At a recent book event, there was a little Q & A session after I chatted and read from my new book. The only guidelines were that I told people that two questions were off limits.
One was; “Why did you move to Paris?”, and the other “How long are you planning on living in Paris?” Because I get asked them at least six times a day, and I’ve been here seven years, (so do the math and you’ll understand why j’en ai marre ), I figured I should just answer them in the book and be done with them once and for all.
Except when I said that, for a moment, I kind of blindsighted the crowd as I could tell that everyone was about to raise their hand to ask one of those two questions. Multiply that by 150+ people, and I’m not going to ask you to do the math again, but you see what I’m up against.
But someone did ask me a very good question: “What about Paris would you miss if you moved away?” which rendered me uncharacteristically speechless. In the book, I wanted to be truthful about my life here and balance the good with the not-always-good, and sometimes people focus on the less-alluring aspects of my life in this city, mostly because they’re more fun than to hear what a spectacular city Paris really is.
So here are 15 things I would miss if I moved away from Paris…..
1. The Dorky Sense of Fashion
For the most part, Parisians are a pretty fashionable group. Well, younger ones, that is. But the older ones tend to dress more for comfort than for style, and if anyone over 50 is wearing jeans, either they’ve been starched, heavily perma-creased, or the elastic waistband is a few centimeters north of their navel.
But it’s kind of quirky to pass men on city streets, wearing fishing vests, strolling on sidewalks where there’s clearly nothing biting, and seeing sixty-seven year old women wearing skirts that are short enough to make the gals pole-dancing up in Pigalle blush.
2. The Lack of Wacky Diets & Exercise Freaks
With the exception of the woman I saw jogging last week in the Tuilleries wearing espadrilles, most people aren’t obsessed with exercise or working out. (If you’ve even been in a gym here, you’ll see why they likely avoid them.) The French are a sportif lot, but no one gets up at 4:15 am to do a circuit, take a Spin class, then pump iron for an hour before their morning wheat grass juice. Hence you see very few over-inflated gym bodies like you would in say, California. And I’m thankful for that.
Curiously you also fewer overstuffed bodies either. There’s a panoply of reasons for that, which get me into trouble every time I bring it up, but from what I see, few people here are afraid of food. I recall during a baking demonstration I was doing in the states and remember one person telling me they were giving up fresh grapes because “they had too many calories”…and another person asked my opinion of “low-carb chocolate.”
I doubt few people in France thinks fresh fruit is the enemy, and am certain that if low-carb chocolate had ever existed, it has come and it has gone—thankfully.
Sure we got off to a rocky start, but after a couple of years of using the nearly-free bikes, the only way you could get me to take the métro is to hold a bar of low-carb chocolate to my head. (Or my mouth.)
“Aren’t you scared of Parisian drivers?” I’m asked. To be honest, I’m only scared of them when walking because they tend to speed up and see pedestrians as nuisances. (If they see them at all.) But bicycles are treated like vehicles and people share the road with them. Of course, you need to be brave and not be scared of swerving in front of a speeding bus or taxi. (Ok, the taxis I don’t recommend.) But I’ve had far more harrowing experiences with crazy drivers in San Francisco balancing lattes, yoga mats, and tapping messages on their iPhones in their Priuses than I have in Paris.
The other upside of the Vélib’ program, which they really should tout, is that the baskets make excellent cooling racks, in case you’re making a cross-town scone delivery. The downside is you need to be careful when applying the brakes when it comes time to stop, unless your scones are pretty-well secured.
4. Les jeunes hommes with Impossibly Small Waistlines
Wait. Before you call the feds on me, it’s not what you’re thinking. It’s just that I’m astounded by how slim some of these young men are around here. I mean, some of them are so lithe that you wonder what’s holding those jeans up. (Often not much, judging from the undergarments sticking out all the time.)
I don’t know how they do it, but I want one.
A waistline like that, not what you’re probably thinking.
5. The Brusque-ness
While at first it may be off-putting, once you become brusque yourself, life becomes so much easier. “No” is so much easier than saying “Yes” and shoving someone out of the way is far less-effort than contorting yourself to try and move around others. If you’ve ever wondered why there’s so many kinésithérapists here in Paris, it’s because everyone’s spines are all outta whack from the never-ending twisting and turning.
So why keep your feelings inside? Running for President? If some kid tries to pick your pocket, slap that little scoundrel across the face. If someone cuts you off on their bike, yell at them. Feel free to ride full-throttle on your scooter down the sidewalk. I mean, who do those pedestrians think they are, anyways? Don’t they know who the sidewalks are for?
And I’ve come to enjoy the art of finding out who is the stronger of the lot when it comes to dealing with bureaucrats and salesclerks: if you don’t stick up for yourself, they’ll take you down in an instant. So I’ve really worked on my assertiveness training and curiously, all my back pain has vanished, too.
6. The Sense of Humor
French people are really funny. And they appreciate a sec sense of humor. There is that thin shell of veneer that needs to get broken through, but once you do, you’ll find they like to have a good laugh. Unfortunately a few have been at my expense, but I’m not holding that against them. Because I’ve had a few at theirs, too.
7. The Butter
A Parisian chocolatier I know had some hot-shot investors lined up to open a confectionery shop in New York City. He went, looked at locations, did the rounds, had meetings with everyone, and came back.
When he returned, I asked; “So, are you going to open in New York?”
“Non,” he told me, “c’est pas possible. The butter is pas bon.”
You can find acceptable butter in the states, but really, when you’ve had amazing French butter, most of the stuff (even the fancy organic-groovy-whatever butters taste bland) in America is pretty average. I’ve gone back and forth between Beillevaire and Bordier (I’m back to Bordier, for now) which is like choosing between Daniel Craig and Colin Ferrell. And with choices like that facing me every day, people still ask why I moved here?
8. The Cheap (and Drinkable) Wine
Last time I was in California, I went to a slightly-upscale pizza place. Because there was a long wait, I ordered two glasses of rosé, which clocked in at $13 each. So, for two small glasses of wine, with tax and tip, I was out 30 bucks. For two half-full glasses. I wanted another, but I didn’t dare. Okay, yes I did. But was not thrilled when my credit card bill came.
Look, I don’t begrudge anyone who owns a restaurant, since it’s hard work and the pay isn’t nearly commensurate with the headaches or the insanity. And I also think people that produce our food deserve to be properly compensated for their work. But if someone can tell me why 2 ounces of wine costs the same as an entire handmade pizza pie made with organic flour, locally-made cheese, and hand-picked vegetables, or twice as much as a slice of chocolate cake with freshly-churned ice cream and chocolate sauce made from bean-to-bar chocolate made nearby, I’m listening.
Wine in France is so integrated into everyday life that it just has to be inexpensive. And while I wouldn’t trust a $3 bottle of wine in America (sorry, that two-buck stuff is pretty bad, and that’s coming from someone who is not a wine snob), for everyday drinking, you can find very decent wines for less than €5 here. As in, €5 per bottle.
I don’t think even a 3-star restaurant in Paris could get away with charging €10 for a glass of rosé. And if they tried, they’d get run out of town.
9. The Lack of Beating-Around-the-Bush
One of the things I had to get used to is how “honest” French people are. That’s kind of a sweeping statement and you might be scratching your head since last time you came back from the market you found a rotting peach in the bottom of your bag, or you counted your change a few minutes later and realized you were short a few centimes.
But a good example of the brutal honesty I’m talking about is if you were following my eyeglass saga, I finally decided to get the glasses I’d picked out. And after going to the store and declining all the expensive specialty lenses she was trying to push on me, I asked the woman what she thought of the glasses I was buying.
“Well, they’re fine…as long as you don’t leave the house wearing them.”
10. You Can Get Anything You Want By Flirting
In addition to the straightforward fashion advice, she also knocked the price down 10% because I made her laugh.
11. The Volatility
French people don’t baby you, even if you’re a baby. In fact, if you ever see small children misbehaving, it’s likely they’re not French because children are meant to be controlled, not granted carte blanche to act like children. Which is fine with me.
But if you’re walking down the street and a bike or car cuts you off, arguing with the bank teller about why you can’t get a receipt (or change), or madame cuts you off at the market, you can let loose and no one will think the worse of you. In fact, you’ll gain their respect for standing up to them.
(Disclaimer: Don’t try this unless you can do it with great élan and/or your French is pretty good. Otherwise I’m not responsible for any consequences.)
12. Dining in Restaurants
The last time I was in the states, I could barely eat out: the restaurants were so friggin’ loud! On all those online bulletin boards and such, everyone complains about how loud restaurants are. But—hello? Have you heard all those diners screaming at the top of their lungs?
And let’s hear if for Service Compris. Pay people what they’re worth, tax earnings and use that money to pay for universal health care for all (not just for those in the certain businesses and not others), get rid of the gross discrepancy in how much waiters make as opposed to cooks, toss those stupid tip jars begging for spare change, forget people grousing about good or bad service (if a place has bad service, don’t go back; like all other service industries, you don’t tip flight attendants, salesclerks, dry cleaners, and librarians), forget trying to figure out if you should add 15%, or 18%, or 20%, and just make it easier all around, for diners, owners, waiters, and cooks.
Corby Kummer wrote a wonderful piece about me, the tone of the book, and my feelings about French coffee. But the impression that that French cafés are “unfriendly and dismal” isn’t quite on-target. The cafés are meant to be gathering places and to me, the less-fancy, the better. My favorites are the old ones with the hunched over waiters in long starched aprons who grunt when you order. And I spend my few hours there trying to win over their affection, and I haven’t yet not succeeded.
I love cafés. Just not the coffee. Recently Romain asked a barman, “Why is the coffee so bad? It tastes like aluminum.” I think you need to be a certified native Parisian to pull that one off, but the guy behind the counter came back with, “C’est comme ça, monsieur…” (“Because that’s how it is”) and walked away. He must be un vrai Parisien, too.
14. Cutting in Line
Many people find this annoying, but for me, now it’s part of my life, and the daily game. And I’m a willing player. I mean, who out there likes waiting in line? Me neither. So I do whatever I can to slide to the front now, too. I’ve maimed old ladies and trampled babies in the name of bumping up my place in the queue.
Although I wrote about my techniques more extensively in the book, the main thing is not to yield to anyone, and don’t make eye contact either. And if you get busted, just do the shrug of denial, and carry on.
15. The Bakeries
A lot of visitors come here with lists of places they just simply have to visit. Especially foodies, who want to see all the best chocolate shops, boulangeries and pastry outlets. And I don’t blame them at all.
Except when you live here, it’s pretty unthinkable to travel any farther than a few blocks for your daily bread. As much as I love going to Poilâne, I have to cross the river to do so, and that’s just too much effort. A baguette from that award-winning place in the 17th? Are you out of your mind? Who goes up there?
Like most Parisians, I keep it within a few block radius, even though I know there’s better bread beyond my boundaries.
Ok, so there you have them. Fifteen things I’d miss about Paris if I moved. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go press my jeans, put on a fishing vest, and head to the eyeglass store to pick up my glasses that the saleswoman said looked horrible on me.
On the way home, I’m going to dodge the scooters jetting across the sidewalk, and I may have to push a few people out of my way en route to the wine bar for a cheap glass of rosé. Then I’m off to the bakery to get the bread to go with my fantastic French butter.
But if there’s a queue, I don’t plan to wait. After all, why live in Paris if you gonna stand in lines all day?