To my American eyes and ears, nothing makes sense in Paris. But, being a Western culture, there is a vague familiarity to everything. It’s like seeing the skeleton of your own culture through a fun-house mirror: everything has a point of reference, but nothing is the same as you are used to.
Paris is a work of contradictions. Lots of things are really small: the coffee, the people, the dogs, even the silverware are tiny versions of their U.S. counterparts. (If you come to Paris and order “un café,” translated as “a coffee,” you will get a shot of espresso about the size of a thimble. And it will likely cost you 4 Euros. If you want an American-sized coffee you will be limited to Starbucks.)
That being said, there are a lot of things that are outrageously large: the monuments, the metro stops, the population, and the machine guns that police officers carry as they walk around everywhere (France has a very different conception of gun control than the U.S.—the idea is that the citizens are safer when only the police can own guns.)
French culture also seems to have a lot of rules and a consistent adherence to order. The usage of the metric system, the public school system, the political red tape and the time-honored tradition of wearing only select, chic items of clothing. Not to mention the amount of cultural rules I have been told to follow: rarely make eye contact with men, shower sitting down, tear the baguette instead of cutting it, open the windows in the morning to get rid of the “bad air” (a tradition left from the middle ages,) give bisous not hugs, and so on.
On the other hand, there appears to be chaos everywhere: people park their cars and motorcycles on the sidewalk, in the middle of the street, wherever they please. In crowded areas, there is no “stay on the right” unspoken social rule—instead everyone walks wherever is convenient for them. At restaurants and stores, people are not served in the order that they come in, but how successful they are at small talk with the staff, and how quickly they say bonjour or bonsoir when they enter.
It’s these details that are swimming through my mind as I go through my first days in Paris. Although it seems overwhelming (which it is) it undoubtedly carries an aura of mystery and excitement, and there is a voyeuristic part of me that feels like I am slowly learning a code that has been hidden for the first 20 years of my life (Parisian version of Nicholas Cage in “National Treasure”? Sure, I’ll take it.)
As I start the third decade of my life (I turned 21 on Sunday,) there seems no better place to begin than here. I have always been a lover of things and people that grasp beyond the obvious, and Paris is a giant puzzle waiting to be solved. The whole city has a deep and persistent sense of fidelity from all of its inhabitants, and I have never experienced anything like it.
Between my conversations before heading abroad and the way that other students and adults talk about Paris, it is a city that gets to people. It seems to dive to the center of people, and latch on in some unique way that makes them love it more than any other city. Now, I have met tons of people from Minneapolis and Madison who talk about those cities like they are the best place they have ever been and ever will go. But there is something different about the way that people talk about Paris—like they are a part of a long-standing and ongoing tradition of beauty and depth of thought, and of suffering and happiness. They seem to take the history of a place and make it an integral part of their daily life. But then again, I haven’t even been here for a week. For now, la vie est belle.
Some photos from my first week: