Wednesday, November 18, 2015

On Paris and appearances

Like many of you, I was shocked by the terrorist attacks of Paris this past weekend. While I'm certainly no local, making Paris my home for six weeks this past summer made me feel as if I were a part of it and it were a part of me. Looking back on that experience, I can honestly say that I will always carry a bit of Paris within me.

That's really what has motivated me to create this blog post. I want to talk about the things we don't talk about - racial and ethnic differences, particularly. Certainly, this entry comes to you from  my perspective as an educated, somewhat privileged, white woman lucky enough to be born in the 20th century in the United States. I have some inkling as to how much that sets me apart from the rest of the world from the get-go. Had I been born in different circumstances at a different time into a different set of experiences, my life would likely not resemble the one I lead now. As it is, I can only talk about what I know in terms of my own experience. I'm also someone who loves to travel. It defines me in many ways, actually. And I love travel because people fascinate me. Regardless of where you might live, what faith you might practice, what age you might be, or what clothes you might wear, I find people of all kinds interesting. I watch the people I pass during my travels and wonder who they are, what their lives are like, what they worry about, and what they desire. I sometimes write their stories imaginatively in my head as I go about my day. I look for myself in the faces of others. Even in the midst of a language barrier, I find myself looking for ways that a stranger and I might be alike, for ways that I could connect with someone who is very different from me.

For people who might be from small towns or who have never traveled abroad, particularly to Europe, it's hard to describe exactly how life is so very different there. (To make things simple,  most of my examples will be from my most recent experience in Paris this past summer.) One of the most obvious ways it's different from my hometown (roughly 60,000 people in a university town in Kentucky) is in the mix of people who walk the streets of Paris on any day at any given time. In Bowling Green, even though it's a refugee center for Kentucky (each state has two of those; did you know that?), I rarely see many people of different ethnicity and religion in my personal life. Certainly, I encounter people who are different from me at my job in the public schools or in line at the grocery store, but we don't really have conversations. For the most part, Bowling Green feels pretty homogenous to me. Yes, we have white people and African-American people and Hispanic people, but we don't have an exotic buffet of citizens that I encounter regularly. At first glance, that is. The international refugees who come here and the foreigners who relocate here for work generally seem to stay within either their own ethnic communities or in their academic/employment ones. I think that's probably just part of the human condition in these busy times, but it does mean that the rest of us don't get much interaction with people who come from other parts of the world. My life at home, then, is pretty insulated from people who are very different from me.

Europe just isn't like that. In the large cities that I've visited, and there have been several, it seems every nationality and ethnicity and religion on the planet co-exists within just a few feet of each other at any moment of any day. I might take the metro and sit next to an Indian man wearing traditional garb, then enter a museum behind a Chinese family, and then eat at a restaurant next to a woman wearing a hijab. What fascinates me most about it all is that no one even seems to notice the obvious differences of clothing and skin color among people. Perhaps I'm being a bit naive, but I didn't witness any overt racism during my stay in Paris and cannot think of a single incident of overt racism during any of my half a dozen trips to Europe. Certainly, there are class differences that I've noticed, but not racial or ethnic ones. Yes, a disproportionate number of homeless people in France in particular seemed to be of Middle Eastern or African descent. Likewise, my understanding of the Parisian suburbs is that many of them are populated by disenfranchised families from other parts of the world who have trouble getting an economic foothold in a very expensive place to live. Sure, I didn't seem to be riding the metro or standing in line at the patisserie next to the extremely wealthy, but what do really I know? Maybe the dude wearing super tight hot pants next to me at the cafe in Les Halles was really some famous fashion designer who had made millions. Maybe the young mother pushing a stroller through the hills of Montmartre was the heiress to some candy bar fortune. (Seinfeld reference, anyone? Anyone?) What do I know for sure? I know that I felt just as safe in Paris as I've felt anywhere else in the world, even among all of these people from every corner of the world.

That being said, I'm always surprised at how forward people have been when guessing where I'm from or in asking me about my nationality. Literally every single day, different people I encountered in my daily life in Paris wanted to know all about me - what country I came from and my ethnicity in particular. It didn't seem to be okay to discuss religion or politics or education or even one's job, but it was totally cool to discuss nationality. Doesn't that strike you as a bit odd? It did to me, but maybe that's because I assume most people I encounter here at home are Americans. Parisians don't make that same assumption, plus it was painfully obvious to everyone that I didn't speak French even when I tried my best. To my surprise, very few people ever guessed that I am an American. I sure had lots of varied guesses though. I heard Lebanese and Israeli and Palestinian and Egyptian and Turkish each on more than one occasion. I've never even known people from those parts of the world, so I was rather flattered and confused by learning that others thought I might be from there.  I heard Spanish and Italian most frequently of all. This didn't surprise me that much really; after all, my dark hair and eyes do sort of match that part of the world. Maybe that means I was uber-fashionable too, eh?  I was even asked if I were from Morocco or from Brazil. I wish I were that exotic! Men or women, young or old, solo or attached, in any kind of public space, the French asked me who I was. How did I define myself? Who was I? How could they categorize me based on the information I provided to them? Their questions did not come from a place of fear or judgment or mistrust, even when they assumed I might be from a part of the world full of danger and radicalism. They seemed interested in getting to know me, at least in getting to know who I was at the most basic level of national identity.

Sure, there were some cultural differences that I noticed when interacting with local Parisians. (Are Parisians ever really local? It seemed everyone I met who lived there had actually come from somewhere else.) Parisians don't stand in line the same way Americans do, and it can make for some discomfort if you don't recognize the subtleties. The French expect you to greet them before any kind of interaction; not doing so is considered the epitome of bad manners. (I personally think that stems from the kind of subtle class differentiation that is pervasive in Europe.) Parisians don't like people who speak loudly and use large gestures - sound like any Americans you might know? The French are a bit mistrustful of anyone who is too friendly, too casual, too optimistic and effusive. Again, these are things that Americans happen to be known for, but at least they are usually positive attributes.

Other cultural differences were a bit more personal in nature. (And I must say, that this is coming from a then 43 year old woman who definitely isn't built like a Barbie doll. Nevertheless, I found that I garnered much more male attention than I thought I would. Maybe because I was traveling alone? I'm not sure.) In general, Middle Eastern men were VERY forward in their attentions. (Tonia, do you remember the hillside in front of Sacre Coeur?) Not only was I propositioned on more than one occasion, but I was actually proposed to a few times. Yes, I'm serious. No, those people didn't even know my name. But those men were never rude or vulgar or unkind, even as I rebuffed them. (Would American men have been as gracious? I wonder that sometimes.) In fact, I made a good acquaintance with a local grocer of Middle Eastern descent in my neighborhood who helped me practice my French and who taught me a few bits of cultural etiquette as well as assisting me in choosing my dinner wisely from his shop.  He was so friendly to a stranger who he really didn't have to bother with if he hadn't wanted to make a connection. I appreciated that so much! In general, Aussies were very chatty and open with a friendly vibe. I seemed to run into Aussies most frequently, and they often had great recommendations for me about restaurants or museums.  In general, French women in Paris were rather aloof and disinterested, though I understand the reason for that now. The attention women of all ages receive on the street is pretty ridiculous, so that aloofness becomes a sort of armor for women who live/work there.  In general, European men from France and Spain and Italy especially were quite suave and a bit cocky in their self-confidence. European men were most apt to strike up a conversation once they realized I was alone and potentially easy pickings, if you get my drift. Again, no one was vulgar or rude, but they were not easily rebuffed.  I learned to be careful when Italians waited on me in restaurants or struck up a conversation in the street. Friendliness was often misconstrued as sexual interest. But then there was the Italian butcher who made Tonia and me great ham sandwiches with a smile and a fun story to boot. British families were quite friendly, but I found solo British men to be a bit of a 'hard sell' - one had to pretty much be rude in refusal or they just didn't get it. Maybe my southern manners seemed like an invitation? I don't know. Very few Asian people interacted with me unless it involved a transaction in a shop; I'm not sure if that's a cultural difference or just a lack of interest, but certainly no one was unkind. I did get kicked out of a wholesale shop run by an Asian man, but I think that was really just a language barrier problem more than anything. Oops! The lesson in all this? People were kind. People were interested in getting to know me. Most people seemed to be a lot like me.

I really hope that Parisians don't lose their ability to welcome travelers like me in something as simple as asking me about my home. I hope that the French are able to maintain the balance of stranger and native that I witnessed so frequently during my stay there. I hope that Parisians, who really are a reserved and elegant bunch overall, are able to continue to celebrate the differences among their own citizenry and among their visitors. I really hope that the French won't mind when I tell people that I carry a little bit of Paris with me now, that there's a tiny section I called home for a while, and that the people there who welcomed me are the reason for that feeling.

Paris changed me. She taught me about myself. She reminded me why I love travel and am fascinated by people from otherwhere. She challenged my comfort zone and made me better. I'm indebted to her and can only hope that she doesn't let the attacks of this year dim her sparkle. She certainly managed to make me sparkle in a way I never even imagined before this trip. I can't wait to see her again. Even against a backdrop of cloudy, threatening skies, Paris is beautiful. And now, Paris is a part of who I am and always will be.


  1. Beautifully written! I really enjoyed this post!

  2. Lovely post! Thank you Tiffany!

  3. What a beautiful post! While I've never been to Paris, I did spend a short time in France and Europe and found the people to be exactly as you described. Thanks for the reminder of my own experiences.

  4. this post was practically perfect in every way! (what old disney movie had that phrase?) tiffany this post was kind, thoughtful, & honest. i liked the photos too.