Like lots of folks galvanized by a new calendar, I’m a couple of weeks into an exercise routine. It isn’t a particularly rigorous one; I just take the stairs more often and jog every couple of days. While jogging, I also have to take the stares — that is, subject myself to the pointed visual scrutiny that’s the specialty of Parisians.
I’ll admit it: as self-empowered as I try to be, the stares get to me. In New York City, a lingering look can get you a nasty tongue-lashing, a sleazy stalker, or a fist in the face (choose your own adventure). As a result, New Yorkers often go to great lengths to avoid eye contact with strangers. The air they project is one of: Why yes, I *am* more interested in this scuff mark on the subway floor than your neon pink mohawk. It’s rude to act otherwise.
Parisians? They don’t seem to have gotten the memo. While Z claims that little’uns in France are taught not to stare, in reality, nobody applies the lesson. This being Paris however, the staring isn’t just some oafish eyeballing. Oh no. Parisian stares are once-overs sharply directing you back to your place in line.
The more time I spend here, the more I realize how elaborately the society is codified. There’s codes – configurations, systems, and sequences, if you will – for everything.
This is your fish knife. This is your cheese knife. This is the way you say hello to your boulanger or neighborhood baker. This is the way you say hello to your host mother’s daughter’s ex-lover. This is the way you dress on a Monday morning. This is the way you dress on a Sunday afternoon.
This is the way you dress never.
I found out the hard way that such a codified society requires a lot of citizen policing. Le grand public – the general public – serves as vigilantes, armed with withering gazes.
I speak of Paris being a conservative city, a statement which always surprises those who haven’t spent a lot of time here. Friends have replied: But Paris is so chic! And Socialist! And — wait, what do you mean people can’t wear shorts there?
Again, I learned this the hard way. If you don a pair of shorts, you will immediately be pegged as a tourist and/or exhibitionist, then reduced to a mortified mess by the gawking you elicit. Also, never dash out for coffee and pastries in your sweats. If you have any respect at all for your boulanger – or yourself! – you had better get dressed-dressed…
In black, beige, gray, or navy blue (a slightly more varied palette is acceptable in the summertime).
Such is the environment I must contend with when I go running. (By the way, those illustrations in French textbooks of happy joggers next to the phrase faire du jogging? Flagrant deception! One: Parisians don’t jog. It looks stupid. Two: Those who do aren’t happy about it because it means they [we] can’t afford to join a proper gym or club de fitness. Three: That’s why there are only illustrations in textbooks — we wouldn’t let anyone photograph our shame.)
Nonetheless, I’m continuing my routine, with one small adjustment. I’ve shifted from afternoon to evening runs, when there are both more fellow joggers and conveniently less visibility.
For this new year, I also have a more generalized goal of skipping the escalator and taking the stares. It’s a goal to not take the easy way out or succumb to others’ notions of what I should do. Facing a future of various career possibilities and destinations, that’s not a bad place to start, I think.