When I get up in the morning and walk to class, I pass by people walking to work and school. I see the friendly, neighborhood panhandler outside the bakery. I see the sun rising in the distance (sunrise is very late here). As I sometimes get lost in the daily actions, I have to remind myself that this is real. I am in Paris! And I feel so incredibly fortunate to be here, and would not be here if others didn’t believe in me.
One of the cultural differences I cannot seem to grasp, but desperately am trying to accomplish is the laid back attitude Parisians and Europeans in general have toward time. I walk to school, if I am 30 minutes early I still rush. When I go home and have nothing to do, I rush. When someone is walking slowly on the sidewalk and I try to get around him or her, I get frustrated. Parisians are never in a rush. Whether they are sipping a café for an hour and a half, or just casually sitting on a park bench enjoying themselves.
The stereotype of Parisians eating baguettes all of the time is completely true. And not until you’ve eaten 200 carbs of French bread at once can you understand why it is true. The bakeries are very busy at lunch, everyone grabs a sandwich (yes, imagine 12 inches of meat and cheese on some of the best bread in the world), and then after work when everyone grabs a baguette to take home. But the real French mystery is how these people remain so skinny. Seriously, everyone is skinny. I just don’t get it, but I want it.
Besides Parisians’ miraculous metabolisms, they also love beauty sleep. As an American, I am used to getting whatever I want, whenever I want. I live in a smaller college town. Even then, if I am hungry at 3AM, I can get some food and I’ll have a decent amount of options. But in America, where we are used to cities that never sleep, Paris requires its beauty rest. The metros start closing at 12:30 or so. The buses apparently run all night, but I have yet to find a line that I can use that runs past 12. On Sundays and Mondays, many businesses are closed, or have very short hours.
But if beauty rest is what is required to be beautiful, then Paris has mastered this. Every corner of every street you can see something spectacular. The French clearly have a strong value for aesthetics, rooted deeply in culture and history. As Americans, those that obsess over beauty are often deemed shallow. It is refreshing to be in a culture where the type of work that I do and enjoy is celebrated and seen not only as beautiful but also necessary.
French also value their privacy. Walking down the street, the French aren’t glaring at you or making a rude face. They don’t just smile for nothing. They process their emotions internally, not externally like most Americans. They reserve their external expressions for people that they know. I don’t think French are rude. They just have a high standard of mannerisms that are deeply rooted in a history of tradition.
I also think many foreigners get turned off by having to speak French. Strange concept I know, speaking French in France. Generally, I have found that if you start in French, and end in French, they will be entirely gracious and polite to you. Many French people say they don’t speak English, or when you ask they respond “un petit peu” or “a little bit.” But actually, they can easily get their point across. They just don’t want to be embarrassed by speaking a language they haven’t practiced! I find it charming, and they often find it charming when I stumble through the little French I know.
Michael is a student at Colorado State studying at Paris American Academy during the Spring 2014 term.