November 14, 2013
I’ve got a sad confession to make. Other than watching MaryKate and Ashley Olsen’s break out hit Passport to Paris, I’d never really wondered about what Paris would be like before I got here. I know, I know. It’s the city of lights! It’s the city of love! It’s where all those guys got their heads cut off—in public! I know, but between hateful viewings of Amelie and hearing people talk about watching Midnight in Paris, I never really sat down and drew a big heart with the Eiffel Tower and “Je t’aime” in the middle of it. But now, looking back, I think not thinking too hard about France was the best thing I ever did to help myself (as they say in France) “profitez,” or make the best of it all.
Maybe I’m just trying to rationalize my own lack of imagination, but coming to Paris without any preconceptions might’ve been kind of brilliant. I didn’t walk in expecting to see French men carrying bouquets of flowers to their many lovers all while wearing berets and smoking a cigarette, and I didn’t show up expecting red wine to flow down the Seine and Notre Dame to be made out of cheese that was still aging. I walked in both blind and open to everything Paris had to offer. There are no disappointments when there are no standards—only opportunities to be overwhelmed and taken aback by everything. And coming in with fresh, un-romanticized eyes also put into perspective some of the other problems someone might typically have going into a strange place: fear and hate.
I’ll start with fear. This one is familiar to all of us. If you’ve ever gone to summer camp, or high school, or to a Bundy party as a first-year you know this fear. It’s the uncomfortable, weight shifting, heart pumping, stupid, neurotic fear of the unknown. Even when the situation’s worst option is just being awkward, something in your brain tells you it could actually be the end of your life, and you’d rather do anything else in the world. In Paris, for me, it’s mostly talking to people. At Hamilton I never shut up, but at Hamilton I don’t walk around going “Oh God, how do you conjugate the future anterior?” “Is bread a man or a woman?” “Oh God, what is the future anterior?” Everything is easy, breezy, cruise control, but here there are days I’d rather take an 8:30 a.m. Monday class than go into a store and try to order a sandwich. There’s that natural, irrational fear of failure and the apocalypse holding me back.
But you know what—just like all those imaginary fantasies people have about the Champs-Elysées and intimidatingly chic Parisian women, all that fear comes from and lives only in our heads. Really though, think about it. No one ever told me “Oh God, those Parisian cafés, watch out man, it’s like going into the trenches, be careful,” but somehow my brain is freaking out, like asking for “de la café” instead of “du café” will get me ejected from the country. I made up this fantasy that if I ever try to talk to anyone they’re going to either 1) scowl 2) laugh or 3) do both. I’ve studied French for half my life, and yet I’m afraid of screwing up—all because of my own thoughts. And the only way to conquer this is to experience. You have to stop wondering and start discovering. Go into that café. Use the wrong pronoun. Eat a piece of fruit with your hands in public. Do it. Profitez! You can only conquer that menacing doubt through experiencing success, failure, humiliation and triumph yourself. By trying to erase your mind of everything you could do wrong, you open yourself up to everything you could do right. Be lazy like me—don’t think too hard about anything.
Now for the hate. This one’s a more insidious demon. You don’t know that it’s living in you, but it is. I’m not talking about racism or sexism, I’m talking about “Ugh, really? Does everyone in France have to go on vacation the same week and bring the country to a standstill?” It’s the little assumptions about a country or a city you’ve catalogued throughout your life that sit there under the “weird” category. Maybe hate is a strong word, but it’s at best an ignorant distaste for a bunch of things your friend who went there once told you about. The solution for this is to, you guessed it, experience. But this isn’t about putting yourself out there; it’s about reeling yourself in and watching what happens. Two of the most common stereotypes about French people are that they’re rude and always on vacation. I can’t name anyone who didn’t warn me about how awful French people are before I went to France. As for the vacation thing, the French have a month’s worth of paid vacation every year, so there is some reasoning behind that one. But at some point during my stay, someone said something to me that sort of turned around and explained both these stereotypes to me: “Americans live to work, and the French work to live.”
It’s a simple phrase that seems pretty stupid at first, but when I apply it to life here it sort of explains things. French people who work in stores often get the brunt of the “rude” stereotype, but when you think about the fact that in America we have phrases like “the customer is always right,” we are coming from an already very lofty idea of how people should treat us in stores. And then when I apply that little idea that French jobs are only the means to the end of going on vacation and living the good life, it makes more sense. I came in thinking when I walk into the store everyone should cater to me, an idea which doesn’t exist here, and I also came into the store thinking everyone’s at best loving their job and glad to be there and at worst begrudgingly going to help me along because that is their job technically. I was a lifeguard for three summers, so I know that even if you don’t love what you’re doing, there is a small obligation to act like you like it because someone’s giving you money. In France that money isn’t as important. Sure, if you’re doing your dream job I’d hope you’re helpful, but if you’re living in a culture where your job is just some thing you do to pass the time between trips to Provence, I guess I can understand the lack of overwhelming glee at being accommodating. I’m not saying this kind of behavior, or mindset, is the best thing, but it makes more sense when you probe around the French mindset and ask instead of assuming. Stop building up fantasies and stereotypes, and just let the world happen to you without judgement. Again, think less.
I’m fairly sure this advice to think less is the complete antithesis of the overall goal of Hamilton, but I promise you I have a whopping 11 weeks of experience to back this up. If you can manage to not think too hard or too closely about what your future country, or future job will be like too hard you’ll avoid disappointment, fear and hate. So think less and learn, experience, love and especially profitez more.