April 18, 2014
There is something to be said about study abroad blogs. From first-hand experience, the stories are just about twenty times more fun than they sound on paper, the pictures NEVER do justice to the feeling of actually being some place new and foreign and the food people talk about so amorously taste and smell a lot more enticingly. But, most of all, God is in the details and the experience of trying to peg down a culture and language that’s not your own is where the real fun is at.
Of course, all of that reaches for a whole new realm when you’re already an international student at Hamilton; you’ve already acquired a new culture and all that entails. You’ve lived those Diner B nights of terrible music and subpar food and loved it, you’ve taken that 50th shameless selfie in Times Square and not made any apologies for it and you’ve gagged at the idea of mac and cheese before you do get the appeal a semester in. So, as a Pakistani transplant to the states and then a red-white-blue-green transplant to the city of love, the experience presents itself in sort of an inception-like manner. There’s a culture within a culture within a culture. I get to adore some things from my Pakistani standpoint and then make fun of the rest with my fellow franglishers from an American angle. So, almost a semester into the romantically charged, cigarette-smoke infused culture of the French capital, Paris, here are my top three Paki-American observations of this land of baguettes, wine and intense romance.
Black is the new black. Don’t let that spring fashion stuff you read in Marie Claire fool you. Chez les francais, black is here to stay forever and ever. With the sun out and the flowers in bloom, Paris overflows with a million shades. Jardin Luxembourg and the Tuileries Gardens have a rainbow painted over them, but that’s just the flowers talking. Where the deluge of black / grey winter coats has given into the temperatures rising, the Parisians have managed to keep some semblance of black in their daily attire; the scarf, the shoes or, at times, even what may seem as needlessly smoky eyes that no one else can pull off. If not their entire look, then at least a part of it is still in black. So it might not look like the city of love is off to a funeral like it does in the winter, but Chanel’s affinity for black still designs the fashion mantra of Parisians, who manage to provide a breathtaking contrast to the electric spring colors.
Ici, on parle francais. Loosely translated: you’re that guy if you’re speaking English. Even though Parisians are ever so eager to learn English, they have a sense of sheer disgust towards the idea of people speaking English in their city. Between my French friends who constantly gab about the wonders of the French language or the bartender that will give you the stinkiest “not-another-tourist” look if you try to explain your finer preferences in English rather than in the mother tongue, you are between a rock and a hard attitude if you are coming around to Paris.
That said, the rest of France can be more forgiving towards non-French speakers. If you plan to make a trip to Paris brush up on the stuff you learnt in that high school French class you took a while ago. You do not have to be fluent but Parisians appreciate the effort. They like tourists as much as anywhere else in the world, and to chit-chat in English on the metro might give you away sooner than anything else.
A kiss on the cheek is quite continental. The overarching reputation of the French being rude just could not be further away from the truth. They really are normally friendly people, getting increasingly friendly as you go away from Paris, pretty much like the notorious New-Yorkers-are. But all in all, the “rudeness” that comes off on people is really just a question of cultural difference. You can’t just approach a random stranger and go, “Hey, which way to the Eiffel Tower?” There’s an “Excusez-moi,” a “Bonjour” and a sense of politeness that goes into it by obligation for the French, and when they do not find it with people, they tend to be thrown off by people being “rude” and thus act a little colder.
Try the complete ritual, and you might get a more warm reaction than the stereotype. Similarly, smiling and hugging are acts reserved for when you mean it. So smiling care freely at strangers, or hugging that one person you’ve met that one time before after class, does not quite work as well as the kisses on the cheek. So a little insight into the politesse of the French goes along way into striking up fun conversations, meeting some largely interesting people, and well, simply not offending the Parisian running around looking for his precious baguette. wHaving penned all of this down, I feel like I have somewhat tarnished the romance of France for any of you who might have bared with me, but rest assured, it is just as dreamy as its presented as an idea, only more.
The food tastes better than any food blog can explain, the language is more captivating once you can respond back in it, and nothing quite lights up the world like the Eiffel Tower coming to life on a crisp spring evening, doubling in the waters of the Seine. If no one else, then at least this Pakistani born, American-claimed, French speaking wanderer is driven to just exclaim out loud as he chews fondly on his lovely baguette: Paris, je t’aime.