Wednesday, June 23, 2010


The last time I was in Paris for more than a few days was in 2003. I don't notice any major changes to the city, other than the proliferation of "bio" or organic labels. However, by some miracle, people no longer return my French with English. Either attitudes have changed, or, more likely, four years of a French PhD program, three of which I spent talking to students in French, made me a bit more convincing in my attempts to communicate in the language. I doubt if I know much more French than I did junior year of college, but I probably seem less overwhelmed by the need to actually summon this ability in real life.

Another difference in my day-to-day interactions comes from the fact that 2003 was seven years ago. Then, I was a girl. Now, I am very much Madame. Not yet 27, I am the matriarch of some implicit Parisian clan. It's not just the term of address, it's the tone used in interactions, as though I am some kind of grown lady buying cheese and pastries or whatever.

The obvious reason for this is that I look my age. Some other possibilities:

-My sense of Europe versus the US (disclaimer: major generalization) is that in Europe, there's much more of a divide between youth culture and the world of adults, and that this manifests itself largely by dress. On the Upper East Side, for example, girls of 15 dress like matrons, while women are in the hot new jeans each season. It's insulting to a teenager to imply she's not a grown woman, and to a Samantha-aged woman, to imply she's not a teen. Perhaps as a function of where I grew up, I dress much more like a bourgeoise (minus the silk scarf) than a jeune, even if technically speaking the way I dress has no particular place in this system, and is much more classifiable where I'm from. Anyhow, I discussed this with my mother, who thinks this is part of it, but who reminded me of how Patsy in "Absolutely Fabulous" added a "-oiselle" whenever someone tried to call her "Madame." Yikes.

-Size. I'm presumably the same height and weight here as I was on Saturday in New York. However, in the States, I'm small. Small gets confused with young. While I'm sometimes "ma'am" or "that woman" at home, it's not so constant. Here, however, I'm proper-woman-sized.

-Frankness among the Gauls: The likeliest possibility is that I've been looking like a Madame since late high school, but American politeness prevents shopkeepers and such from telling it like it is. This I do remember from study abroad - while French cafés, stores, etc., like American ones, offer goods in exchange for money, Parisians who sell things tend to act as though they're doing you a favor, rather than as though they're so excited to get paid that they'll fake an interest for the duration of the interaction. I see advantages to both approaches, but at any rate, this explains why my past-it-ness is more openly referred to here than at home.


Britta said...

I have spent two periods of time in France, one in high school (summer 2000), and once in college (October 2004). The first time I was in Brittany, and the second time in Paris. Both times, people assumed I was German (to the point they didn't ask, "Are you German?" but rather, "Where in Germany are you from?") Interestingly enough, in 2000 while my host family was delightful, I found other Bretons to be a bit aloof. Also, when or if I did have the opportunity to explain I was actually American and not German, people became a tad friendlier (even more so in Normandy, for obvious reasons).

In 2004, I had a completely different experience. People in Paris were so friendly I wondered if I was in the right country. People only spoke to me in French and then complimented my mediocre French. If I said something wrong or didn't understand, they'd slow down, or smile and patiently correct my grammar. When I was looking at a map on the street, old ladies would stop and ask me if I needed help to find anything. Seriously, in my experience, Paris has been the friendliest city I've ever visited.
My one explanation is that this was the height of the whole "old Europe" solidarity movement, so I wondered if maybe the French were trying to show their solidarity with German tourists?

Petey said...

"Parisians who sell things tend to act as though they're doing you a favor, rather than as though they're so excited to get paid that they'll fake an interest for the duration of the interaction."

This is why, as Screamin' Jaw Hawkins once put it, I love Paris.

Service workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your loss of humanity.

(And it's why NYC is the only halfway tolerable city in the US.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


That's interesting what you say about people helping you with directions. I had dinner last night with an NYU classmate who's French but not from Paris, and we were both struck by how, in NYC, looking at a map basically summons help from locals, whereas in Paris, you can study a map on and on and people will just ignore you. That has, at any rate, been my experience after spending the past few days staring at maps after walking in the wrong direction. My guess is either that Parisians especially like German tourists (or tourists they imagine to be German) or, more likely, that it depends which neighborhood you're in, whether it's a quiet street or not, etc.

In terms of people guessing where one is from, I obviously don't get "German" ever, but I also don't seem to get anything, really. This is probably because Parisian dress and NYC dress overlap a good deal, and because the parts of Paris I've been in are sufficiently racially diverse that the fact that I don't look ethnically French does not, on its own, label me as non-local.

That said, I can usually tell instantly, in NYC or here, who's American and who's not, even without clues such as backpack brand. It's just manner, haircut, who knows. So doubtless I look American.


As I said, there are advantages to both systems. The phoniness, the forced smiles, the forced interest in your day or what you're wearing ('cute shirt!'), agreed, potentially humiliating for the worker, and awkward for the customer who just wants a cup of coffee. But if getting that coffee requires a half-hour to receive, plus another half-hour to pay, even if consumed at the bar, followed by severe chastising when it turns out you don't have exact change... these are things that make for excellent 'they sure won't believe this back home!' vacation stories, but grate after a certain point if you're actually living somewhere. The ideal, I think, would be a mix - no groveling, but no gratuitous (and time-consuming) insults, either.

I get that there's a certain type of person who finds it authentic or hip or who knows to get sneered at by salespeople (some of whom are, often enough, store owners), but there are also those who feel if there isn't a smile and a 'customer's always right' demeanor, one might as well stay home. I suppose I fall in neither camp.

Isabel Archer said...

For what it's worth, when I was an exchange student in Paris in 2002, nearly everyone I met seemed to think that I was British. I still have no idea why.

People were actually fairly eager to help me when I took out a map and started looking for directions. Again, I can't say why. But strangers seem even more willing to help in New York. I actually find this vexing because I'm anti-small-talk; also, occasionally there are men who seem all too eager to give directions as pretext to flirt, which most of the time, ugh.

Finally, I agree that ideal customer service involves no insults, but no grovelling or forced small talk either.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Isabel Archer,

"Help" as flirtation is very annoying. I'm not one of those women constantly inundated with amorous male strangers, but this is the sort of interest I do tend to get for some reason. I suspect it has something to do with being small. (Doesn't everything?)

And, nationality! At dinner this evening, after I'd said not much at all, the proprietor of the restaurant asked me where I come from. Either this is a good sign that my American accent isn't overpowering or a bad one re: my French accent, but regardless, I can't imagine the same question being asked of someone in a restaurant in NYC or any other American city I can think of...

Jacob T. Levy said...

Well, Paris-in-the-summer has a higher proportion of tourists and furriners in cafes and restaurants and suchlike than I suspect is true in any American city, ever. Young people (and, yes, you're still young people) are very likely to be non-French, and likelier and likelier as June turns to July turns to August.

The "just because they serve you doesn't mean they have to like you" [TM Kevin Smith] culture was briefly in total remission in 2004 and 2005-- because the collapse of American tourism in 2003-04 due to fallout from the Iraq War had left the Parisian tourism industry eager to reestablish goodwill. The effect faded; Paris is still Paris, after all.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Why did I always think the spelling was "ferners"?

Anyway, I don't know if "American" is how I register. Furrin/fern for sure, which is reason enough to be sneered at. But there are enough families who march into bakeries and order loudly and confidently in English as though that's the presumed language in all human interaction (and if I could manage these basics in impossible Flemish, surely they could summon "baguette") to deflect attention from the more generically non-French. Also, I think the fact that I'm the same ethnicity as a good number of Parisians (flukes of late 19th and early-to-mid 20th C immigration) somewhat paradoxically probably helps me "pass."

That said, it seems like each (touristy) neighborhood in Paris has its own Americans. Near the Pantheon or other top-five-type sites, there are plenty of We Are American Tourists tourists. But in the Marais, there's this whole subculture of American girls on vacation or study abroad who dress so as to be thought French but aren't fooling anyone. So it could be that all Americans are recognizable to Parisians, and that I fall into some special, disheveled-American-grad-student category. (The fraying Brooklyn Industries backpack doesn't hurt.)

Britta said...

Hmmm...wherever I am, I dress in a way that is neither trendy nor stylish nor very "American," which might be partly why I get read as German. As far as I can tell, actual Germans in France are not particularly stylish either, so I don't know if getting mistaken as one is very complimentary :)
I've also been told I speak French "like a German person" by French people, but I figure they are projecting based on how I look, and that really I speak it well enough not to have an obvious American or English accent but not well enough to have no accent, and combined with looking Northern European, people just assume German.

I have never in my life had people assume I was American, not even in the United States, most people assume I'm a tourist or an exchange student. Not quite sure why that would be, especially because it seems so often no matter how hard they don't want to be most Americans are pretty easily noticed as such.