Scattered thoughts (Part 11)

My favorite bridge in Paris. I dragged N here my last night: an hour and half of walking.

Rudeness. I have heard horror stories of French people being snotty to American tourists. But I hadn’t considered how the American tourist must have been acting. A response is a response to something, most of the time. No one was rude to me. Not the girl on the train, or any of the store clerks. Not even when I was alone and didn’t have N to protect me. I pretended in public that I could speak French! I was an echo. I am sure I fooled no one, because I could tell that people were amused with my abysmal pronunciation. But they were indulgent, and even friendly.

Fashion. I had this idea that every person would look like a runway model. Not at all. While I didn’t notice any morbidly obese people (maybe a few obese, but not many), the rest were average. The difference was not in glamour — the American version with bling and brands — but in understated grace and refinement. Clothes weren’t necessarily from fancier designers, but there is an attention to fit and tailoring that we don’t have. The American brands they have in Paris made me laugh though. American Apparel. Gap. Abercrombie!

Food. I understand the bread snobbery now. When even towns with fewer than a thousand inhabitants have their own bakery, and the French are used to visiting a bakery for fresh bread daily, there just can’t be any comparison to America, where one expects bread to last for weeks. There is an emphasis on freshness and flavor that shows everywhere, as if store and restaurant proprietors would be embarrassed to serve anything less. I like their model of eating well but not very much. I strongly object to the too-common use of child sized cups though. I also searched everywhere in Paris for an equivalent to a Big Gulp Icee, but there were none. I whined for an entire afternoon about this.

Work. I don’t think workaholism is as common. Everyone gets six weeks of vacation, and there were entire towns which were like ghost towns because the inhabitants had gone elsewhere on vacation.

Homelessness. During my visit, I encountered exactly two homeless people, both in Paris. Each of them had not only a mattress, but sheets. Neither of them hassled passers-by for money. Certainly none of them were insane. I can’t speak to France’s political system or taxes, but if this and the six week vacations are the result, their way of doing things can’t be all bad.

Landmarks. This isn’t unique to France, but it’s pronounced in Paris. The number of people at historical landmarks follows a Polya Urn distribution. I got the impression that people were there only to collect merit badges in the form of pictures to show off to their friends. A checklist of famous sites, and them grinning in front of each of them. Notre Dame is lovely, sure, but there were near-empty cathedrals that were just as nice, if not nicer. Everyone and their mother was trying to get goofy perspective pictures of picking up the Eiffel tower, or bopping it on the head, but hardly anyone cared for just sitting by the fork of the river, under the willow tree. I have no complaints about this — it made my life more beautiful.

Aesthetics. There was a room in the Louvre that made me cry. The one dedicated to the King Louis XIV. There was too much detail. Too much intricate detail, so precious, so loving, someone’s darling pet project. Lots of someones, probably. This was an extreme case, but care is taken everywhere. Sometimes to a fault. N told me what a headache it is to change anything historical. Even your own home’s window shades. I love that there is a governing body that has veto power over building plans which are too hideous. If Honolulu had had that, there would be no buildings in Waikiki save the Moana Surfrider. I think the French fully appreciate the power and even the necessity of beauty. It may be completely impractical, but what good does practicality do if you’re never touched by that feeling of wonder and delight that comes from beholding something truly beautiful?

I’ll leave you now with one more sunset

nb: this the last of a series on my trip to France

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