Sometimes it seems that’s what Paris really is: a field necessitating guerilla battle tactics. Grounds where the only way to dance is to get down and dirty.
People who haven’t lived in Paris have difficulty grasping how both fabulous and frustrating the city can be. Its cliches only serve as chick lit fodder, and as a young woman uprooting herself to live here with her boyfriend, I’ve dealt with enough reactions of romantic sighing to last me a lifetime. But folks — this is a real place with all the grubby complications of reality. And h’oh boy, are they are all the grubbier if you happen to be a foreigner.
Yes, there’s the big stuff like getting permission to live here (a job, a visa) and then setting up life here (an apartment, bank account, and phone plan), which requires navigating a nightmare of catch-22’s. But then there’s everything else. The little stuff that doesn’t quite add up. Or rather, what it all adds up to is culture shock.
Honestly, I didn’t expect to deal with another round of culture shock upon my third stint of living in France (flashback: first stint was study abroad, and second stint was the summer after graduation). But it happened. Again.
Years ago, one of my French professors in the U.S. described culture shock in the following way, which I’ve since found to be profoundly true. It’s not actually a *shock* in the definitive sense of the word; it doesn’t hit you suddenly or all at once. In reality, it’s an accumulation of micro-events, small errors or inconveniences. Things like the door knob being a different standard height or the light switch not being a flippable protuberance in the wall. It all contributes to a constant hum of low level anxiety, until you find yourself feeling down and defeated, unable to pinpoint an exact cause.
Being aware of this phenomenon, I’ve kept track of the stuff that’s led to that feeling for me this time around. Instances include:
- A sign in the metro advertising a foire nationale à la brocante et aux jambons. This literally translates to a “national fair of bric-a-brac and ham.” I asked Z what the heck that meant. He said it was a flea market. “What about the ham?!” I demanded. “Everything’s better with ham,” he shrugged.
- Screwing up my usual order of a traditional baguette at my favorite neighborhood boulangerie. You can call this baguette un pain traditionel or un tradi, but what you should not do is try to say both at once and spit out un pain tradi, thereby eliciting a blank stare.
- Calling a neighborhood recreational center to reserve places for a tango class and being asked to bring a fiche d’imposition, or tax declaration (which of course I don’t have). What? For a 5 euro tango class? That’s just unabashed, dystopian level bureaucracy.
- Forgetting that there’s no white line in front of traffic lights at which cars must stop. Cars in Paris will drive right up to traffic lights before stopping (seriously, they practically kiss the lights). Just for thrills, the lights are also placed in line with crosswalks. So crossing the street = guaranteed heart attacks until you can steel yourself to steel contraptions hurtling towards you.
- And so on and so on.
Of course, each instance on its own is nothing to throw a fit over. Indeed, my standard reaction is to blink in confusion and move on. But it does wear you down. One evening, I found myself hunched over in bed, clutching my head.
Z hovered nearby in concern. “What’s wrong?”
“But the HAM,” I murmured. “It just doesn’t make SENSE.”
Despite the frustrations, it’s an absolute joy to live here. What makes Paris fabulous? When I was studying abroad and admittedly sipping (dirt cheap) champagne under the Eiffel Tower on a semi-regular basis, I might indeed have pointed to these postcard moments. But my greatest pleasures are now coming from other kinds of moments.
- Teaching / my students. (This merits another post entirely, but I’ll just say for now that I’m adoring what I do.)
- Playing Hungry Hungry Hippos and Uno with Z’s niece and nephew. In French! Singing “heads, shoulders, knees, and toes” with them. In English!
- Brushing up on my knowledge of dirty French words for a performance of the Rocky Horror Picture Show at a tiny theater in the Latin Quarter. Shaking rice out of my boots two days later.
- Lining up in the rain on a Saturday night to get into a free art exhibition.
- Staying in with Z and just watching Breaking Bad, for gawd’s sake.
These are the moments that make the frustration worth it. While I may not always be as smooth an operator as I’d like to be in my surroundings, I’m happy right where I am. In the field and on the ground, battling and dancing.