It is four in the afternoon on a Sunday and I am currently at a small café on Avenue de la Bourdonnais. The temperature is hovering somewhere around 17 degrees Celsius which is ideal weather for a light dress and an unzipped jacket. At the table to my right, sits a couple in their early thirties. They sit side by side, on the same end of their table and watch the passersby as they carry on their conversation. Their voices are muffled by the street noise but I can still make out the distinctly Parisian intonation that sounds as though they are constantly surprised at something. To my left is a young man about my own age with a navy scarf swung loosely around his neck and a helmet resting on the table in front of him. Two minutes ago I watched him park his Piaggio scooter on the corner of the street. Looking ahead, I can just make out the Eiffel Tower through the branches ahead of me. Cliché? Most certainly. And yet I’m not making a bit of this up, nor did I search this place out. The café next door would have presented me with some slight variation of the same scene as would the one across the street and the one after that. This is just typical Paris on a Sunday afternoon.
I think it is safe to assume that everyone has their preconceptions of Paris, and I certainly had mine coming here three weeks ago. So far, most of them have managed to stand up; the people ARE beautiful, the coffee is strong, the metros are crammed and smelly. I have also learned a few new things during my short amount of time here: if you are Canadian and speak French – it is assumed you are from Quebec; skinny jeans, a patterned scarf, and a fuchsia wrist-watch say absolutely nothing about a man’s sexual orientation; Parisians are not snobs.
Having spent my entire summer dealing with the French administration, whilst trying to retain some shred of sanity, I had already written the entire country off as hopelessly bitter and deliberately unhelpful. Upon arrival at French customs, I was fully expecting to be strip-searched and probably denied entry for stealing the hand-wipe from my airplane breakfast. When I got through with nothing more than a smile and a “Merci”, I was pleasantly taken-aback. I was no less pleased when the taxi driver initiated small talk and when a week later, the sales representative at the mobile phone store spent a half hour helping me pick out the best package, and when my professor greeted me with a smile and a “Bonjour, je vous notte” when I walked into his class ten minutes late. Parisians are not intrinsically mean people as they are so often stereotyped to be. They have learned to adapt and be efficient in an exceptionally busy city : one that receives more visitors than any other in the world. While this may translate into a certain disdain and bitterness to some, not many cultures actually take the time to give a kiss on each cheek to every friend or acquaintance they run into in the course of a day like the French do. Parisians are nice: that was my first revelation.
My second revelation came within the first few days of me arriving in Paris and surprised me no less than the first: I can’t ask for directions. I am not physically incapable of doing so – I’m fluent in French (although judging by the looks of what seems to be a cross between confusion and amusement on the locals’ faces when I break out my not-quite-Anglophone-not-quite-Quebecer accent, that may be debatable) – it’s actually my pride that gets in the way. I was determined, upon arrival in Paris, to not look like a tourist. I retired my super-comfy cargo shorts, doubled my scarf collection, and refused to purchase a foldable Paris map. I also made a point of not stopping to gawk at tourist attractions as I walked past them.
Ironically enough, this made me stick out like a sore thumb. The people here walk slow, they take time to sit in front of the Notre-Dame Basilica and read a book or to stop and listen to the full orchestra playing baroque classics in the metro station. Luckily, I caught myself early on. So, one day a week – usually a Sunday, when I’m avoiding my school readings – becomes a dedicated touristy day. I pull out my comfy cargo pants and my camera and head to the first tourist attraction that comes to mind. Last weekend it was the Louvre, today it’s the Eiffel Tower.
And thus why I’ve found myself at this overpriced café on Avenue de la Bourdonnais with the Tower in front and locals on either side of me. Cliché or not, I’m having a lovely afternoon. And the Hans Matheson type to my left (circa the ’98 Les Misérables film adaptation) tops it off quite nicely, maybe he could give me a ride on his scooter?
À la prochaine!
#1: Decided to walk home instead of taking the metro after class
#2: A full string orchestra performing at the Châtelet metro stop on a weekday afternoon
#3: Took a minute to snap the mandatory Eiffel Tower shot on my way to a midnight picnic on the Champ de Mars