I’ve known since about age eight that I had a problem with wanderlust. My earliest memories of “farsickness,” as the Germans awesomely put it, were while listening to a vinyl recording of Lady and the Tramp. Funny that a story inspired by a place in Missouri has so many foreign influences, from the Scottish terrier to the Siamese cats to the spaghetti scene in a cobblestone alleyway with Italian-accented musicians playing accordions. I played that record over and over until I probably wore it out.
Besides Walt Disney, it was my mom who encouraged my interest in all things exotic, through books and music and art. And it was her who gave me my first experience abroad. Fifteen years ago, she took me with her to Europe to meet up with my brother who was studying in Italy. Mom, I know I wasn’t the easiest to get along with, but I want you to know how meaningful that trip was for me. I still think that the air smells cleanest in Switzerland, that the best meal of my life was at our little farmhouse B&B in Tuscany, and that my coolest travel story was being homeless for a night in Paris.
I never know what to get people for their birthday, but I hope this little blog post is a sufficient way to say happy birthday and thank you, Mom. Also, look what you started.
Paris, City of Change
I wanted to end my French Series with this post, something about coming full circle back to the place where it all started. It’s taking forever to finish that series, though, so I’ll have to do a little fast-forwarding here. Basically, this is a post about Paris, and my mom. Because every time I travel there I think of her.
On that first visit back in 2000, I think we all felt a little unwelcome, a little out of our league. Maybe not my brother who had spent the past semester studying in Italy and was feeling pretty Euro by then, but Mom and I recall coming across more than a couple surly characters, culminating with our last night in Paris and the hotel clerk who insisted we had no reservation despite the confirmation printout in Mom’s hand. He dismissed us haughtily, adding that we wouldn’t be able to find any other room available in the whole of Paris on such short notice, and didn’t want us hanging around his lobby, either. We ended up in a bar until it closed, and then spent a couple of uncomfortable hours sleeping on park benches, waiting for the metro to open at 5 so we could get ourselves to the airport and out of this awful city.
The hotel clerk’s rudeness was epic, but he wasn’t alone. There were also rude waiters, shopkeepers, an employee at the airport who was either the most miserable person on earth or was rehearsing her “Mean Girls” audition. Either way, she had a curiously ill-fitting position, being forced to work among people and all.
Stories about rude Parisians abound. On a “This American Life” podcast, David Sedaris talks about his move to the city, where he found that “a foreigner is the lowest life form” and so he must seek out “safe” places where they won’t laugh at his accent. In Congo we’ve met people from various parts of France; almost all of them have said even they get rude service in Paris. For them it’s obviously not a language or cultural barrier that’s the problem. It’s just sort of their thing, you know? One of the highlights that Paris is known and loved for. If you haven’t been tossed out of a restaurant or passed at least one homeless night on the street, you haven’t really seen the place!
Apparently there even exists an actual medical condition called “Paris Syndrome,” a mental breakdown of sorts when the reality of the city hits tourists a little too hard. Call it severe culture shock. The Japanese Embassy runs a 24-hour hotline just for this purpose, and repatriates a handful of tourists every year under medical supervision. OMG.
I waited a good solid decade to give Paris another go. In 2011, I finally went back, expecting the worst and instead being pleasantly surprised with its… pleasantness. It was like a different place. Only once, when I was traveling with a friend and we entered a café while speaking English to each other, did a waiter throw a little fit and refuse to serve us. I tried to ask him in French what was wrong and he paused for a second, but then laughed at me and walked away. So we laughed at him, gave him the finger, and went somewhere else.
Other than that, I had great luck. Obviously something was different, though, which was my attempt to speak their language. Even if my attempt was lame, everyone remained quite patient with me and let me go with it. (Imagine: I’m calling the Parisians a patient bunch!) They seemed to appreciate the effort. While Seb and I were traveling in Namibia we happened to be paired with a couple from Corsica on a three-day hike through the desert. They didn’t speak much English with us, but swore they do whenever they travel to England. “On fait un effort,” I remember the gal saying, lamenting why the English don’t also make an effort when they come to France.
It’s because everybody knows that the French can speak English, right? In Paris, especially in hospitality, this is most likely true. But when a conversation begins with this assumption, it can trigger a rather unfriendly response. The paradox is, this same assumption won’t get anyone thrown out of a restaurant in Vietnam or Sweden or most other places where the tourist dollar is welcome! I’m in Poland right now and just witnessed Poles and Russians — who are neighbors and can often understand the other language — using English to communicate with each other. It truly is the world’s lingua franca.
And that right there is the problem for the French. Maybe you’ve heard this story. French used to be the world’s lingua franca, or most common shared language. It was the preferred language for international diplomacy up until the mid 20th century, when English took over. And the French have never forgiven us.
By the year 2000, the French had experienced only 50 years of coming in second fiddle to English. About the age of most of the surliest people we met. Thanks to the country’s generous social welfare programs, most of these grudge-holders had retired by the time I returned eleven years later. It could also be that their intense competition with London for the world’s top tourist destination, plus the fact that the majority of visitors come from the U.S. and Britain, required them to clean up their act a little. Which meant fewer Americans and Brits tossed out on the street.
In 2014 I spent more time there, alone, and saw yet another change. At the touristy joints, at least in Montmartre, they started off in English. Seriously! I had to ask them to please switch to French, I mean I was there to practice after all. The same thing happened later at the Marriott down in Aix-en-Provence, and again at a fancy hotel in Marseille. Everyone obliged my request until my first hesitation or question, and then it was back to English. Damn! So we’ve moved from an era of offending the French with our preference for English, to offending them by ignoring their preference for English.
In just a few short years, evidently the French have decided to let bygones be bygones and join the crowd. In fact, in 2013, English became the official press language of the Tour de France! This is partly due to Anglos having dominating the winner’s bracket since 1985… so I guess we can thank Lance Armstrong for perhaps single-handedly turning the French into a more English-tolerant people.
The way Paris has changed and the reasons for it are all wildly unscientific conjecturing on my part. But what I’m really trying to say is… Mom, if you ever want to give Paris another shot, I’d love to be your tour guide. French or English, maybe it doesn’t matter anymore. But between you and me, I hope that one day they’ll return to their ethnocentrically proud ways because I’ve learned a few comebacks for surly waiters and hoteliers I can’t wait to try out. We can also sic Seb’s Québécois accent on them. If all else fails, I know where we can find an awesome park bench or two.
My wildly unscientific research sources:
Just in case I made the place sound too terrible, here are some photos that will hopefully remind us why Paris is still lovable…
Finishing up my tour with friend Jen in September 2011, we took in the most iconic sights in one afternoon:
Seb flew in 8 hours late due to a cancelled flight and met us at the Eiffel Tower. When he stopped at our hotel in St-Germain to drop off his luggage first, he said that he got off the metro and just stared at the buildings and streets in awe. He called me and said “Wow, it’s amazing… like the best of old Québec City but in every direction! Let’s hurry up with this Eiffel Tower nonsense so we can come back here for dinner!”
After my class on the Riviera ended, I headed back to the same neighborhood since I kind of had my bearings. I passed a couple days there alone, enjoying fantastic meals with good service (imagine!) and even having brief, pleasant conversations with strangers, usually at restaurants. It’s a bit awkward to dine alone in Paris (it’s kind of not done there), but everyone treated me kindly.
Since Seb didn’t get much of a chance to see the city in his short 12 hours there, we made a point to return for a few days at Christmas, a quick stop between Oman and Ottawa. (Doesn’t everybody?) We stayed in the Place Vendôme area, a little glitzy but close to everything. It was rather nice to wander around the city in the cold!
September 2014, I returned for another intensive French course, this time in Provence. Before heading out of town, I booked a simple little room in more far-flung Montmartre for a few days. Alone but again well cared for… except for all the “new French” who wanted to show off their superior multilingual skills. 😦
Happy birthday Mom, je t’aime!!