Homesick for France: The First Pangs
I’m taking French at Santa Barbara City College. The campus is perched on a hill overlooking the ocean. It’s a sunny winter day in February, and I’m wearing flip-flops and a tank top. Palm trees swaying in the wind, salty ocean in my nostrils. As I walk down the stairs to my car, I think to myself, ‘These are such ugly, boring concrete steps. Nothing like the steps of the bustling Paris metro, no cobbled streets or cultured city life.’
I was yearning hard for the dreary, gray Paris! I had to wear two layers of pants and a big heavy coat to survive the snow and biting cold, but I felt alive and stimulated just walking on le trottoir.
People who’ve travelled all over the world say Paris is THE best city. This cosmopolitan mecca also has the reputation of being the most romantic city. People who’ve never been there ask me why. It’s hard to describe, but I will do my best.
The city is gorgeous. Every jaunt down the sidewalk is a mesmerizing menagerie of delicate trees, breathtaking architecture, and charming winding roads. Interwoven into the fabric of the day are sophisticated men and women, subtly and elegantly dressed, shopkeepers, teenagers making out on the street corner. Even middle-aged couples make out while waiting in the subway.
I have to admit the Paris metro is quite well-used and does smell from time to time (urine, dirt, general dank), but there are always ethnic bands playing music underground, and each stop is unique and provokes thought. The Louvre museum stop has actual Egyptian artifacts at the stop. Or Concorde has cool tiles of letters and letters, and as you wait for your train, you can try to spot words like in a crossword puzzle. Other stops have abstract art and just crazy colors.
But I think when people say romantic, they are trying to describe the Parisian way of life. It’s very French to indulge in life’s pleasures, and to do so several times a day. You start your day by walking to your local boulangerie and picking up a loaf of fresh-baked bread for 1 euro, or maybe you stroll to your local cafe and order an espresso and smoke a cigarette (if you’re into that kind of thing). There is no coffee to-go anywhere (except Starbucks), because a French person will take a break to stop and and drink their coffee. There is no rush, but at the same time you must walk very, very quickly and efficiently through the streets.
During early morning rush hour, the subway is dead silent except for the fast rhythmic marching of shoes walking up, down, forward and back. The French are very quiet so you never hear them talking…ever. And it really seems necessary to mind your noise so you don’t go crazy when you’re packed in like a sardine on the metro. It’s all generally very civilized, and people follow certain rules.
Whenever you ask a shopkeeper a question, or any Frenchman or Frenchwoman on the street, you must always preface yourself with, “Bonjour madam/mademoiselle monsieur.” Then you can asl “A quel heure est-il?” Or “Ou sont les toilettes?” And you have to always end with, “Merci beaucoup! Bonne journee!”
People are more receptive to you and plus it makes living in Paris so nice. A friend of mine said that living in Paris is like living in a movie! And it is! 35 hour work weeks, 7.5 hour work day, two coffee breaks, up to two-hour lunch breaks (if you please). You can leave early Friday afternoon to start le weekend early too. People talk about art, history, beauty, culture and not too much about making money and getting ahead. It’s a very different focus in life.
There was a moment when I was working in the pastry shop, after I had laid the thousandth pie tart into a tiny pie tin. It was boring, monotonous, yet simple, honest work that required a certain amount of concentration to skill. And I thought to myself, I am really enjoying this. I could potentially be very happy being a baker in France for the rest of my life.
But hence, I am not in France. So I make do and eat sub-par croissants and and stare at my French ballet flats. I twirl my Paris snow globe, and reminisce. Going to French class is the best though. After 2 hours of listening to this passionate yet elegant language, I run home, my heart singing.