Alison Goes to Paris - 2/02Alison's Tour Guide to Paris
The French Are Different
If you've never been to Paris, before you go, you should know about certain things that are just plain done differently in France, so that you don't freak out and scare yourself out of a perfectly good time.
The Personal Space Issue
I suffer from claustrophobia, so the first time I stood in line at the totally huge Virgin Megastore in Paris, I thought I was going to have a panic attack and die right there in the store. People in France will stand practically on top of you in line. But, and this is a big but, THEY ARE NOT DOING IT TO BE MEAN. This closeness is not meant to be rude, a power play or any sort of attack on your person. (Believe me, if they want to be rude or attack you, you'll know about it.) This is just how close they are accustomed to standing.
It took me awhile, but as I watched I saw that they do actually have personal space. It's just that it's only about 4 inches. When someone, heaven forbid, accidentally invades this almost imperceptible barrier, there is a lot of "Pardon Moi" and "excusez" and moving back into the correct place in line.
The fun began when I found I could play at this game too. One night in a crowded bar, I found I was able to glide through spaces I wouldn't have dared to attempt in Los Angeles. I just turned myself sideways, exhaled and proceeded to squeeze on through, smiling and muttering "pardon, pardon". Not only did no one stop me, no one even noticed. They went right on talking and drinking as I slid right across their backs to the other end of the bar. Truly weird.
The lack of personal space thing is of course much more enjoyable when you are around French people you actually want to get to know. When they sit down next to you, they sit down RIGHT next to you. They look directly at you when you're having a conversation and get right up in your face to do it. They get, as we say in California "right up in your grill". And when they're done, they don't want to shake your hand, they want to kiss you. Twice. On both cheeks. (People from certain areas of France even insist on three kisses.) NOTE: THIS IS REGARDLESS OF GENDER OR SEXUAL ORIENTATION SO DON'T FREAK OUT. I initially found this extreme physical attention a little unnerving, but one of the other pluses is that most French people are extremely good looking, so I decided I like this part.
The Cuteness Epidemic
Here's the deal: Don't spend all your time telling them how cute they are. They already KNOW how cute they are, they're French. They take it for granted that they look the way they do. Try not to gawk, stare and drool, they'll think you're crazy. They definitely thought both Thom and I were crazy.
The Smoking Issue
The bad news: Me, I don't smoke. Never have. In fact I'm somewhat sensitive and prone to respiratory infections. So in the words of Rosanna Rosanadana, I thought I was a gonna die. These people smoke like there's some sort of national contest going on and the person who smokes the most cigarettes in a day wins a million Euros. They seemingly all smoke, all the time, absolutely everywhere. (Except one: You are absolutely not allowed to smoke in the catacombs. So if you don't mind hanging out with several million French skeletons, you can hide down there from the smokers).
There are ways to avoid total asphyxiation, however. One: stick with the larger mainstream hotels and restaurants that offer "no smoking" sections for tourists. (The smokers rule the place. Non-smokers are exiled to section where they can be alone with their perverse "oxygen habit".) Two: spend a lot of time outdoors. The air is quite fresh at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Three: make friends with some French people and hang out with them. French people who like you will not want to see you die and will put out their cigarettes from time to time, in an act of mercy. This will give you a buffer zone between you and the French people who are still smoking.
The Muslim - Islamic Thing
In Paris, several television channels are in Arabic, (about as many as are in Spanish in Los Angeles). The Koran is in the nightstand next to the Gideon's Bible. It's OK. It's supposed to be there. Try not to get paranoid. DO NOT call the front desk and say, "Help! There's a Koran in my nightstand! Islamic terrorists have invaded the hotel!" They will not like this. The front desk clerk is very likely to be Islamic, as is the owner of the hotel. Chill out and don't act like an idiot. If you've really never been around any Islamic people, consider this your big chance to meet some under more pleasant circumstances and hopefully bring about world peace.
OK, tell the truth, so do they totally hate us or what?
There are indeed some French people who simply hate anyone from the U.S. as a matter of principal, but this is not the norm, especially among young people. And as you may have figured out, (if you watch the news and are not in a coma or something), many people world wide take great exception to a lot of U.S. foreign policy decisions and are very offended by the sort of "hey, it's our world and you're all just in it" attitude our country does have an unfortunate tendency to put across.
The Good News:
They also seem to want to like Americans. Many French people have a sort of romanticized picture of us, just as we do of them. We are Disneyland and Mickey Mouse and Coca Cola and Levis and MacDonald's (OK, for some people, this is big points off), and Hollywood and Marilyn Monroe and Elvis, (not to mention "Little House On The Prairie"). They would like us to be sweet and innocent and brave and crazy like we are in the movies. They find us amusing. They think we're kind of cute, in a stupid sort of way.
The Bad News:
Number one: Be polite. Smile. Learn to say things like "Please", "thank you" etc. in French. (S'il vous plait, merci). They are used to Americans barking orders and stomping around like they own the place. Do not contribute to this stereotype. Two: Dress normally. You don't have to be the height of Paris fashion, but remember, you may be on vacation, but they're not. It's a country not an amusement park, for heaven's sake, so lose the big shorts and sandals and put on something you might wear if invited to lunch at say, your friend's mom's house. Three: Eat the food. If it's good, say so. (Trust me, it will be!) People in other countries are very tired of Americans who come thousands of miles to whine and ask where they can get a hamburger. If you want American food, go to America. You want French food, go to France. Figure it out. Four: Avoid the whole whining thing in general. They think we're overly spoiled and sheltered already. Try not to prove it by bleating constantly about "eeeew, this tastes funny." "eeeeew, everything's so foreign", "eeeew nobody speaks english", "waaaah, we don't do it this way at home." (You'll sound like that kid in the third grade you couldn't invite to parties, cause your mom couldn't cut the crusts cut off his sandwiches exactly the way his Mommy did.) Five: Do you know anything about France? Do you like art and history? Read up before you go. They've pretty much got the market cornered on the world's favorite art pieces and most breathtaking historical sites. Ask to see them. They will be happy to show you and I guarantee you won't be disappointed. As an American, wouldn't you like someone from another country to ask you to show them the Liberty Bell, the Lincoln Memorial or the home of Paul Revere instead of just asking how late Disneyland stays open? So when you're in Paris, try to see something besides the strip shows.
Speaking of Strip Shows, About the Sex Thing
Meanwhile, back in Europe, with the Pilgrims gone, everyone apparently just went nuts. This means that over the last 200 years, they continued to get, shall we say, "looser" than they already were. Therefore, if you were raised in a very puritan style American household, the behavior of many French people and the sort of things they allow on their television could, upon first viewing, cause you to faint dead away. Remember though, they don't think this stuff is a big deal. They've actually gotten sort of bored. Things we might find terribly exciting or shocking are a huge yawn to the French.
As a result, they think we are pitifully uptight. (Even my friend Thom and I, who come from the depths of West Hollywood, were looked at with chuckling condescension, as if we were poor little dears just out of convent school.) Due to the behavior of certain American tourists, they also think we're big hypocrites. They say that we get upset if people sunbathe topless, are horrified if there are naked people on the TV, but the first thing we ask to see when we get off the plane is the Moulin Rouge. "Hey where's the naked girls at??" seems to be the battle cry of American tourists. They have a point.
Look, if you like that sort of thing, by all means go. The shows at the Moulin Rouge, the Lido, the Crazy Horse and all that are supposed to be the best in the world. (Don't ask me, I was busy in the catacombs.) But try to chill. As I mentioned before, French people, especially the people you'll see out in the clubs in Paris, are very beautiful. And they do sunbathe topless, and they do show people completely naked in their television shows, (not just on cable), but they don't freak out all over the place about it.
There seemed to be a greater tolerance for indulging in "pleasures of the senses" in general. The idea of it being healthful or virtuous in any way to avoid things like red meat, butter, alcohol, cigarettes, candy, sugar, coffee or chocolate, (or God Forbid, Sex!!), just didn't seem to be catching on big with the French. It was pretty much chow down, drink up and smoke em' if you got 'em. (And apparently, in France, CANDY IS GOOD FOR YOU.) So in this environment, you can hardly expect to be able to tell them to put their pants back on.