Europe

A Crash Course in City Savoir Faire

People in line to buy lunch outside my favorite Boulangerie-Pâtisserie on Rue de Rennes.
I’d never lived in a city before moving here to Paris a month ago, eager to take up a kind friend on the offer of a few months in the spare room of his apartment near Place de la République. Since I turned 16, when I made my first trip abroad with a group of other high school students, I’ve traveled through a lot of cities. I’ve passed through London and Istanbul and Sydney, among a host of others, spending a week here or a few days there, always with my guide book crammed into my too-heavy shoulder bag, and my big city map and camera on display like training wheels, floaties, or out-of-state plates: warnings of my obvious amateurism as a city dweller.

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).

On my walk home, the back of une église in le Marais.

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.

But the upside of mistakes, as most of us have been told by parents or teachers or well-meaning friends, is that you get to learn from them, and this seems as good a city as any to make mistakes in, as it has seen its fair share of them in the past millennium or so. A city that’s lived through Robespierre and the Reign of Terror, through Napoléon I, through  two world wars, and the centuries of wars preceding them, probably doesn’t mind at all if I make the occasional faute, however grave. And I have learned a few things in the past few weeks, like which end of the metro platform to stand on in the morning so I can change lines most efficiently, and the fact that even in Paris, there’s a really big difference between good and bad bread. And I’ve learned, thanks to all my mistakes, that Parisians, despite their famous reserve, are awfully obliging when it comes to telling you you’ve done something wrong.

People in line to buy lunch outside my favorite Boulangerie-Pâtisserie on Rue de Rennes.

And once you’ve made a few mistakes, you stop minding them so much–or at least, I have. After all, Paris wears the history of her own faux pas rather well, don’t you think? And if, after the next time I inevitably make a fool of myself in front of a city full of aloof and impeccably stylish Parisians, I can’t comfort myself sufficiently with the fact that I’ve “learned something,” from the experience, at least I’ll still be in Paris. I can buy myself a croissant and watch from a café as a gaggle of guide-booking bearing tourists stare confusedly at their city maps, searching for the Louvre, or Tour Montparnasse. Who knows–if they asked me for directions, I might even be able smile knowingly, and tell them in (here’s hoping!) slightly-less-mediocre French, exactly where they need to go. Or if not, at least I’ll be able to give them some tips on what not to do!

Stay tuned on alternate Saturdays for more from me as I get better at navigating the City of Lights!

mbostrom
Born in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York, Margaret has always felt awed by the world’s most beautiful places, and driven to see as many of them as possible. Since graduating from college in 2009, she’s been reading, writing, and wandering across the world indulging in her love of long train rides, learning how to say “excuse me” in as many languages as possible, deciphering time tables and metro maps, and carrying far too many books around in her backpack. Having traveled through parts of the US, Europe, Australia and the Middle East, she’s decided that feeling properly well-traveled is a bit like feeling truly well-read: practically impossible, but a goal well-worth pursuing anyway!

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