Being an American in Paris, or Parisian in America
Well, first, let me tell you about my first trip to Paris. It was April of 2011 – April in Paris. Finding myself unexpectedly single, I went on a date with a charming, handsome man. On that very first date, he told me he had to go to Paris on business in a few weeks, and would I like to go with him? Obviously, the date went quite well.
I somehow always knew that, despite my humbling beginnings as the orphaned child of a runaway big band singer and a second-rate trumpet player, and despite being raised in Bumfrick, Texas, where a rodeo or county fair were the social events of the year, my heart belonged in France.
And so, pushing fast forward back to that first date with the charming man; away we went few weeks later to Paris. And, spoiler alert, I married him. In Paris.
I had imagined Paris as a magical city, full of mystery and art, joie de vivre and je ne sais quai. A place where even the most mundane event was a scene from a movie. Where people look wonderful all of the time. Where eating bread doesn’t make you fat and getting caught in the rain doesn’t make you look like a drowned rat. And guess what — I was right, it is all those things and more. For me, anyway.
Like Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia, I went to Paris expecting everyone and everything to be wonderful. And so I imbued it. And so it was.
For example, on our first night in Paris we stopped at a cafe for a drink after dinner. Spotting a free table, and not wanting to just plop myself down like an “ugly American”, I asked the waiter if the table was available. He asked me (imagine your best Parisian accent here) “What is your name?” I told him my name. And, turning his finger into an imaginary pen, he inscribed an invisible “Kelley” on the table. “It is yours,” he said. My heart melted.
We’ve been going back to Paris at least once a year ever since. We both have many years of colorful history, but Paris is ours.
Now if you want to go to Paris and just be an American tourist, that’s fine, I’m not judging. But if you want to be French in Paris, to absorb and be absorbed by the culture, there are a few things you should know.
First, don’t look like a tourist. Let me explain.
Have you ever shared a secret with someone? Not a little secret, like where the cookies are hidden, but a BIG secret? One that makes you an “insider”?
The French know that, despite the government, despite the taxes, despite anything else that could be disturbing about life, they have the joy and art of living in France. And they appreciate it in everything they do. And the more you appear French, the more you’re treated like an “insider”, like you’re in on the secret.
It is always a great compliment to me when, at shops and restaurants, I am spoken to in French. You see, everyone working in public venues in Paris speaks at least some, if not fluent, English, and they will address you in English if you are obviously American (and bring you catsup with every meal, for some ungodly reason). To be assumed French is, for me, the highest form of flattery.
French women look “put together”, neither over or under done. Clothing is thoughtful, and always casually, quietly classy. You don’t have to dress to the 9’s for streetwear (which would be overdressed, something a Parisian would not do), but plan on wearing your most upscale casual clothing.
Flat shoes are often worn because Parisians do a lot of walking, but never gym shoes (those clunky, colorful things which belong in the gym) or flip-flops (which belong at the beach). A fashion sneaker or loafer is a great choice for strolling the streets of Paris.
Next, there’s a certain protocol of manners. I had always been warned “the French are terribly rude – especially Parisians.” Soooo not true! In fact, it’s the opposite.
Manners are a huge part of the social convention in France, and certain niceties are expected. For example, in America, we think nothing of walking up to the coffee counter and blurting “I’ll have a double … whatever.” In France, you would first greet the person you are speaking to (bonjour, bonsoir). This would be followed by your request (s’il vous plait), not demand (give me), for what you would like.
Likewise when shopping in a boutique, you would always pleasantly greet the shopkeeper as you enter, before presuming to rummage through their stuff. After all, it’s their stuff; you are a visitor.
Lastly, don’t be intimidated, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Yes, everything is different – the food, the people, the language, the culture. But it is, after all, their country. So when in Rome … or Paris … simply ask questions and be willing to experience and embrace the difference, and laugh at yourself if you get it wrong.
We were at a rather elegant restaurant on the Left Bank, and ordered an amazing platter of oysters and shrimp and everything from the sea you could image. And it arrived with an interesting dish in the middle of something tiny that looked like a cross between a shrimp and a bug. And neither of us a clue what to do with it.
Couple of ways I could have gone with this – I could have been critical about the strange food. I could have just left the little creatures to have died in vain. Instead, I picked door number 3 – I asked our beautiful, impeccably dressed, 5’10” and skinny-as-a-zipper hostess, in very bad French, “comment est-ce mangé – how is this eaten?”
She proceeded to reach into our platter with her beautifully manicured fingers and remove a little shrimp-bug, and showed me how to detach its exoskeleton and savor the tiny bit of meat. And I’m still not sure what it was, but the little morsels were quite delicious, and my authenticity was intact.
There is a big, beautiful world waiting just outside of your comfort zone. Just be amused with yourself if you do or say something silly. And be ok with it if others are amused too.
So you can apply these guidelines in Paris and blend in, or you can apply them in America and stand out.
I certainly have no disdain for Americans or the American way of life. After all, I am one. But there’s always more to be learned and, in the words of Milton Berle, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. And thus, I became French.
Until next time, bisous!