Wednesday, August 22, 2012

un peu du tout

So after about a nine-month hiatus, I've decided to start blogging again...but this time, I will be chronicling my adventures in Paris! 

Onto new adventures 

Many people say that college is the best four years of their life. Well, I can safely say that Toulouse was the best two years of mine. I had such an amazing time in Toulouse that
when I decided to come back to France, I think part of me expected to recreate my previous experience in Paris. 

I was so excited to come back to France and explore a new city, and I really expected to fall totally in love with Paris.  The truth is, I can't say that I love it here. At least not yet. I miss Toulouse a lot sometimes. I miss my life there, my friends, the people, the parties...everything! That being said, there are things that I like more about Paris, as well. But...

I miss friendliness! 

Even though I have been living in France now on and off for three years, I have yet to understand the French. Why are people so closed off? Why is it so difficult to make French girlfriends? Why do many of them always seem so serious and to take themselves so seriously? Obviously these are generalizations, but unfortunately, I have also found them to be valid much of the time. 

It is also one of the reasons why I don't think that I could live in France forever. I miss friendliness. Open people. Random smiles from strangers.

Here, the idea is that people already have friends, so they don't need to make new ones. It's therefore very hard, and I would say, nearly impossible, to break into a circle of friends in France. But back home, people are always making new friends. 

I was speaking with some French girls about it once and they said that they agreed French people were quite closed-off, but that they were closed-off to people until they got to know them. That they actually found Americans to be fake - when they stayed with host families for a year in the US, they said that their families were so nice and friendly- but then they never heard from them after that. They were saying how in France, the bonds may take a long time to form, but they last a lifetime. They thought that in the US, perhaps the bonds were more superficial and fleeting. I disagree.

Yes, in the US, strangers may converse with one another on the metro, and it is not unusual to smile at a stranger when walking down the street, or to strike up a conversation with someone in the grocery store, but I don't think that makes us "fake." Whatever the reason for the unfriendliness in France (and Paris in particular), I don't think there's any legitimate excuse. That is one cultural difference I could definitely do without.

Parisian Taxi Drivers

Another thing that I have yet to understand about Paris: Parisian taxi drivers. They have got to be a species of their own. I have had several bad experiences already - and I don't even take taxis often!

My first week in Paris, I went out with some friends and at the end of the night, shared a taxi back home with a friend. I did not know the city at this time, but she later told me that he was close to where I was staying, yet drove in the complete opposite direction to drop her home first, so that he could be in the car alone with me. I was sitting in the backseat, yet he proceeded to grope my thigh several times. It was disgusting. I told him to stop and slapped his hand away each time, but he continued to persist.

Fortunately, he did not drive me to a secluded spot and do God only knows what-I was lucky and he actually drove me home. I only paid half the cab fare, but I should have paid nothing. I cannot imagine EVER getting physically harassed in a New York cab. I'm sure it has happened to people before, but I have taken a lot of taxis in New York in my life and I have never felt uncomfortable before. They would lose their job on the spot if that were to happen. 

After that frightening episode, I had another experience.  This time, it was 3am and after wandering around by myself for the past hour to get a taxi, I was pretty fed up and ready to go home. I finally found one and told the taxi driver my metro stop as I got in the car, so that I could direct him to my apartment from there. It was only about a two minute drive away (I was unaware of this at the time) and when we got to the metro stop, the total was about five euros. I told the driver that I wanted to go a bit further, to my apartment, but he refused to drive any further. This did not sit well with me. I have never had a taxi driver simply refuse to take me where I want to go. Because the customer is always right, right? Wrong. Not in France at least.  

Now I am not one to pick arguments, especially with random strangers, but in the instance that someone is downright rude, I cannot just sit back. In this situation, I didn't care about the extra 2.5 euro, nor did I care that much about walking the extra few blocks home at that point. It was more about the principle than anything else - this man was extremely rude and at that point in the night, I had had enough. 

So I told him that I would only pay him half of the cab fare unless he drove me the extra 100 yards, or whatever it was, to my building.  He then got out of the car (uh oh) and started to yell in my face  "DONNE MOI L’ARGENT" (Give me the money!!), continuing to raise his volume as he chanted this over and over again. 

There were people standing there, waiting to get in the taxi, and just watching. They did absolutely nothing but stare. I hated that I looked like some crazy person that would refuse to pay the cab fare. But this was about the principle and I would not back down. So I continued to refuse.  Until finally, I realized that this man might actually do something violent to me if I didn’t give him the money, so I sucked up my pride and gave him the full five euros.

At this point, some man standing by called me a "salope" (slut), which nearly brought me to tears. It really upset me that these people standing by thought that I was in the wrong, and did nothing to help. I'm pretty sure that if this were to happen in New York or somewhere back home, most witnesses of that situation would not have just stood there, watching - they would have jumped in to try and talk some sense into this crazy taxi driver.

As I walked away from the scene, my heart racing and close to tears, I blurted out the few bad French words that I could manage in my distress and shocked state. I had never had gotten into such a verbal argument with anyone, let alone a random stranger.  This happened during one of my first few months in Paris and I was so upset that I  immediately called my younger brother, who instead of telling me that I should have just paid the cab fare, told me that he completely understood and would have reacted the same way under the circumstances. My family is the best :) 

Believe it or not, I have another Parisian cab story…This time, I was in the taxi on the way to a bar (with friends this time, thank goodness!) and we were talking to each other in the backseat, as most people tend to do in taxis. Except that this time, our taxi driver started talking on his cell phone at the same time (okay fine, I can deal with that, as long as you don’t crash the car...), but then told us very rudely to lower our volume. That crossed the line for me. I did not appreciate him speaking to me and my friends that way, especially since we were paying customers and he shouldn't even have been talking on the phone in the first place while driving! As the previous taxi situation showed, when someone is rude, I need to say something. So I told him (quite calmly) that we were paying for the taxi and we could talk however we wanted. He yelled at us (or me) "NON, VOUS POUVEZ PAS-VOUS ETES CHEZ MOI ICI" ("No, you cannot,  you are my home here!!") 

Unbelievable. There are some battles worth fighting and this was not one of them, so I shut my mouth and let him continue to drive us whilst chatting away. It’s pretty funny though- in New York, taxi drivers don’t speak to you much but they will respect your wishes. They will lower the stereo volume if you ask them too and you could be screaming with friends for all they care. They would never tell you to speak softer. It probably helps that in New York taxis, they have a picture and brief biography of the person driving on display in the backseat, so that if he or she is rude, you can immediately report them to the New York taxi company. Knowing French customer service, I’m pretty sure if I were to report a rude taxi driver in Paris, it would do absolutely nothing.

When I was home in May, my friend Brittany and I made good friends with one of our taxi drivers, who we called up to take us out several nights. He was quite a character. He told us how he was also on call for some drug dealers – that he didn’t mind driving them, as long as he got tipped! hahaha. He would also shower us with compliments and tell us each night how beautiful he thought we looked. Cannot really imagine meeting a Parisian taxi driver so nice and friendly – but miracles do happen I suppose, so maybe he or she is out there somewhere!

French Customer Service...I think that's an oxymoron

As the taxi incidents shows, customer service in France is truly in a league of its own. If you go out to eat, the waiters are doing YOU a favor by serving you. If you walk into a store, it is the customer's responsibility to say hello to the salesperson. If you want to return something, you better be damn well sure you have a good explanation and be sugar sweet to whoever is sitting behind that desk. No joke.

Classic example: Recently, I was out with some friends, and I guess there was a happy hour going on downstairs, while upstairs, drinks were normal price. So when we tried to order at the bar, the bartender told us to go downstairs. A bit strange, but okay…so we go downstairs and get our 2.5 euro pints in plastic cups (all other drinks were served in glasses...go figure). 

We then go outside to sit on the terrace, but the bouncer comes up to us and tells us that we cannot sit there, because we did not pay for a NON happy-hour drink. He points us to the other side of the bar where there is a crowd of people standing with plastic cups in hand, and tells us that if we want to be outside, we must stand over there. I felt like a second class citizen on the Titanic. It was truly unreal. A customer is a customer. It’s not even like this is an expensive, high-end bar. It’s a dive in the middle of Chatelet, a run-down, student area. The nerve…that scenario pretty much sums up the relationship between a customer and bouncer/bartender/waiter/taxi driver/you name it. 

On the other hand, sometimes people here will surprise you. I went for a doctors appointment and the nurse turned out to be super sweet. (and actually about my age).  She asked me if I had a carte vitale (a French social security card)-I said no. She then asked me if I had a social security number – I said no. She said that the appointment would cost me over 100 euros without that. She then rubbed her head, trying to think of some sort of solution. She told me that for people under the age of 25, it is free, and since I was only 25, she could change my birthdate to a year later, so that I would benefit from the same privileges as the under-25 age-group. She said just to tell people that I was born in 1987 if they asked. I was appalled by her sweetness. She obviously did not have to do that for me and could have tried to make money off of me. But instead, she went out of her way to help me out. I will never forget that.

French men? romantic? yeah, about that..

After living here, I have to admit that I find it funny that Paris has a worldwide reputation as being one of the most romantic cities. I really don't see it that way at all. It is beautiful and all and I'll admit, not a bad place to spend a first date...but overall, I have been pretty astonished by the lack of romance that I witness in this city. And the whole thing about French guys being romantic? Well, if my experience is any indication, this could not be further from the truth.

One example of that...not too long ago, I met this French guy through some friends.  I was not at all interested in him romantically, but gave him my phone number because I did not really know how not to in that situation. Well, he was apparently interested in me but never even asked me out on a proper date ahead of time and instead opted for immediately texting and calling me at around 10 in the evening to ask me what I was doing.  He had just broken up with his girlfriend so he was obviously on the rebound, but that is no excuse.  It's downright disrespectful in my book. This guy was a dentist too, not just a college student. And I’m pretty sure you can only get away with that behavior when you’re in college.  Needless to say, I never did meet up with him.

Whatever happened to calling a girl (not texting) in advance - perhaps even (gasp!) a few days in advance? Due to the advent of the smart phone (or even the cell phone), our generation has gotten so tech-savvy and text-reliant that many guys (including the French!) are just straight-up lazy when it comes to dating, or even just asking someone out.  I remember in Steve Carrell's speech at my brother's graduation, he said, "when i was in college, i would not text a girl to ask her out on a date. I would ask her in person, one human to another..." That's how it should be done! My older brother told me that he will always call a girl to ask her out if he is really interested in her - if he is not really interested, then he will just text her. I'm sure it's different for everyone, but I think there is definitely some truth to that.

Words of fluff 

Latin men- they certainly know how to woo a girl with words...but in the end, they are just words and oftentimes, I have found that they do not mean anything.  

Case in point: during one of my first few months in Paris, I met this Columbian guy who actually proposed (yes, proposed, as in marriage) to me the second time we hung out. He told me that "In South America, we say how we feel and what is on our mind...I think that you have the most beautiful eyes I've ever seen...." Oh, puhleeeze. I mean, I appreciate a nice compliment and all, but paired with what was about to come, it was just a bit much. He then asked me to marry him and when I started laughing, he actually said "Why are you laughing?? It's not a joke. I'm serious." He was actually serious. He then said "You are perfect. At least be my girlfriend." I had never even kissed this guy and we had never even been on a proper date before. And he was asking me to be his girlfriend? Telling me that I'm "perfect"? He didn't even know me! It was pretty absurd to say the least.

If there is anything I've learned since being here, it's that actions really do speak louder than words. A while back, this one Parisian I know would text me things like "tu me manques…" ( I miss you) and then call me things like "mon bebe," "ma chérie" and "mon amour," despite the fact that we were not even dating! He would say things like that and then never even propose a date! Yeah...I'm sure you miss me...

He was obviously saying this stuff because he thought it was what I wanted to hear - but news flash: girls only want to hear stuff like that if it's sincere. And it's pretty obvious when it's not. Anyway, I found his texts a bit odd considering our relationship (or lack thereof), and didn't buy it for a second- if he says things like that to me and we had not even been out on a proper date, I can only imagine what he says to other girls.  To me, those words sounded so incredibly fake that I didn't see an ounce of romance in them-they just seemed extremely cheesy.  

I saw this same guy out one night and at the end of the night, he sweetly bought me a rose from one of those flower people who walk around trying to sell flowers, and then promised that we would see each other the next day. Did I hear anything from him the next day, or even the next week? Absolutely not. I could go on, but I think my point is proven. (if you need another example to be convinced, see my post from 2010: "here we go again")

Parisian food is NOT French food 

Something else that i have discovered since living here. French food: good. Parisian food: horrible. Or let’s put it this way- you cannot find good food for a decent price in Paris. True story. 

I’m on a student budget so I can’t go out dining to expensive restaurants every weekend. And when I have dined out, they have mostly been inexpensive places, where frankly, the food is bland and generic. You can get a lot more for your money in the states. In Paris, most of the cheaper restaurants have the "menu" option, where you can get an appetizer, an entrée and a dessert for like 15 or 20 euros. Not a bad deal right? When the food comes, you will change your mind. The appetizer will be lettuce with two tomatoes and a few cucumbers plopped on top. The entrée will be potatoes and chicken, or maybe a steak and potatoes. And the dessert maybe a cold chocolate mousse . Trust me, nothing memorable. I have not had one meal in Paris where I have walked out even slightly impressed.  If you want to eat well in Paris, you have to spend a lot. There is no in-between.

But even spending a lot does not guarantee good food here. Earlier this year, I splurged at one expensive restaurant (do not even want to say what the bill was…), and it ended up being something that I could have easily made at home. String beans on a plate for about 18 euros. Shocking. I have had much different experiences in Toulouse and other parts of France, where I ate out for less than thirty euros but had a very good meal. 

On that note, I do love how much the French appreciate food. This French guy that I dated last year was a classic example of that. After we went out to a restaurant, he would sometimes call up his dad to talk about what we ate for dinner and how delicious it was. When we visited his family in Provence, he would recount every morcel of food that we ingested (in words that I don't even know how to say in English!), as his parents' mouths watered. He would describe what was in the dish, how it was prepared, and how it tasted. I have never seen someone talk so much about food. When I go out to eat, I people normally don't even ask me what I ate! Meals at his parents' place always consisted of several courses and thought-out preparation. Everything was delicious, of course. And to my utter delight, cheese always finished off the meal. I like that food is not just food in France - it is a delicacy, something to be savored and enjoyed with every bite.

As I'm sure most of you know, lavender is everywhere in Provence in the summer. One of the times I went (in June), my ex-boyfriend's grandmother came over to the house with a small packet of lavender bread bisquits that she had made for me. It was very sweet. And definitely a new experience-I never even knew that you could eat lavender until then! Leave it to the French to do that :)

But for some reason, they just don’t know how to cook in Paris! It's just not even worth it to spend your money on Parisian dining unless you are spending upwards of 75 euros. 

Les Bises and other Frenchisms

I know that I've talked about "les bises" before, as a ritual of the French culture. Women do it to men, women that they meet for the first time, or to friends and aquantances. Men do it only to women, family and close friends. I have known all of this for a while. But I did not fully realize the extent of this ritual until I visited my ex's family in Provence last year.

In Provence, they do three kisses on the cheek, starting with the left cheek of course. I like that the number of "les bises" varies throughout France. I know in some places they even do it four times! But I didn't realize that family members did it to each other frequently as well. Each morning when my ex woke up, he would "faire les bises" (do the kisses) with his parents and siblings (or whoever was in the house) - three times. And of course I did the same. While I found this a bit formal ( at least compared to what I'm used to), I also found it really sweet. But it can get a bit exhausting too...when we went out to dinner for his friend's birthday, we had to go around and kiss each person (or at least the people on the outside) three times. And I'm not talking two or three people. It's quite a workout!

I used "vous" with my ex's parents and "tu" with his siblings, none of whom spoke any English (although one time I slipped up and used "tu" with his father...oops!). Because I wasn't sure at first how to refer to them and when I asked him, my ex recommended that I use "vous" with his parents. He told me that his parents continued to use "vous" with their respective in-laws, even 25+ years! That was pretty crazy to me. So you can be close family and still use vous! I guess it just comes down to showing respect. But then it's interesting that kids use "tu" with their parents...hmmm.

August in Paris 

I have never spent a full summer in France so I don't think that I fully understood what people meant when they said that "everything shuts down in August" in Paris. Well, I have witnessed this and it definitely happens! Restaurants, stores, hair salons, you name it - shut down for weeks on end. Some even take the whole month off. It's pretty crazy how people just put their lives on hold for the month, despite the economic crisis that we are in. For the month of August, work can wait. In a way, I kinda like it. One of the things that I love about France is the balance people have between work and playtime. The two-weeks of vacation time a year that we have in America is pretty ridiculous. Especially when you look at the rest of the world and see that most people have between five and six weeks of vacation a year. That's how it should be. 

Little Bouts of Happiness

I find that it's the little things that make me happy here. 

It’s walking down the street with my pizza and having the delivery man yell out to me "bon appetit!" as he drives by in his scooter....

It's talking to the friendly people who run the independent market in the building next door...every time I pass by, they say "Bonjour Mademoiselle!" And if I don't have enough money, they always tell me to just pay the next time....

It's seeing the sweet homeless man each day and making his day by giving him part of my peeled orange. Unlike most of the other homeless people in Paris, he does not sit on the street and beg. He is out there talking to people and socializing - he has got to be the most sociable homeless man I've ever seen. He just got a new haircut and it definitely looks salon-done-I can only imagine that he is friends with the people who work at the salon down the street, who gave him a free haircut.  Love it!