The Paris Effect

L’herbe est toujours plus verte dans le pré d’à côté

The grass is always greener  on the other side

(Before we begin : if you want the effect of the music cues I put in this post, right click on them and open them in a new tab so that you can hear them while being able to continue reading. You can then close those tabs before opening a new music cue)

These are my meditations upon cultural awareness and integration in the city of Paris.

I recently read a blog post by Tory Hoen on HiP Paris blog that got me thinking it was time for a post of my own on what she calls “the Paris effect”.

[Cue the harp music…]

I remember back in the day when I wasn’t a “real” ex-pat, when my time here was in intervals and I ached if I were away from my beloved Paris. Paris had EVERY ‘magical’ quality back then, and NOTHING about this city turned me off. (Those were also days when I lived a students’ existence and life was a bit more carefree). I distinctly remember having returned after a long period of about a year, and being totally re-enchanted and enthralled by the metro of all things…! In her article, Tory also talks about how others become instantly jealous when you mention your current or former ex-pat status. They have these notions that Paris is full of macaron butter-cream dreams and storybook strolls, fashion fun and angelic avenues of beauty and happiness, and tra-la-la-la…

[Cue the sound of a record scratch…]

My point here is not to preach about how its unrealistic to have those fairytale dreams about Paris and explain how the promotion of this type of mentality can be detrimental to those who dream of it and to the city itself… but, okay, well actually that IS what I am going to do. But I will also tell you WHY it can be a dangerous dream… and then I will explain how I plan to deal with this “epidemic” in my own life.

[cue the accordion music]

Before arriving in Paris, most of us had been dreaming about it for a while. All of our fantasies and hopes and desires were all wrapped up in the amazing possibilities that were to come of the experience of Paris : the life changing experience of the city of lights. Paris was our fairy godmother who would transform us into special, beautiful, classy, cultivated, smart, sassy, suave and swanky ladies (or gentlemen…but I have observed that it’s the ladies who come with the most expectations and fantasies and not the men). And then we arrive here, and our heart races, it’s like being in love! Oh LOVE! There is the initial starry-eyed sweep around the city where we are dazzled by the sparkling tower, and in awe of the enormous Louvre monument, and in tears at the view from the top of Notre Dame; we think how amazing the French are because they “invented” the macaron (actually it was the Italians), and we rave about the sophistication of these creatures that seem to be everywhere primmed to perfection in every way. We are in gracious awe of how the people can stand up and fight for their rights and applaud the protests (with only a semi-understanding of what they are for). We rave gloriously about the efficiency of the transportation system and the health system, education system and the small commerces and boutiques that remain a part of that quaint Paris we had always dreamed of (but then we proceed to shop at the Galleries Lafayette…how ironic).

P1180224

And then, ladies, and then…

[cue the death metal rock music]

…the blisters arrive from wearing heels too often and walking our bloated feet over cobblestone. Then the strikes hit hard and we are faced with the dilemma of how to get from point A to point B. Then we have to wait an hour (or four) to see a doctor because we went to the hospital for a broken pinky toe on a Saturday evening.  Then we find ourselves enjoying the sparkling Eiffel tower amongst a pushy crowd of hundreds of tourists and foreigners and are devastated to find out wallet has been stolen in the mean-time. Then we get the experience of French bureaucracy when we have to complete the process of validating our visa at the Prefecture de Police. THEN WE WAKE UP AND SMELL THE FRENCH ROAST COFFEE! And we notice finally that life is not one big pink fluffy parade here after all. And after all this prancing and primping and shopping skipping around town, we see ourselves in a less ‘romantic’ light and realize that we are, well, just ourselves, and that Paris is well…a city. And Paris isn’t perfect, and she doesn’t have a magic wand to transform us into that perfect self we were so hoping she would. Paris is Paris and will always be Paris whether we subscribe to what the city gives or not. And we are the same person we were before we came, and Paris doesn’t really pay much attention to us, let alone sprinkle us with fairy dust. And Paris suddenly seems to have some less pristine aspects we are so shocked to learn. Gasp! Oooh MY!

French Roast on Saturday Afternoon

“French Roast on a Saturday Afternoon” by Richard Johnstone on Flickr

[cue the William Tell Overture]

We move into preservation mode.

Preserve the dream at all costs! ALL HANDS ON DECK! We start by running around trying to make ourselves fit in. We cut our hair – “like a French woman”, we put on a little makeup when we go to the market, and we shop with a conscious effort to Frenchify our wardrobe, try to learn more French at confusing French universities where no one helps you find your classes, we try to eat with our hands on the table (not in our laps as we learned in Anglo-Saxon childhood) and to sip our wine slowly instead of needing a refill when everyone else is still not even halfway done with their first glass… Fake it till you make it??? Right? Not so easy… we soon realize that the coiffure is not real a good one for our face shape, that the make up everyday makes our skin oily and blemished, that our bank account is weeping tears of pain every time we enter a fashion store, that we don’t understand a word of conversation and oops those glasses of wine really go down super fast. This lasts for a while as we try to force ourselves into this “French identity” (as if that’s all the French identity could ever amount to : a fabulous coiffure and a smart outfit with a scarf and perfectly applied lipstick, with a glass of champagne in our manicured hand) that we thought we were going to assume quite naturally and that it turns out sits on us like an ill-fitted prom dress at an after-work cocktail party. We feel like big sore thumbs and our foreignness  seems to stick out like a badly painted toenail in an open toe stiletto. We try to find some French friends…but they are so elusive and appear to be snobby. No one ever invites us for drinks, but they ALL seem to be having drinks in bistros and bars and on café terraces. Why can WE join them? Don’t they like us??? So we pick up smoking to help play the part, and we learn a new phrase to two that’s useful in getting attention or commencing a conversation with the natives, like something about existentialism or independent movies (you know like, stuff the natives like to umm like talk about, right?) but we end up only getting hit on and accosted by the men who all think that it’s fine to ask someone on a first date to THEIR HOUSE… even the dogs hump our legs without asking. Where has all that magic gone? And why don’t we feel welcome here anymore? And why do we seem so different???

IlFittedPromDress

[cue the blues – harmonica style…]

The realization that we can’t fit in entirely, deepens and we see that we are attempting to integrate in a way that is superficial (meaning only surface deep) and perhaps doesn’t necessarily suit us in one or two of several ways, whether it’s financially, physically, psychologically and linguistically…. linguistically especially because you lose your sense of humor being that you don’t know how to be funny in French. You lose your worldliness (or what you thought was your worldliness) because all you have learned in French class so far is how to talk about yourself, and you lose your friendliness because you end up a wall flower who doesn’t have anything to add to the conversation since you have absolutely NO IDEA what the conversation is about, and you give into daydreaming instead. Then the size of the Parisians suddenly become very apparent, and you feel  like you tower 3 feet over them, even though it may only be an inch, and not over EVERYONE either. And how DO those French people afford to sit at a café terraces every day, the café crème costs about 4 euros! That’s about 70 euros a month! So you go without eating to compensate. But then you are starving (and a student) so you allow yourself the cheapest thing out there, a baguette. One a day = needing to buy a new pair of jeans within three weeks time.

So how do we combat this crushing of the dream???

[cue Pomp and Circumstance march no.1 ]

When these “short-comings” (which are just really a poor comprehension of how to go about integration) become largely apparent, one tends to lash out with criticism. For example : “How ridiculous of the French/Parisians to do this thing that way! In my country we do it SO much better…” or this : “The French are so lazy, how do they imagine anything is going to ever improve. If they were a little more flexible they might see some progress…” or perhaps this : “Can you believe they say these things! Oh my god, it’s so rude! We would never say such a thing where I’m from.” etc. etc. etc. At this point there is almost a repulsion of whatever the French do, say, like, wear… “The French are so rude!” … “The French are so snobby” … “The French criticize capitalisme but they seem to love it in their business world!” … “The French think they are so superior“…and so on. One returns to the comfort of things that are familiar and “safe”, a zone that feels protective and coddles us in our fears and frustrations as well as makes us feel less different all the time; and there is a terrible longing for the homeland. And there is an almost constant critique that plays like a broken record whenever you are faced with coming into contact with the natives.

Some people call this culture shock or a version thereof. It can also be thought of as a realization that the fairy-tale dreams that you conjured up before arriving are in fact your own invention and not reality at all. In a word it is just : disillusionment.

[cue …trumpet fail]

After mulling over this phenomenon for the past eight years or so that I have been in Paris, I am still puzzled at how we (I include myself because I have to admit that there was a point in time when I WAS a variation of that dreaming-then-whining person that I am ranting about now), how can we be so obnoxious as to impose our expectations upon Paris and upon the French? Who are we to tell them what they should be like? All because we don fit in as easily as we thought we would… because in fact it’s not like we assumed it would be here, and we don’t have French friends by the dozens and über cool political debates on café terraces while we smoke cigarettes and sip wine, and then shop for a new wardrobe on the Champs Elysées. No. In fact the Champs Elysées is void of French, it’s only full of tourists, pickpockets and stores way beyond our price range, the political conversations are far over our head and concern a country where we don’t really know all the players and nuances, and it isn’t held on café terraces with complete strangers, it’s held in living rooms amongst family members of which we have none here. And the dozens of friends we thought we’d have?…well so far we have three, one is from Vietnam and speaks broken French and little to no English but is really enthusiastic, another is American and only talks about partying at the different rave clubs in the city, but you hang around her because there is no one else, and the third one is this slightly odd guy that keeps asking you on these psudo-dates and you go telling yourself that it’s great for practicing your French conversation but you find yourself having to conjure up excuses why you can’t be his girlfriend …

Let’s talk about why the “dream” or the “Paris effect” can be so dangerous?

I believe that it can be so “dangerous” because it promotes a false reality, and imposes upon Paris, France and the French, and identity that is not necessarily their own, an identity that has been created by stereotypes and the marketing of the tourism industry that wants to sell you the “perfect” trip to Paris. For tourists, this is fine, this is acceptable, I can understand that need to have a perfect vacation, but this idea has seeped over into pockets of people who come over here for a longer period of time, for a few months or a year or longer.

What I changed in my own self and what I am seeing myself lose patience with in others, is the traveler who comes here for a certain period of time, and expects Paris to be as they had always dreamed it to be. Why do we not come here with an open mind and and fewer expectations? Why don’t we allow Paris to be its own entity, to accept Paris for what it is and find enjoyment in that? The fairy-tale dreams should be left at home, or allowed to dissipate and be let go of like a balloon to fly up and away. And the differences that shock the dream and crumble it to pieces should be embraced as a chance to experience something that you would otherwise never know. Why? Because by accepting what’s different, we learn more about the world and understand it deeper than ever before; and in that lesson we are able to know ourselves better, and thus grow as humans. If we all did this wherever we went, the world would be a much more understanding place.

Open your eyes and your mind… Paris will take you in if you love her for what it is, and not what you want it to be.

[cue Le Temps de Vivre]

Once you have been able to do this in Paris (or anywhere you travel for that matter) …then AND ONLY THEN do you have every prerogative to delve into the frivolous, magical sides that the city and culture has to offer, because then (and only then) can you truly appreciate them. It’s all about a BALANCING act, and allowing yourself to be captivated by the sparkle and shine as well as educating yourself about the deeper and more difficult sides to the city. We cannot live on “dessert” alone!

The Parisian dream will really only become true for those who are willing to understand and accept the city for all of her facets and flaws. Let Paris be free and you will find a place that is better than any fairy tale you could fantasize about, a place that is rich with all kinds of people, places, faces, and experiences… The magic comes alive to those who stand the test of disillusionment, who let go of their preconceived notions and allow themselves to become aware of this place that has so much more to offer than gastronomic cuisine and fancy things, pastry shop sweets and couture boutiques. If that’s all you ever see in Paris, then you have not seen Paris at all.

prete moi paris, melissa ladd

45 thoughts on “The Paris Effect

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention L’herbe est toujours plus verte dans le pré d’à côté « Prête-Moi Paris ! -- Topsy.com

  2. Hi Melissa, I really enjoyed this posting a lot, and was even quite touched by it, which is not such a common occurence. Maybe it was helped by the music – I clicked every one of those darned links, thank you🙂 – and if there’s one surefire way to get through to someone’s sensitive core, it must be with music, you sneak.
    But in the end it was your words, of course, which sketched an approach, well, an attitude quite close to my own. Although, as you say and as a guy, I came here with less overwhelmingly romantic expectations than some. But I did come here expecting to be inspired, and in that I haven’t been let down.
    Hell, even macaroons inspire me these days, if not necessarily for the usual reasons. Looking around the Parisian blogosphere, I still seem to be alone in photographing and writing about homelessness and vicious irony in this city one day and publishing a cute image of the Galerie Lafayette Christmas lights, or whatever, the next. For me, both of these things are Pure Paris, and to only focus on one of them would be dishonest, if you are claiming to ‘do’ Paris in a truly all-encompassing way.
    If, on the other hand, you are simply claiming to ‘do Parisian patisseries’ then publishing endless pictures of macaroons is fine and totally within your self-proclaimed remit and you certainly can’t be criticised for that, and I don’t. You’d be stepping outside your lines of demarcation if you did move into other areas and your faithful followers would probably start to feel uneasy and visit you less often. One of the greatest challenges we, and all Paris bloggers have, I think, is deciding what we are actually blogging about in the first place. It’s creatively frustrating to limit ourselves to a very narrow topic unless we are genuinely obsessed by just that one characteristic of the city, which is fine. But the flip-side danger is trying to cover anything and everything that strikes us as vaguely interesting or ‘funny’. The results of the latter approach may well be vaguely pleasant to consume but ultimtely could come over as a seriously steaming lump of n’importe quoi.
    You seem to be walking a rather thin line between these two worlds, and I think you’re doing it with style, and have definitely developed a great ‘voice’, which in itself can be the driving force and raison d’être behind a compelling blog. But now, having written the definitive expat angst analysis, where are you going to go next? I’m looking forward to it already, with just one request: please don’t do macaroons. For my sake. For your sake. For Paris’ sake.

    • Sab… I just found tis comment, somehow it got tossed into the comment spam box. Apologies. Thank you for such rich feedback. It is encouraging and helpful. I CAN’tT promise NO macarons, in fact I think I may have already done one (but I think it was on macarons I made at home)… but I do promise to continue to find a balance between the frivolous and the deep and all that’s inbetween… Which is what I will always do, because that balance is a perfect reflection of what Paris really is, and my challenge is to portray her as truly as possible, in every façade she shows (or doesn’t show). Thank you for reading and thank your for responding so thoroughly. It drives me to be better!

  3. Very nice, enjoyed your thoughts on Paris, the French, & “the illusion” – well-written & presented, thanks! & music was fabulous🙂

  4. Tout juste! Et les choix de musique sont parfaits — Brava! [Glad you saved Temps de Vivre for last, b/c the “similar videos” sirens lured me to veer off-course to hear more Moustaki.] Your message is what every American teacher of French with any part in study-abroad programs tries desperately to impart to his/her students, only better expressed and more thorough than most. Even on short excursions, we still try to pierce the Ameri-centrism. On a summer trip I merely helped chaperone, we tried valiantly to inspire them with the sublime (Chartres et Chenonceau), inform them about the quotidian (Monoprix et Métro)and warn them de quoi se méfier (les dragueurs et les pickpockets). Mais, hélas, as my senior colleague sighed in exasperation, “All they can comment on is how ‘weird’ the plumbing is and how small the cars are!”

    Thanks for a great piece, which I will definitely be passing along to fellow francophiles!

    • Thank you for your wonderful feedback. As someone who works in study abroad, I know what you mean… but I have faith that those students who don’t “get it” while they are here, do in fact understand whether it’s a month after they leave or a year or five or ten… someday all that they absorbed while they were here struggling with the culture shock and the disillusionment and the language and the customs etc… someday it does seep in, and becomes a part of their understanding of the world.
      Thanks for passing my post along!
      Melissa

  5. I so agree with this post. Thank you! This is why I called my blog paris (im)perfect. Unlike so many people coming to Paris, I didn’t come with many expectations – Paris was *not* the city I had been dreaming of my whole life. Because you are so right: it’s important to see a place for what it actually is, not all of the hopes and dreams we pile onto it.

    That being said, I have of course been guilty of many of these stages. In love, in hate, trying to fit in, whining when not accepted, etc. But after 4 years I’ve learned how to be myself in this city. I am who I am. Paris is Paris. It’s hard to be disillusioned when you haven’t created illusions.

    What a refreshing reminder to everyone. Thanks again.

  6. Pingback: The Paris Blog: Paris, France Expat Tips & Resources »Blog Archive » The Grass Is Greener…

  7. Nicely put – and so true. It’s a wild ride, isn’t it – going from dreamland to what Paris is really all about – but totally worth it. Funny how we all must go through this to come to acceptance of what is, and not what we want it to be. Sort of like any relationship, really.

  8. Great post. Loved the music to go along with it. This describes me exactly, except that the disillusionment phase hovers around the corner still. Good to know what’s coming!🙂 Thanks for your thoughts.

  9. Congratulations! I think the musical accompanyment says it all! Not only that you chose such apt evocative pieces, but that you took us through the scenarios in such a personal way. I would love to publish your article as a ‘guest post’ on http://www.MyFrenchLife.org if you’re agreeable. Well done! loved it…Judy

  10. Pingback: The Grass is Always Greener: An Expat Reflects « Posted in Paris

  11. Wonder if your comment on “size of the Parisians” relative to yours is based on your dating experiences in Paris. If so, I can totally relate to it, as a man living in New York, and being from a country with average height shorter than that of American. Every woman here wants to date a six-footer, or so it seems like.

    May be I should move to Paris🙂

    • LOL! No the size comment comes from my feeling like I always towered over other women. But I can see what you mean. You should try for a NY ballerina, there are many short ones! (they just look taller on pointe)🙂

  12. the written content on this article is really one particular of the most beneficial substance that We have at any time arrive throughout. I adore your article, I will occur back again to examine for new posts.

  13. Salut,
    J’ai découvert ton blog au hasard d’une recherche google, et je ne le regrette pas! Ton article était vraiment très amusant, bon choix de musiques, et plusieurs choses tout à fait vrai…

    Et en fait, tout ce que tu décris, je le retrouve avec une bonne partie d’étudiants étrangers, que j’ai parfois côtoyé avant qu’ils soient en France… En fait, c’est inoffensif, jusqu’à ce qu’ils arrivent à la phase de “désillusion” comme tu la nommes si bien. Certains se ferment et ratent vraiment quelque chose!

    Mais d’une manière plus globale, je dirais que l’on pourrait trouver, parfois dans une moindre mesure, certes, ces différents sentiments dans la plupart des pays du monde… Il y a des spécificités pour Paris, mais je retrouve pas mal de choses qui auraient pu s’appliquer à ma vie en tant qu’expat dans un autre pays.

    Dans tous les cas, bon article, je reviendrais!

  14. It’s a good thing @Rvaya tweeted this today. I missed it in November! What a good read on the stages people go through when relocating to/living permanently (perhaps more or less) in another country, especially to somewhere that is as pumped up as Paris, France.

    I loved the conclusion you drew here: “Open your eyes and your mind… Paris will take you in if you love her for what it is, and not what you want it to be.” I could not put it better!🙂

    Also, I saw this as a good description of what usually happens in a coming-of-age tale: the movement of the protagonist from immaturity, through disillusionment, and into growth. While I know that these stages you describe can happen to anyone at any age when it comes to “The Paris Effect,” it also seems to me that the majority of people relocate to Paris when they are in their 20’s or maybe early 30’s, and this process is also going on no matter *where* a person lives when at that age. I personally saw a lot of parallels between what you wrote here and the growth process that people in this decade of their lives go through when finding more about who they are as people and what they desire out of their lives. I think that one of the reasons why people go through this evolution about which you write in regards to Paris is that they are going through it *anyway* by virtue of the stage of life they are in.

    There is a lot here, too, that is akin to the stages of grief here: a movement from denial, to anger, then bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance, not necessarily in that order! Very cool analysis!

    Great post, Melissa!

    • Thank you for your indepth reply Karin… I love how you relate this all to a coming of age tale. ‘you think like a story-teller/writer!) And I think you are quite right. As well as the grief stages. Merci beaucoup for your input.

  15. Wow. This is one of the the best blog posts I have ever read. Everything you said really touched me. I have felt and experienced all these stages also.
    I echo everyone else’s statements. Wonderful post.
    Thank you thank you thank you!
    Will be sending a link to everyone I know!

    • Parachute woman, I am so glad that I have been able to reach people with this post. Knowing that what I write touches people makes me very happy. And I thank you for sending this post to others. Happy New year!

  16. Melissa,

    I laughed when you said that you were enthralled by the metro. I hate it! It’s so dirty. I take it maybe once ever 6-8 weeks. Usually I walk, take the bus (I love seeing the sites) or take a taxi but shhh, don’t tell my husband!

    Since arriving in Paris 14 months ago, I have been completely disheartened by life here. I had visited Paris more that 25 times and I honestly felt that I belonged here. I spent my first few months walking around in constant awe of the architecture, the cheap but so delicious food, the fact that people could understand me and that everything is just so pretty. That rapidly changed and I realised that Paris is far from what I experienced as a tourist. When you spend 2 days in the city, you cram as much in as possible. You just enjoy every moment.

    For several months, I think I actually became depressed. No, I know I did. Everything moves so slowly here – it’s like a village. Yes, big city girl here… Do you know ‘Paris Syndrome’? I feel certain that I suffered from that. I had very bad experiences with some French people during the first 6 months and I completely isolated myself, which in hindsight was a mistake. I come from a very diverse (but far from perfect) city and was raised to accept other people’s lifestyles and beliefs in the same way I would like them to accept mine. I find France very intolerant of diversity particularly race and religion and I cannot accept, let alone tolerant this attitude (anywhere, not just in France).

    I am lucky though because I speak French (with the worst grammar possible!), am married to a lovely French man and do not have the struggles that many people have faced when relocating here. I should be smiling daily, which actually makes it worse because I feel guilty for feeling bad about Paris. Crazy cycle. I can honestly say that if I had moved here alone and had the same experiences, I would have left and probably never returned.

    The last few months have been interesting and I’ve tried to accept Paris for what it is. It is a struggle and I find that I live my life like a tourist – enjoying the nice side of Parisian life – culture, shopping, sight-seeing, eating – and minimizing all contact with ‘real’ life. Needless to say, this cannot continue if I am to build a life here so I am trying to be more open-minded (about the narrow-mindedness) but my goodness, it’s hard. What kills me is that the city is so beeping beautiful. When people ask me about Paris, I always say “you know the beautiful buildings, cute cafés, stylish women and well, the picture perfect city you see in magazines, it’s real. Paris really does look like that”. True, right?

    I made some really cool expat friends who have all had similar experiences and whilst I wish these lovely people hadn’t had such awful experiences, I find some comfort in knowing that I am not alone. A genuine thank you for this post. I’m hoping to get to the stage where you are now.

    Milla

  17. True True!

    I remember my “Paris Effect”:

    Day 1 – month 9: “I love Paris!”
    Month 9 – month 15: “I hate Paris!”
    Month 15 – present: “I don’t know how to leave Paris!”

  18. I’m a bit late to the party (this post is over a year old!) but it nevertheless resounded strongly with me. Living in Rome for almost 7 years now, I have gone through all of the stages you describe, but dealing with the Rome syndrome, of course. I find myself going back and forth between disillusionment and delight, sometimes several times in one day! But your final comments are the attitude I strive for. I am so glad to have found your blog!

    • Tiffany, I think this particular post is timeless so I am glad you found it even if it’s been a year since I published it. Thank you for such positive feed back too! Do you plan to stay in Rome for a long time?

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