December 06, 2011
Paris: The Loves, The Peeves, The Fashion, The Rules & The Men
Every time I arrive in Paris, there's always a "dating and mating" period, where I have to become re-acquainted, re-accustomed and re-united in a way that is less natural than New York City, where I go through the same ritual despite how many umpteen times I've been there.
It typically takes about two days and my curses at the bureaucratic schtuff that gets in my way starts to subside a bit and Paris becomes Paris in all its glory, dark chocolate, crepes, brasseries, grand boulevards, shopping, cafes, gastronomie chefs, quaint Marais and Latin Quarter alleys and all.
The getting re-acquainted period goes something like this as I walk into my first shop, cafe, restaurant, hotel or bar. 1. Bonjour Madame. 2.
Not awake and still jetlegged, I'm thinking: Oh yeah, French. Rewrite your brain but oh my brain is so tired. "Bonjour" I say with perkiness in my voice to hide the fact that I didn't sleep on my 10 hour flight and the fact that I'm pissed off that I always used to sleep through everything including flights and now long flights are brutal rather than a napping or grazing day.
I adjust my scarf and hat to avoid looking too American a k a a sloppy, uncaring, horribly dressed female with an oversized coat and white sneakers for comfort. (note you won't find the latter on my feet in Paris -- ever).
Who said looking fabulous, sexy, French and stylish meant you could wear comfortable shoes, especially masculine flat-soled sneakers for crying out loud? I agree with the French on this one.
3. I roam for hours, not wanting to interact with anyone. On the first day, I just want to look and meander, look and meander AND as presently as I can amidst drizzly rain drops and 30 degree temperatures, take it all in as if its the first time.
4. Return to hotel within the first 24 hours. Something or another doesn't work for some strange reason - some stupid rule that doesn't make sense to anyone west of France, some design decision that got in the way of practicality or old plumbing. Fatigued, I ask as if on automatic pilot: 8 more hangers, 2 blankets and another towel knowing that I've probably only been given 4 hangers, a small blanket that will be sure to leave me freezing cold in the middle of the night and one or possibly two small towels that the Parisians call bath towels. (yes, often even in a 4 star hotel).
Then there's the European hotel lighting system...you know the one; your key must be inserted into a slot at the door before any of your lights work and one light often controls some random one on the other side of the room and you spend countless minutes trying to figure it out (no Renee, it's typically nearly an hour).
I know the logic is centered around sustainability and conservation but crikey, they make it so complicated that it becomes exhausting even when you know the concept. What's wrong with a simple on and off switch? (BTW, I have noticed that many of the 4 and 5 stars in South America and Australia
Simplify grasshopper, simplify.
As I walked down very long and very wide boulevards on my "first night of many first nights," Boulevard St. Germain which I know fairly well and L'Universitie and Rue Saint Dominique which I don't know as well, I took in every face and accent as I ended up having to talk to 90% of them.
Of course I got lost - despite how many times I've been here, I always get lost when I walk the streets at night. It seems to be another part of the annual ritual even if it is in fact, a familiar road.
The same thing happens in the states - it's just not the way this 'right brain' is wired. You'd think by now, I'd find one hotel or apartment I absolutely love and just book the same one every time.
A Sag who loves spontaneous adventure is less likely to make those practical decisions although more times than not, I wish I had. No one was from Paris and those who were, did their best to guide me in the right direction in their broken English (the majority) and I did my best to understand in my broken French (which used to be a helluva lot better).
I always seem to find my way home and the blind exploring isn't necessarily a bad thing. (it's better in May than it is in December however. Did I mention it's supposed to be 3 degrees C this week?) Below is the "Things That Bug the Crap Out of Me" in Paris List:
- Rules & Regulations: I realize that some of the "rules" in Paris are cultural. For example, don't mess with a French chef's menu by saying hold the cream or hold the cheese even if it means you'll have an allergic reaction and be sick.
- God forbid you muck with his ingredients. Or, don't dare ask for a taste of an open bottle of wine even if you've told them in advance you plan to order a bottle and drink and eat well into the night. In my case, I even mentioned reviewing their restaurant on 3 different venue occasions and still got a "no way we can do that madame."
No way means what? A splash of wine (literally) will do what to your bottom line if it means a customer leaves happy s'il vous plait?
Might it not mean that the customer doesn't order something she doesn't want and then writes positive things about your place afterwards? Cultural or not, it's marketing 101 and old school protocols like these simply come across as inflexible and not listening to your customer in a world where listening and engaging are the easiest (and might I add, cheapest) things to do to gain a loyal fan.
- Arrogance & Attitude: This is related to the first point, particularly the inflexibility about what's possible and not possible. Paris isn't India after all based on a caste system where "if its not in my job description, no can do Madame." Crikey, it's the romantic international capital of the world. If a woman wants a splash of wine, give it to her. The tip and good PR for months and quite possibly years to come will more than make up for it.
When I checked into my hotel, I couldn't get over the attitude of the bellman when he realized he had to move my fairly large bag to another room on a different floor (it's a small place and even though there was an elevator, he would have had to navigate a bit).
Isn't this your job I'm thinking? I can't imagine my bag was larger than any other woman's bag coming to Paris for nearly two weeks, particularly given the fact that I was only 45 pounds of my 50 max for the airplane and at least a third of it was camera equipment.
The bag even had wheels for crying out loud. In the end, I just smiled and said I'd take care of it myself - his bad attitude wasn't worth the extra time I had to spend looking at his sour face when 10% of his job is to get my bag from A to B and the other 90% is just about being nice, warm and pleasant, so my overall hotel experience is a memorable one.
- Snobbery Towards Americans: This one pisses all yanks off, yet frankly I actually get it. To be fair, after spending 7 years+ living and romping around Europe, yanks wore on my nerves as well. And so, I sympathize, however one of the things that I've noticed over the years is how similar French are to Americans.
- Sure, the average knows a helluva lot more about culture, literature, global matters and geography, but it doesn't go without the characteristics of complaining, whining and the belief that they're the best country in the world. How is that different from Americans for the most part?
That said, having dinner along Rue Saint Dominique on my first night, I moved tables because the American accents and loud voices were so obvious and tacky, I couldn't tune out. And so, it was simply better to move, politely of course.
I think my main issue with it all is how blatant and vocal the French are about it, rather than acknowledge the differences, but also the positive side of American culture and its people: friendliness, fun spirited, energetic, entrepreneurial, authenticity (minus a chunk of LA - a boat load of friends living there are bound to email me about this one, but I think a boat load is a fair enough statement since its so clearly not all), and resourceful.
Yanks know how to get things done and if something doesn't work the first time, chances are they'll try a different approach and keep trying until they succeed.
- Internet Connectivity in Hotels: The "having to connect using tons of codes & often" issue doesn't apply just to Paris or France for that matter but other cities in Europe as well. (London less so). When I was in Budapest and Prague over the summer, I had to go through the same thing. Munich too. You're given a code, you enter it with a password, then you have to fill in your life's particulars and in the case of my Paris hotel, I had to agree to spam mail and so I used a spam email address.
The problem is that it only works for 24 hours and often if your laptop goes to sleep or hibernates for a bit, you may lose the connection and have to go through the process from scratch.
To make things even more inefficient, you have to get a new code from the front desk and most of the time, they are printed off on little slips of paper they hand to you. Often the codes are so long, its more efficient to trek all the way downstairs to get the paper than the painful process of having them read it to you with errors over the phone.
Below is the Love the Crap out of Paris List:
- The Formality: Part of the rules and regulations part of their "culture" and frankly, the way things are done, is a formality aka a formal way of behaving in the world. Protocols exist damn it, follow them or take your barbaric uneducated unsavvy self home.
- Part of this I find fascinating, anthropologically speaking. For example, when you order from a menu, even if its a price fixe menu that includes a dessert, you don't tell them what you want for dessert while you're ordering course one and two, even if its listed there and the waiter is standing there writing it all down.
Later, he says, "It's out of order." While a small example, this kind of behavior applies to many things in Paris: protocols for trying clothes on, ordering a coffee, museums and so on.
One year I was staying with a friend in one of the burbs (the year I learned to master the RER and beyond) and he had left 4 little bottles of wine for me in the fridge as well as some interesting pate. I decided to drink one of them, which was a tough decision, but opted for the one that looked the most unusual in the end. He later informed me that I was supposed to open all of them and sample some of each, not drink just one. Who knew?
- Attention to Decadence and Design: While Rome and London do a pretty great job on the design front, there's no better experience than going into a chocolate shop or bakery and leaving with a beautifully wrapped piece of something that looks as good as it tastes.
And, it's not just about their chocolate and patisseries, but all of it....linens, towels, scarves, hats, jewelry or frankly, something as small as a barrette or card. They take care to wrap it and the packaging is fabulous, every time.
It's the same way they serve their coffee and everything else for the most part. It's not as grand as it was ten years ago but I think this is more of an economic consideration than anything else.
- Shopping: see above. I LOVE LOVE LOVE the boutiques and higher end shoe/boot shops in Paris.
- The Men: the same things that frustrate the hell out of me with French men are some of the things that I love. I could easily lose the patronizing attitudes and the trend that mistresses are as common as having a therapist in LA. But French men are charmers and unlike any experience I have ever had in northern California, they make me feel feminine.
American men from the South know how to bring this out in a woman (while we're on making sweeping generalizations but if you can remember that they're generalizations based on a combo of observations and direct experiences, bear with me and read on). It's the way they talk to you, pay attention to you, delight in the small details of your eyes, your hands and your life story.
Additionally, like Italian men, they care about design, the way they dress and the way a woman dresses as well - the more feminine the better. And, they cherish in this and it rubs off. (No doubt, there will be a lot of woman who disagree with me over this one and might even be pissed off, but we can have that conversation -- or rather debate -- offline sometime over a glass of Bordeaux).
- The Food: Need I say more? Even the tourist restaurants where the food isn't out of this world, it's presented in such a way that it could fool you.
Something will be memorable about it in the end. Go to local brasseries, restaurants and cafes wherever you can of course and take the time to explore especially if you're in Paris for longer than a 48 hour business trip. For more on food/wine in Paris, click here.
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