Letting Go of Preconceptions in Paris

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People love to hold onto preconceptions.

One of the reasons I wanted to spend time in France was to let go of mine, whether I was aware of them or not when I arrived here.

We all have preconceptions, of course, about people, places, manners, mores. I hope I’ve changed, living in Paris. Personal change can be imperceptible – and sometimes you have to reflect on it – but I believe it’s been real.

Last week my friend Richard, whom I’d met about nine months into my first extended stay in Paris, asked me if I still loved the city as I first did. I do, in fact. But now it’s as someone who’s more of a resident than a visitor. So I can speak as a person who lives with the day-to-day irritation of Paris as well as its daily wonders. Richard also asked me, as we strolled around a sunny park near the Palais Royale, if I thought that France had changed since my arrival back in 2010. I said, half-joking, that France never changes. It does, actually. Though perhaps its changes seem to occur on a more geological than a human scale. Still, France changes you, even if it seems to remain the same.

In the year since I’ve been writing about my experiences living in Paris, and building a sort of parallel life here (while keeping my life in New York), I’ve come to realize a few random things:

  • The French are much more fascinated with and protective of their language than are English speakers about English. Native English speakers take the power and beauty of English for granted. French speakers don’t take French for granted. There are days devoted to the French language in France and in Francophone countries. Anglophone countries don’t bother with this sort of thing. The French fear the encroachment of foreign words (specifically English ones) into their language, but despite the efforts of the Académie Française, they’re helpless to do anything about it (a living language cannot be controlled). The English language welcomes refugee words. Americans might mock you for using a British expression in lieu of an American one, but that’s about it. Otherwise: linguistic visitors welcome.
  • French who can speak some English love to practice it with you. My French tutor says that the French consider it chic to speak English (it’s also chic, if a bit pretentious, for us Anglophones to speak French).  Since I speak French pretty well now, French friends don’t try to engage me in English conversation, though they do ask for occasional translations of idiomatic English expressions they might have come across. But sometimes you just roll with people’s insistence on chatting in English. The other night, a professor of political science here, on hearing that I was an American, insisted on it, telling me, in highly fractured English, that he spoke fluently and was always looking for opportunities to keep up what he said were his formidable English-language skills. “I want that the littles come with me for their discovering of the America,” he said at one point during a rather tortured exchange. I understood what he meant – he hoped to bring his small children with him on his next trip to the U.S. But I could see why he might want to keep practicing.
  • The French have strong opinions about America, and aren’t shy about voicing them to you. But once you start questioning something related to France, you’re told you don’t know what you’re talking about. I try not to offer an opinion on anything that would only betray my ignorance – though I feel free to ask questions about what I don’t know or even understand. For instance, right now, the government is trying to reform France’s onerous labor laws, especially given that it’s not only hard for companies in France to hire, but equally hard to fire, and jobs are scarce for people just out of school. I asked someone about this, and was told peremptorily that I don’t understand how France works. Well, that was why I had posed the question. But this person couldn’t really tell me about what exactly was needed to reform how companies work in her country. The answer (as I’ve heard often), was that this is just the way it is (“c’est comme ça”). So for France to become competitive, the solution seems to lie in both changing the way in which things have long been done and in keeping things the same
  • American television is popular in France, and many people believe that the most violent TV shows on air reflect the real America. They’re actually not all that wrong, given the number of gun deaths in the U.S. But they don’t see the America where most people live. Still, that isn’t the point: upholding the sense of America as the world’s most powerful yet lawless country is important for some people’s sense of perspective. The other night a Frenchwoman told me over dinner how much she was enjoying “The Shield,” the series about a morally compromised cop. “It reflects America,” she told me. I explained that it was more fictionalized than actual, even if inspired by reality. “But it’s all true,” she insisted, despite never having visited the U.S. She does have a second home in Cartagena, though, a city that was sometimes cited as a trouble spot during the height of the country’s drug cartels. I asked her if Cartagena were safe. “Safer than America,” she said. “The problems in Colombia were all due to America. America is violent and murderous.
  • I remain as fascinated by France and French customs as the French seem to be by America, Americans and the American way of life (and sudden death). I’ve got a lot more of France to explore, and in this first year of writing about my life in France I’ve only touched on a portion of my experiences here. What I’ve found is that France has provided me with riches I didn’t know I had. I came here doubtless armed with whatever preconceptions Americans may usually carry with them on first visiting Paris, and I am sure that some of my interpretations of life here are still colored by remaining preconceptions. But the most important thing for me has been the wonder of it all: I’ve been able to create a life in two places, two cultures, that reflect upon each other and that make me feel not only humbled by how much I’ve yet to learn, but ennobled by the continuing grace of discovery.

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