Just the way a “Student Driver” sign in the back of a car on a crowded freeway might make other, more competent drivers a bit more forgiving toward someone going 45 in a 65mph zone, I’ve always trusted that if I looked enough like a tourist and a country bumpkin, my ineptitude might be more easily overlooked by the city’s regular inhabitants. It’s no wonder then, that when I arrived in Paris in February, it didn’t take me long to figure out that I was severely lacking in city (and specifically Parisian) savoir faire. It became clear almost immediately that I had absolutely no knowledge of a number of very important things, like how to elbow my way out from the back of a crowded metro car, or how to walk past someone speaking to me loudly while maintaining an expression of imperturbable metropolitan nonchalance, or how to ride a bike in four-inch heels, with a baguette in one hand while talking on a cell phone with the other. If I tried that bicycle stunt, likely as not I’d wind up soaking wet, clutching damp bread and a broken cell phone in one of the famous fountains in Place de la Concorde.
And though I’ve managed not to fall into any fountains (mainly by avoiding bicycles and high heels–or hauts talons) my first month in Paris has been filled with any number of faux pas, to steal another phrase from the French. There have been literal false steps (the translation of ‘faux pas’): onto other peoples’ feet in crammed metro cars, or down streets with promising names that end up winding into not so promising neighborhoods, and one very unfortunate step into a pile of Parisian dog doo (which, in case you have any overly-exaggerated impressions about the magic of Paris, smells just as bad as dog poop does everywhere else).
And then there were my more figurative missteps, like somehow rendering my brand new French mobile inoperable less than a day and a half after buying it (without any help from a fountain), and then trying to explain, in my mediocre French, exactly what I’d done to it. There are the numerous times I forgot that first floor here means the first floor up, and there is, of course, regrettable incident when I accidentally slipped out of the formal “vous” into the informal “tu” while talking to a cranky, middle-aged boulangère.
The list goes on and on. Every day in the early afternoon when I walk home from my French class, crossing the bridges of Île-de-la-Cité back to la Rive Droite, catching glimpses of Notre Dame and La Tour Eiffel, passing through the busy shops and restaurants of the Marais, and wandering past Centre Pompidou and the huge l’église, Saint-Eustache, I often wonder how in the world I managed to end up in Paris. And when I sat down to write this, in a backstreet café with free wi-fi and the cheapest beer on tap I’ve been able to find (and it still isn’t cheap), I wondered what I could possibly find to write about in this error-filled first month of living here.
Stay tuned on alternate Saturdays for more from me as I get better at navigating the City of Lights!