Paris from the other end

By Dan Heching

The Metro in Paris is in fact the utmost picture of efficiency, dependability, and service.  Quoi?  An American expatriate singing the praises of public Parisian transport, one of the many French things that we usually bemoan as being slow, chancy and frustrating?  There must be a catch.  And here it is: for better or worse, I can no longer call myself an expatriate.  Back in my hometown of New York for going on 4 months now, I am becoming aware of just how many hindsight misconceptions I had about life in Paris.  The twofold paradigm I really let get away from me during those already-far-away years in Paris was that America equaled efficiency and a permanent can-do attitude while France equaled a moody, idiosyncratic world where nothing was guaranteed.  Not so.  Well, at least not all the time.

Being a foreigner in France and acclimating to the different set of priorities there, it became very easy to believe that in far-off America, things run like a well-oiled machine in comparison.  Being as far away from home as I was, I thought they couldn’t possibly be as bad and mired-down as the bureaucratic, lengthy and complicated process that seems to encumber everything in France.  But in reality, some things just plain run smoothly in the Old World.  Take the Metro, for example. It might close down at nightfall, but since being home in the Big Apple I have had more than one horrendous experience where I was seriously stranded by the MTA (Metro Transit Authority), either trapped in a subway car or without a train at all.  The changes in service in the NYC system are severe, wide ranging and seem random, whereas the closed stations and service interruptions in the Metro are in fact well marked, with specific dates displayed well in advance.  Or how about another reality check: cell phone service.  For all the costs and hassle of the French company SFR, I must say that the signal, dependability and connection in general were worlds better than the spotty, mediocre service of Verizon Wireless, which has always frustrated me.  The first time this all occurred to me, I couldn’t help but snicker, especially since whenever anything didn’t work out the way I wanted it to in Paris, I had developed the mental habit of comparing the problem to my imagined outcome of the same situation back home, which would somehow always be much better.

It couldn’t feel stranger to look back on Paris now, from the other end, after a whirlwind 3 year séjour that is still embedded deep within my being and experience.  Although it is over and sometimes distant feeling, I still hesitate to call my adventures a part of my ‘past’, because of the strange juxtaposition France has taken up in my present.  In the au hazard workings of Fate, I answered a Craigslist.com posting (of all things) about one month after arriving home, to work for the French Government.  I nailed the interview practically upon entering the room, since my fluency in French hadn’t yet waned and I was very much at ease in the decidedly French environment.  So there I have worked, doggedly reacquainting myself with the full-time, full-throttle pace of New York life, already dreaming of Paris as some soft, work-free place that I know couldn’t be farther from reality. 

Needless to say, I am a classic example of someone who can’t help but think the-grass-is-always-greener, and upon returning home and getting a ‘real’ job my expectations for life in corporate Manhattan couldn’t have been higher.  And now I see why people get so frustrated here; we all expect everything to happen smoothly, without the faintest complication or delay, because after all, we’re at work and time is money, etc, etc.  But the fact is, life happens of its own accord no matter where you are, and whatever the folly or foible waiting in the wings, the important thing to know is how to react once it does.  Maybe that’s one practical reason people love France so much.  When things mess up and results take time there, the correct response is ça va, there’s always tomorrow.

The memories and snapshots I have from Paris were recently brought to life in an extremely happy twist of that same Fate: I was lucky enough to breeze through the City of Lights for work on a 5 day trip.  I got to see friends and family of course, as well as a summarized collection of those snapshots. It barely registered at first, but there I was, back in my old stomping ground, with my freeze-dried memories laid out alive before me.  Once I got wind of what was going on I quickly realized that this was a rare chance no one got: to actually sample that grass on the other side, and see just how green it all was.

So, was the grass in fact greener?  At the end of the day—and what a long and wonderful ‘day’ spent shuttling between my two home countries it’s been—there is no right answer to that question.  Last week when I walked up to the doors of the Pompidou Center in the heart of Paris, excited to see the exhibit on one of my favorite artists Robert Rauchenberg, I was shocked to see the museum had been on grève (strike) for some days, with no apparent sign of ceasing.  The exhibit was supposed to have opened only the day before, but no dice.  The only thing I could think was, ‘Well, vive la France!’  It served as a teeny reminder to the cavalcade of cliché references to life in France that we’ve all heard many times.  On the whole though, my brief return went more than smoothly, and it was extremely enriching for me to have actual work-related tasks to do there.

It is important to regret nothing in life, but at the same time any large decision has sacrifice implied; the decision to leave France was surprisingly one of the hardest I’ve had to make thus far in life.  And the fallout expresses itself in all that thinking about grass.  The key of course is to recognize the vibrant green on both sides, and try to brush over the parched or soddy patches.  There is no question that New York is where I’m supposed to be at this point, but how lucky am I to have just had a life experience that refreshed me, opened up my perspective, and now remains with me pour toujours...


© Dan Heching

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