Regrettably, I haven’t done a lot of reading for pleasure in the last decade or so. Now that we’re in Toulouse, I’ve found myself with a little more free time, and am starting to absorb all sorts of books regarding French culture. My first stop is with David Lebovitz’s The Sweet Life in Paris.
It’s a highly enjoyable read, I’d say moreso for anyone who has visited France or spent an extended period of time here, as Lebovitz touches on a number of peculiarities Americans might encounter/perceive regarding the French. The read made me feel an authentic camaraderie after reading only the introduction (Lebovitz knew he had become a Parisian when he got all gussied up just to take out the trash). Each chapter that follows has an interesting anecdote of his life in France followed by recipes for tasty snacks/meals/treats.
In just six weeks, I feel I have had many of the same thoughts and expressed similar commentary (though I had not encountered la serpilliere) all while learning some helpful hints for how to get around France and French customs (like how to slice/eat cheese, how to order a coffee after breakfast, how to greet those in commerce, etc.). Reading this book over the past couple of days has been like having a conversation with a friend over brunch about the last few weeks and what I’ve learned. I loved it.
Lebovitz dedicates one chapter (“Les Bousculeurs“) to a topic I find rather perplexing. What am I talking about? Walking around. I’m talking about the difficulty of walking around in France.
“So when people say to me, ‘It must be so fun to live in Paris! What do you do all day?’ I don’t think ‘Avoid people’ is quite the answer they’re expecting. But, it’s true. You know those knuckleheads who step off the escalator before you, then just stand there looking around, oblivious to anyone else who might need to pass? Imagine living in a city with two million people like that, thinking only of themselves, and you get the drift of what I’m up against here.
A short walk to the boulangerie turns into an annoying game of people-pinball, where I’m dodging folks right and left as they come at me. Who’s going to move first? If I dodge to the right to avoid them, they’ll veer in the same direction I do. If I veer to the left, suddenly that’s where they want to be, too. I sometimes play around with their minds, feigning I’m going in one direction, then at the last second, cutting across to another. But they always outfox me, and I invariably find myself swerving out of their way at the last minute. It’s exhausting, as well as humiliating. I actually had a couple people laugh at my misfortune just after they cut me off on a crosswalk, landing me in the gutter.”
Yes, David. Just yes. It IS like a game of people-pinball. When we first moved here I thought it was me and the jet-lag. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention, maybe there’s a sidewalk culture I hadn’t quite picked up on, something similar to escalator etiquette (walkers to the left, riders to the right). However, as the days pushed forward, I found no matter if I walked on the right or left side of the sidewalk, I was consistently dodging people who seemed to always appear directly in front of me. I asked Jim if he had noticed it (he hadn’t, really), which made me wonder if it was just me. I thought, maybe they see it as a fun obstacle course for a woman carrying lots of heavy bags of housewares (pans, hangers, juicers, vacuums, picture frames, etc.). No, that’d be cruel, I thought.
If you’ve ever been out and about walking with me, I’ve never really been one to lazily make my way from point A to point B. If you can make it there in 15 minutes, I like to think I can do it in 10. People-pinball complicates this. So, I set out to be hyper aware of where and how I was walking. I’d make eye contact. I’d stay out of their path. I’d see people 10 steps away on the other side of the sidewalk. Great. They’d still be there on a straight path once 5 steps away. Then, bam! At 2 steps away, they are immediately in front of me, cutting me off or stopping completely. I always look around. No one was in their path on the other side of the sidewalk. What gives?
Lebovitz suggests some reasoning behind it, “So I’m learning a new way of thinking around here. It’s not about doing what’s right to keep the flow of traffic moving, it’s about doing what’s right for you.” That and he thinks the French (Parisians, in particular) aren’t fond of linear terms.
The last week or two, I’ve found myself more appropriately dodging pedestrians on the sidewalks and while crossing the street (though I’m still not totally out of the woods here). I suppose it’s a little like crossing the street in Italy. You just need to do it with a little extra confidence and the cars will stop. So if you see me walking with a little more purpose in my step – that’s why!