How I Know I’m Not French But Then…

Written by admin on March 12, 2010 – 4:33 pm -

May 1st is the twenty-second anniversary of my moving to Paris. It’s hard to believe I’ve been here so long and how many things have changed—especially me.

I’ll never be French in spite of feeling very much part of the culture and loving so many aspects of life in France. The global insights that accompany relocating to a new country are both mystifying and enlightening.

No matter how long anyone remains in a new country, no one assimilates one hundred percent even if they’re totally comfortable in their adopted home. Scratch the surface, and invariably you’ll unearth a raw nerve.

For example, strikes are irritating and will always be. Even if they’re announced (as they’re legally supposed to be) and you plan accordingly, there are times when the best made schedules will crash and burn.

How well I recall the day I spent at the Gare de Lyon not going to Provence, even though the departure board showed my train would be pulling out of the station within the next 30 minutes. Sure. Had I been smarter, I would have returned to the apartment after a couple of hours. But that would have ensured the train would leave within minutes of my climbing on the bus heading to Boulevard du Montparnasse.

During strike season, working at home has its advantages albeit isolating. There are days when I stay put with my computer—even though I know it’s important not to become a hermit. I may become lazy (or absorbed) and sometimes have to force myself to get up and go.

I’m still irritated when I can’t accomplish things during the vacations and days off that are a part of French culture. One of the things about being an American in Paris is that French holidays aren’t necessarily holidays because I’m working with people in the U.S.

Ditto for American holidays. When all of the U.S. is observing Thanksgiving, I’m invariably working or preparing a Thanksgiving dinner to be served after 8:00 p.m., when friends are available. I’ve never heard of a multi-national corporation telling its American employees to take the day off even though some U.S. expats do return home to eat turkey and the fixings with their families.

More likely, Americans wait until the Christmas holidays to make a beeline to the States. It’s well known that not a whole lot gets accomplished during Christmas and New Years even if you don’t observe them.

But wait. I’ve done nothing but cite negatives. After all these years, more of me is French than American. For example, it’s hard to see into my closet because ninety percent of my clothes are black and it feels as if I continually buy the same ones.

The moment the sun appears during the dreary months of January and February, I make a mad dash outside to soak up a few rays. After all, if nothing else, we all need vitamin D, and if you’re someone who feels better after absorbing natural light (and who doesn’t?), you can rationalize the escape is precisely what the doctor ordered.

My French self is really evident in how and when I buy clothes and housewares. If something isn’t on sale, forget it. Retail has never been my thing (yes, I miss discount stores that are in practically every U.S. shopping center) but unless I’m desperate, I never buy anything unless it’s discounted.

Food has assumed more significance since I’ve moved here. Iceberg lettuce is no longer a staple. Don’t laugh: that was one of the few fresh vegetables you could always count on finding in a U.S. supermarket more than twenty years ago. Discovering French cheeses was a revelation. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven—and will unless I eat substantially less of it because of my cholesterol count. Unlike the French who eat tiny portions, my innate reaction is (was) to pig out.

Wine is an affordable commodity. It’s easy to experiement with different ones and you don’t have to spend more than a few euros per bottle. It’s not a major budget item and I’ve developed an anti-snob attitude and rarely spend more than ten euros per bottle in the grocery store when I buy it. What’s dinner with a glass or two of red wine? It’s good for your heart and it’s my contribution to France’s wine economy.

Flowers are a must in where and how I live. This isn’t a new phenomenon. I used to buy inexpensive ones at sidewalk vendors in Washington, DC, but soon nicknamed them graveyard flowers since they always died within 24-36 hours. There are incredibly expensive florists (ergo, artists) in Paris where you can drop a bundle. But there are also chain stores where you can purchase flowers that don’t make you feel as if you’re robbing a bank. My most recent purchase was forty white roses that cost ten euros and gave me ten times the pleasure.

This may seem odd, but the French are incredible when it comes to packaging. It’s a sense of aesthetics that brings me such intense pleasure. If you purchase something and say it’s a cadeau, the vendor usually wraps it as if it’s worth a million dollars using tissue, cellophane paper, ribbons and imagination.

Yes, there are irritations when living in France and it’s not for everyone. But, it’s captured my heart and part of my soul.

(c) Karen Fawcett

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Bonjour Paris – Another Year Has Passed

Written by admin on February 1, 2010 – 12:13 pm -

As I sit down to write the annual Bonjour Paris year-end letter, I realize I’m not quite certain how many have been written. It’s either the 14th or 15th. I’ve lost count, since we first launched as Keyword: Paris on the travel channel of America Online. How times have changed.

Those of us who worked on Bonjour Paris were initially condemned to connect via a 14.4K dial-up modem. In France, it was always hit or miss and rarely on the first try. There were at least five AOL numbers in Paris, and the modem would rotate from one to the next until there was something other than the damn busy signal. The “You’ve got mail” message signaled success.

The France Telecom phone bill would arrive, and there would be pages and pages listing each connection attempt. And then there’d be a notation of many French francs. Since the site had many people working on it, the phone bills at the end of the month would be staggering. Mine was over $1,000 because FT charged by the minute. Talk about sticker shock, but it was the cost of doing business.

Connecting to the Internet was the ultimate luxury. If it were a question of sending emails, you’d compose them first and send them all at once and download any ones you’d received. Then you’d answer them off-line because you could hear your phone bill’s meter edging up, or in my case, skyrocketing. Those were the days of chats, with me, living in the wrong time zone, getting up at 5:00 a.m. Paris time to be online until 7 a.m. (9-11 p.m. ET).

The concept of staying connected 24 hours a day was unfathomable for neophytes. Skip the idea of IP phones, Skype and on-line meetings where people can be anywhere in the world. Who imagined many of us would be living a large portion of our lives on-line? The recently released movie Up in the Air that stars George Clooney would have been considered fantasy. Who could possibly fire people via video conferencing rather than in person? It happens—but it’s not the way George Clooney opts to do it as he lives out of a suitcase taking short-haul flights within the US collecting American Airlines frequent flyer miles.

Today’s college students probably have no concept of dial-up modems. The French have become incredibly adept at IT technology. There’s even a T1 cable in my apartment building, which was constructed in 1887. Considering how the French swore the Internet would never catch on, they’ve come a long way since the Minitel.

The year 2009 has been another landmark in how people communicate. Many people and companies have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. Bonjour Paris has launched both, and we realize it’s the new way of establishing a community. The number of Bonjour Paris Facebook Fans has been growing, and we’re delighted to have yet another way to keep in contact. On Twitter, we’re @Bonjour Paris, and realize this social medium is an art and a science.

What we’ve realized is we’re changing with the times. Our site has always been a work in progress, and we hope to make some significant enhancements in the upcoming year. There will undoubtedly be some changes some might not love. We will be doing more social networking and would appreciate your spreading the Bonjour Paris word. As always, we’d like to have our readers’ input, so please feel free to send me an email with your suggestions.

It’s a new era and we’re listening. In the meantime, the Bonjour Paris staff wishes everyone the happiest, healthiest and most peaceful New Year with nothing but love and joy. Our family may be changing, but we’re a family of readers, of writers and of so many people who contribute their time. Thank you (or more correctly, merci) to each one of you.

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