to have a Catholic church ceremony in France. After your civil ceremony, you will receive a “Livret de Famille” (Family Book) a sort of wedding certificate that also has pages for all of your future children. This little blue book is the Holy Grail. If you live in France, this book will make your administrative life here a lot easier pretty much until the day you die (in which your death will be noted in said little blue book). If you don’t plan on staying in France, think of it as the ultimate wedding present.

Getting married in a foreign country is rarely easy. A Parisian wedding is just a bit more difficult than that. But if you are willing and able, the lasting memory of exchanging your vows beneath the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, or in the cobbled halls of a centuries-old chateaû is worth a few months of frustration.

Like I said, if you can survive all of the above, your marriage will be built to last.

 

Holiday Tipping

by A. Letkemann

The holiday season brings hordes of tip collectors, many of whom will be descending on our residences to solicit tips, sell calendars or other knick knacks for services they perceive as having been delivered over the previous year. By edict of the Mairie de Paris, door-to-door solicitations of this sort are not permitted.

If you feel that the mailman, garbage collectors, pompiers, etc. have earned a gratuity, then it is recommended that you contact your building concierge to contribute with the other residents.

However, you can give an annual tip to your concierge if you wish. The amount should depend on the level of services provided and your satisfaction with the services (perhaps around 50€ or more). If you feel comfortable doing so, you could ask your French neighbors how much they recommend. It is also customary to tip household help at this time of year, but again this is optional. Around one month’s salary is a common amount.

Heather Stimmler-Hall, who writes the Secrets of Paris blog, has a slightly different take on holiday tipping.  Check out what she has to say on this topic.  And then do your own calculus about whom to tip and how much.

The Grass is Always Greener: An Expat Reflects

Today’s post is reposted with permission from Prête-Moi Paris, the blog of Melissa Ladd, another American in Paris.  Melissa blogs to share her musings,  ideas, Paris fashion, places she loves, things she tests, things she tastes,  travel tips, inspirations and more. Her original post includes embedded musical cues; if you want the soundtrack, head on over to her blog and read the post there. It’s worth a read either way.

by Melissa Ladd

These are my meditations upon cultural awareness and integration in the city of Paris.

I recently read a blog post by Tory Hoen on HiP Paris blog that got me thinking it was time for a post of my own on what she calls “the Paris effect”.

I remember back in the day when I wasn’t a “real” ex-pat, when my time here was in intervals and I ached if I were away from my beloved Paris. Paris had EVERY “magical” quality back then, and NOTHING about this city turned me off. (Those were also days when I lived a students’ existence and life was a bit more carefree). I distinctly remember having returned after a long period of about a year, and being totally re-enchanted and enthralled by the metro of all things…! In her article, Tory also talks about how others become instantly jealous when you mention your current or former ex-pat status. They have these notions that Paris is full of macaron butter-cream dreams and storybook strolls and angelic avenues of beauty and happiness, and tra-la-la-la…

My point here is not to preach about how it’s unrealistic to have those fairytale dreams about Paris and explain how the promotion of this type of mentality can be detrimental to those who dream of it and to the city itself… but, okay, well actually that IS what I am going to do. But I will also tell you WHY it can be a dangerous dream… and then I will explain how I plan to deal with this “epidemic” in my own life.

Before arriving in Paris, most of us had been dreaming about it for a while. All of our fantasies and hopes and desires were all wrapped up in the amazing possibilities that were to come of the experience of Paris : the life changing experience of the city of lights. Paris was our fairy godmother who would transform us into special, beautiful, classy, cultivated, smart, sassy, suave and swanky ladies (or gentlemen…but I have observed that it’s the ladies who come with the most expectations and fantasies and not the men).

And then we arrive here, and our heart races, it’s like being in love!  Oh LOVE!  There is the initial starry-eyed sweep around the city where we are dazzled by the sparkling tower, and in awe of the enormous Louvre monument, and in tears at the view from the top of Notre Dame; we think how amazing the French are because they “invented” the macaron (actually it was the Italians), and we rave about the sophistication of these creatures that seem to be everywhere primmed to perfection in every way. We are in gracious awe of how the people can stand up and fight for their rights and applaud the protests (with only a semi-understanding of what they are for). We rave gloriously about the efficiency of the transportation system and the health system and the small commerces and boutiques that remain a part of that quaint Paris we had always dreamed of (but then we proceed to shop at the Galleries Lafayette…how ironic).

And then, ladies, and then…the blisters arrive from wearing heels to often and walking our bloated feet over cobblestone. Then the strikes hit hard and we are faced with the dilemma of how to get from point A to point B. Then we have to wait an hour (or four) to see a doctor because we went to the hospital for a broken pinky toe on a Saturday evening.  Then we find ourselves enjoying the sparkling Eiffel tower amongst a pushy crowd of hundreds of tourists and foreigners and are devastated to find out wallet has been stolen in the mean-time. Then we get the experience of French bureaucracy when we have to complete the process of validating our visa at the Prefecture de Police.

THEN WE WAKE UP AND SMELL THE FRENCH ROAST COFFEE!

And we notice finally that life is not one big pink fluffy parade here after all. And after all this prancing and primping and shopping, skipping around town, we see ourselves in a less “romantic” light and realize that we are, well, just ourselves, and that Paris is well…a city. And Paris isn’t perfect, and she doesn’t have a magic wand to transform us into that perfect self we were so hoping she would. Paris is Paris and will always be Paris whether we subscribe to what the city gives or not. And we are the same person we were before we came, and Paris doesn’t really pay much attention to us, let alone sprinkle us with fairy dust. And Paris suddenly seems to have some less pristine aspects we are so shocked to learn. Gasp! Oooh MY!

We move into preservation mode. 

Preserve the dream at all costs!

ALL HANDS ON DECK!

We start by running around trying to make ourselves fit in. We cut our hair – like a French woman, we put on a little makeup when we go to the market, and we shop with a conscious effort to Frenchify our wardrobe. Fake it till you make it??? Right? Not so easy… we soon realize that the coiffure is not real a good one for our face shape, that the make up everyday makes our skin oily and blemished, and that our bank account is weeping tears of pain every time we enter a fashion store. This lasts for a while as we try to force ourselves into this “French identity” (as if that’s all the French identity could ever amount to : a fabulous coiffure and a smart outfit with a scarf and perfectly applied lipstick) that we thought we were going to assume quite naturally and that it turns out sits on us like an ill-fitted prom dress at an after-work cocktail party. We feel like big sore thumbs and our foreignness  seems to stick out like a badly painted toenail in an open toe stiletto. We try to find some French friends…but they are so elusive and appear to be snobby. No one ever invites us for drinks, but they ALL seem to be having drinks in bistros and bars and on café terraces. Why can WE join them? Don’t they like us?  So we pick up smoking to help play the part, and we learn a new phrase to two that’s useful in getting attention or commencing a conversation with the natives, like something about existentialism or independent movies (you know like, stuff the natives like to umm like talk about, right?) but we end up only getting hit on and accosted by the men who all think that it’s fine to ask someone on a first date to THEIR HOUSE… even the dogs hump our legs without asking. Where has all that magic gone? And why don’t we feel welcome here anymore? And why do we seem so different?

The realization that we can’t fit in entirely, deepens and we see that we are attempting to integrate in a way that is superficial (meaning only surface deep) and perhaps doesn’t necessarily suit us in one or two of several ways, whether it’s financially, physically, psychologically and linguistically…. linguistically especially because you lose your sense of humor being that you don’t know how to be funny in French. You lose your worldliness (or what you thought was your worldliness) because all you have learned in French class so far is how to talk about yourself, and you lose your friendliness because you end up a wall flower who doesn’t have anything to add to the conversation since you have absolutely NO IDEA what the conversation is about, and you give into daydreaming instead. Then the size of the Parisians suddenly become very apparent, and you feel  like you tower 3 feet over them, even though it may only be an inch, and not over EVERYONE either. And how DO those French people afford to sit at a café terraces every day, the café crème costs about 4 euros! That’s about 70 euros a month! So you go without eating to compensate. But then you are starving (and a student) so you allow yourself the cheapest thing out there, a baguette. One a day = needing to buy a new pair of jeans within three weeks time.

So how do we combat this crushing of the dream?

When these “short-comings” (which are just really a poor comprehension of how to go about integration) become largely apparent, one tends to lash out with criticism. For example : “How ridiculous of the French/Parisians to do this thing that way! In my country we do it SO much better…” or this : “The French are so lazy, how do they imagine anything is going to ever improve. If they were a little more flexible they might see some progress…” or perhaps this : “Can you believe they say these things! Oh my god, it’s so rude! We would never say such a thing where I’m from.” etc. etc. etc. At this point there is almost a repulsion of whatever the French do, say, like, wear… “The French are so rude!” … “The French are so snobby” … “The French criticize capitalisme but they seem to love it in their business world!” … “The French think they are so superior“… etc. etc. etc. One returns to the comfort of things that are familiar and “safe”, a zone that feels protective and coddles us in our fears and frustrations as well as makes us feel less different all the time; and there is a terrible longing for the homeland. And there is an almost constant critique that plays like a broken record whenever you are faced with coming into contact with the natives.

Some people call this culture shock or a version thereof. It can also be thought of as a realization that the fairy-tale dreams that you conjured up before arriving are in fact your own invention and not reality at all. In a word it is just : disillusionment.

After mulling over this phenomenon for the past eight years or so that I have been in Paris, I am still puzzled at how we (I include myself because I have to admit that there was a point in time when I was a variation of that dreaming-then-whining person that I am ranting about now), how can we be so obnoxious as to impose our expectations upon Paris and upon the French? Who are we to tell them what they should be like? All because we don fit in as easily as we thought we would… because in fact it’s not like we assumed it would be here, and we don’t have French friends by the dozens and über cool political debates on café terraces while we smoke cigarettes and sip wine, and then shop for a new wardrobe on the Champs Elysées. No. In fact the Champs Elysées is void of French; it’s only full of tourists and stores way beyond our price range, the political conversations are far over our head and concern a country where we don’t really know all the players and nuances, and it isn’t held on café terraces with complete strangers, it’s held in living rooms amongst family members of which we have none here.

And the dozens of friends we thought we’d have? Well so far we have three, one is from Vietnam and speaks broken French and little to no English but is really enthusiastic, another is American and only talks about partying at the different rave clubs in the city, but you hang around her because there is no one else, and the third one is this slightly odd guy that keeps asking you on these pseudo-dates and you go telling yourself that it’s great for practicing your French conversation but you find yourself having to conjure up excuses why you can’t be his girlfriend.

Let’s talk about why the “dream” or the “Paris effect” can be so dangerous?

I believe that it can be so “dangerous” because it promotes a false reality, and imposes upon Paris, France and the French, and identity that is not necessarily their own, an identity that has been created by stereotypes and the marketing of the tourism industry that wants to sell you the “perfect” trip to Paris. For tourists, this is fine, this is acceptable, I can understand that need to have a perfect vacation, but this idea has seeped over into pockets of people who come over here for a longer period of time, for a few months or a year or longer.

What I changed in my own self and what I am seeing myself lose patience with in others, is the traveler who comes here for a certain period of time, and expects Paris to be as they had always dreamed it to be. Why do we not come here with an open mind and and fewer expectations? Why don’t we allow Paris to be its own entity, to accept Paris for what it is and find enjoyment in that? The fairy-tale dreams should be left at home. And the differences that shock the dream and crumble it to pieces should be embraced as a chance to experience something that you would otherwise never know. Why? Because by accepting what’s different, we learn more about the world and understand it deeper than ever before; and in that lesson we are able to know ourselves better, and thus grow as humans. If we all did this wherever we went, the world would be a much more understanding place.

Open your eyes and your mind… Paris will take you in if you love her for what it is, and not what you want it to be.  Once you have been able to do this in Paris (or anywhere you travel for that matter) …then AND ONLY THEN do you have every prerogative to delve into the frivolous, magical sides that the city and culture has to offer, because then (and only then) can you truly appreciate them. It’s all about a balancing act, and allowing yourself to be captivated by the sparkle and shine as well as educating yourself about the deeper and more difficult sides to the city. We cannot live on “dessert” alone!

The Parisian dream will really only become true for those who are willing to understand and accept the city for all of her facets and flaws. Let Paris be free and you will find a place that is better than any fairy tale you could fantasize about, a place that is rich with all kinds of people, places, faces, and experiences.  The magic comes alive to those who stand the test of disillusionment, who let go of their preconceived notions and allow themselves to become aware of this place that has so much more to offer than gastronomic cuisine and fancy things, pastry shop sweets and couture boutiques. If that’s all you ever see in Paris, then you have not seen Paris at all.

Friend or Foe? How to Cope when the French Get Feisty

Today’s post and photos originally appeared on the HIP Paris Blog and is reposted here with permission.  The author is Tory Hoen.  An avid traveler and writer, Tory is relentless in her search for Paris’ hippest (and most delicious) secrets. Late night, she can be found lounging in various Right Bank hotspots, and by day, you’ll find her doing deals with the green grocers on the rue Mouffetard. Tory splits her time between Paris, New York, and Montreal, but when not in Paris, she’s always scheming about ways to go back.

by Tory Hoen

Paris Cafe Waiter B&W

French café and waiter … unfortunately not always famous for their friendliness. Dolarz

We’ve all heard something to the effect of, “Paris would be perfect, if it weren’t for the French.” I usually laugh these comments off as clichés that hark back to an earlier age, when France was more culturally closed than it is now. We all know that today’s French are as affable as kittens… or are they?

During my days in Paris, my opinion of Parisians vacillated constantly. One moment, I was pleasantly surprised by the (maybe too) friendly feedback I would get from taxi drivers, “Your accent is so charming, you should stay in France forever”; and the next, I was smarting from the evil looks cast by super-stylish French salesgirls, whose foreigner radar always seemed to seek me out.

French waiter, smiling and ready for your order! Flequi

There’s really no point in generalizing about whether the French are “nice” or “mean.” It’s like asking whether clowns are funny or terrifying. The answer? Both.

Grumy French Man Snow

Nice or Mean?  Alex E. Proimos

It’s a nuanced world, especially in Paris. During my last visit, I was in a bakery when an obviously non-French girl was attempting to order a flan. The woman behind the counter asked what kind.

Nature (plain),” said the girl.
Il n’y a plus. Que d’abricot (There’s no more, only apricot),” said the saleswoman.
Nature,” repeated the girl, not understanding.
Abricot,” insisted the saleswoman.
Nature.”
Abricot.”
This went on for a full minute, with the French saleswoman refusing to budge, despite knowing that the poor flan-craving girl in front of her had no idea what was going on. Finally, she basically flung an apricot flan at the girl and sent her packing.

Sometimes, the French are just like that; they make things difficult just for the sake of being difficult. (Because when it’s not difficult, it’s boring).

Therefore, your happiness in Paris may come down to your ability to “manage” the French. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when things (or individuals) get prickly:

Paris Child Boy Smiling Birds

Smiling in Paris – if a child can do it, so can you. Alexandre Duret-Lutz

  1. Speak French. Even if you don’t speak French, learn some basic phrases and always lead with them. A little effort (no matter how poorly accented) can make all the difference between charming a Parisian and alienating one.
  2. Try smiling. This may catch your average Parisian off-guard, which can work to your advantage.
  3. If the smile backfires, try scowling. (A well-executed scowl is tantamount to speaking French, anyway).
  4. Look like you know what you’re doing. If you’re in a store or a market, browse and buy with confidence. Appearing to have discerning tastes and conviction will earn you respect.
  5. Don’t take “no” for an answer. The French person’s default answer is usually “no,” even when they could just as easily say “yes.” Whether you’re requesting a restaurant reservation, a smaller (or, um, bigger) size, or the last table on the terrasse, don’t let an initial negative answer put you off. Persist (with polite assertiveness) and doors may just open.
  6. And above all, don’t take anything personally. Sometimes you’ll end up feeling like an idiot without knowing why, simply because some French person is in a pissy mood. Take it with a grain of salt (good French sea salt).

And remember that, fundamentally, the French kind of like you—even if they act like they hate you. There’s an age-old tradition of loving to hate-to-love-to-hate-to-love-to-hate foreigners, especially Americans. But now that I’m in New York and hearing French on every other street corner, I realize they can’t hate us that much (try as they might to pretend they do).