L’herbe est toujours plus verte dans le pré d’à côté
The grass is always greener on the other side
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, fashion fun and angelic avenues of beauty and happiness, and tra-la-la-la…
[cue this baby]
My point here is not to preach about how its 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.
[cue the music cliché]
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, education 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 too 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, try to learn more French at confusing French universities where no one helps you find your classes, we try to eat with our hands on the table (not in our laps as we learned in Anglo-Saxon childhood) and to sip our wine slowly instead of needing a refill when everyone else is still not even halfway done with their first glass… 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, that our bank account is weeping tears of pain every time we enter a fashion store, that we don’t understand a word of conversation and oops those glasses of wine really go down super fast. 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, with a glass of champagne in our manicured hand) 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???
[cue the blues]
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 4-5 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???
[music cue ]
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“…and so on. 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, pickpockets 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 psudo-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, or allowed to dissipate and be let go of like a balloon to fly up and away. 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.