It feels like I’ve been all over the place lately. I arrived in Paris late at night five days ago. I spent last semester in Bodh Gaya, India. It’s strange to be in a brand new country all over again. Part of the feeling I have now is familiar. Once again, I’m readjusting to a new time zone, a new culture, new friends and a new set of rooms and buildings to see every day. But then, that familiarity seems misplaced, because Bodh Gaya and Paris are completely different.
My first impressions of my new home have been strong but mixed. I like the custom of kissing on both cheeks to say hello and goodbye. I think everyone has nice cheeks and there’s no reason not to kiss them. And it adds to the information you get when you meet someone new. You can say “Jean-Claude seems like a cool guy. He’s kind of geeky, he’s tall, and he has very soft skin.” It’s also nice to know right away that everyone likes each other enough to kiss. It’s hard to be too awkward immediately afterward. (For me, it’s still a bit awkward. I haven’t been here for very long and even when I’m expecting it, I’m still always kind of surprised when someone I’ve never met before goes in for the cheek kiss.)
So that’s a friendly tradition, but the legendary French rudeness also is there. I think that there are very few people here who actually live up to the stereotype, but the ones who do make sure that you remember it. On my first day here, I went on a very long walk, hoping to work my body into an exhaustion that the jet lag could not overcome. I wandered into a lot of bookstores, browsing in the other shops would have been too painful. Most of the bookstores and shopkeepers were quite pleasant, somehow quieter than American bookstores, although I don’t remember American ones being particularly loud. I was especially excited when I saw a used bookstore with a cool name very close to my building. The door was wide open, so I went in. At first I didn’t see anyone there, but then I saw an intensely French-looking man with an intense expression on his face at a computer. He was skinny with narrow rectangular glasses, a sweater vest and whisps of gray brown hair on either side of his head. As soon as I’d said “Bonjour,” he said, “what do you want?”, pretty harshly. I was surprised, and I said “nothing in partic…” and he interrupted, really yelling, “If you want something, fine, but if you’re just looking, then don’t bother! Don’t bother!” I left the bookstore disappointed, and then my sometimes very American brain started to wonder how effective it would have been to lecture him on what a terrible business strategy it was to shoo away browsing customers.
Since I got back from India, I haven’t been able to avoid comparing it with wherever I am. First I was in London, then Los Angeles, then Paris. There are particular things that I notice right away about a place. The way that people cross the street seems especially important. In Bodh Gaya, everyone seems to forget that there’s any difference between cars and pedestrians. Everybody just goes. In Paris, people jaywalk, but when they do it their suave movements suddenly become guiltily rushed while their faces exude an expression of entitled determination.
I am looking forward to getting to know Paris better. Both the city and the people are beautiful and full of mysteries. Mysteries like “How can you eat nothing but cheese and chocolate croissants and still look like that?” and “Where is that wonderful smell coming from?” and “How do you get to Rue Saint-Guillaume from here?”