Monday, February 23, 2009

Le shock of the culture

We quickly discovered that the country that always gave Mr. and Mrs. Colligan, the Tourists, a cheery Bonjour did not open their arms quite as readily for Mr. and Mrs. Colligan, the would-be Residents. Since we were planning to stay for at least a year, French immigration laws mandated that we get a Long Stay Visitor Visa before we left the U.S. To qualify, we had to assemble a plump dossier of paperwork to present to the local French Consulate.

In addition to obvious stuff like marriage certificate and proof of U.S. citizenship, we had to demonstrate:

o that we had enough money to support ourselves in France for a year

o that we had an address in France

o that we had our own health insurance

o that we had a the correct attitude. We had to write a letter saying why we wanted to live in France. (We said it was because we admired the culture. And the cheeses. And the baguettes.)

And since we also had to sign a letter promising we would neither seek nor accept work after moving to France, we lined up work beforehand.

About two months later, the visa was approved, and so on a chilly January afternoon, jet-lagged and in a state of disbelief, we were dragging our overweight suitcases into a one-bedroom sublet on the Left Bank.

At first I wandered the streets pleasantly bedazzled by where I was. But after a few days I could no longer ignore the nearly dark sky which greeted me in the morning when I opened the shutters of our ground floor apartment. And the early, early sunset which cast a funereal pall over the city around four in the afternoon. Then even when the sun was out there was the unrelenting 40 Watt dimness, the damp chill, the dogs crapping on the pavement outside on the street as their owners looked the other way. As David Sedaris might say, it was Parisian darkness, Parisian chill, Parisian dogshit.

As I walked around in my ex-pat daze, little observation slowly forced themselves on me such as:

Why do so many very small children wear glasses?
Toddlers no older than one year were wearing spectacles. Optometry must be a huge business here. Is there a high percentage of nearsighted/farsighted Pre-K kids just in Paris? And how do you give a small child who can barely speak an eye exam, I wondered. How do you get a little kid to respond to "Better? Or worse?" "Better? Or worse?"

How hard does it have to rain before people use umbrellas?
Of course I knew umbrellas exist. There is a famous, very fancy umbrella shop -
Alexandra Sojfer - on the Boulevard St. Germain not far from our apartment which sells umbrellas that cost as much as a small car. But on the rainiest afternoons, Parisians seem content to lean into windswept downpours hatless, umbrella-less, perhaps in the hope that it is merely a quick misting and will pass. And when they do use umbrellas -- literally after the deluge -- it seems as though they are still mastering the technique of carrying them, spastically clonking into each other on the streets, bouncing off other umbrella holders, lamposts, parked cars, buildings, muttering what may or may not be apologies before pressing on. And it seemed to rain almost every day.

How cold does it have to get before everyone wears hats?
Freezing, nasty days. Bitter winds knifing off the river. Narrow streets become icy wind tunnels.Ice cream headaches was part of the pedestrian experience. Yet few wear hats. Older, dapper men wear Borsalinos. One day I passed the Borsalino boutique on Rue de Grenelle and it was packed - which is to say about four customers. But no one below a certain age wears hats. Oh wait, one day it was 16 degrees Fahrenheit and I saw one guy wearing a hat. He must have been from out of town.

How long does it take to learn to be an injury-free pedestrian?

It took me weeks to figure out how to walk around here. I used to live in Manhattan and thought I knew how to cross a city street, but that experience was totally useless. For one thing crosswalk etiquette is anti-pedstrian. The red crossing light says "You may not cross . . . unless of course you can't see any vehicles coming too fast. Then give it a shot. Courage, mon ami."

Conversely the green pedestrian light means, "OK now you can try to cross, but be aware traffic does not necessarily have to stop if the driver thinks he or she can beat you through the crosswalk - even if you happened to be in the way." In which case be prepared to be run over. And it would help to know how to say in French, "Hey asshole, I'm walking here."

I learned that second lesson the hard way while attempting to cross hectic rue de Vieux Colombier near St. Sulpice. The instant I stepped off the curb a dusty little red car came whipping around the corner. The driver came straight at me, without bothering to slow. Dead-eyed, hands firmly gripping the wheel he had his foot firmly depressed on the accelerator. Prick. I wimpily stepped back and instinctively put out my hands to protect myself. The car slammed against my outstretched palms as it whizzed by and bounced me back onto the curb (Boing-oing-oing), like a cartoon character. I left my two handprints on its dusty chassis as it shot down the street and, I hoped, straight into a telephone pole. A French guy standing next to me looked very, very, very shocked, and impressed. I know because one eyebrow went up ever so slightly. Then he resumed talking on his cell phone.

Pedestrianism is also tricky because people do not walk in straight lines. Ever. Never get between a Parisian and a shop window. Eight out of ten will stop abruptly to study what is on show. There is no way to predict this. I've seen men stop to stare at women's shoes, and, memorably, one woman who stopped before a dental supply windows with a fascinating display of drill bits and tooth enamel color samples. Unless she was a dental hygienist, which I doubt, there was no earthly reason to look at any of that stuff. All I can surmise is that there is something about the experience of viewing displayed goods that Parisians find deeply satisfying.

Why are so many people on crutches and with their arms in slings?
There are days, I swear, when the streets of Paris resembles Lourdes. People of all sexes and ages wobbling down the streets on crutches, arms in slings, legs in casts. One woman stopped and asked for directions. When she turned her full face to me she had a giant eye patch. (Maybe she got whacked in the eye by an umbrella toting Parisian, I thought.) Forgetting my bad French, I said, "Holy shi . . ." but instantly corrected it to merde.

One night we were in a bar and in limped a young man with one leg in an elaborate brace and both arms in casts. My wife decided that he had been in a motor scooter accident. Not necessarily, I thought. Maybe he was just trying to blend in.

Intriguing French fact: The French are the highest per capita consumers of anti-depressants in Europe.

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