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|Paris can be lonely. You can go days without a friendly smile, a warm hello or anyone seeming the least bit happy to see you. Does that seem too harsh? Sorry. There’s no argument about the city being one of the most beautiful in the world but there is definitely something cold and elusive going on here. What is that about? And how can you warm things up a bit?|
The answer is simple, according to my French friends. Parisians believe firmly in the art of cache—keeping themselves hidden from the prying eyes of strangers. They also believe strongly in privacy. When I tell folks here that I met one of my best friends after chatting and exchanging phone numbers in line at the post office they are horrified. “You gave her your private phone number?” they demand. “Someone you just met like that?” So the first solution is to not take the standoffishness personally. Easier said than done. Most of the expats I know spent at least a few months constantly checking out their reflection, looking over their shoulders and sniffing their clothes, wondering, “Is it me?”
Of course it isn’t. But you might have to learn how to do as the Parisians if you ever hope to experience the pleasures of making friends in Paris. So after you drop your self-consciousness you might want to put away the pesky American habit of dropping our pants, AKA telling our whole life story, in the first five minutes after meeting someone. The French usually hate this about us and I have to agree with them on this. A little discretion, a bit of French-style slow seduction, and the right hint of cache will get you a long way here.
Now that you understand the basics, it’s time to take it to the streets. I have a friend with two young children. Like most young mothers she has spent a fair share of time at the pharmacy. The day the pharmacist greeted her by name and asked how her two boys were doing she called me up to share her joy, “I’m in!" she shouted. “They know my name, they know who I am.” Were those tears of joy I could hear in her voice? You might think that this is a bit of an over-reaction, but you have to understand. When you first move into a neighborhood and walk into any local shop you are often met with grim silence. While others are being greeted by a warm “Bonjour” you are left scurrying out the door with a cloud over your head.
So what changed her status? Time! Sometimes the only way to break through is having the patience to wear through. Find boutiques and Ã©piceries that you love and then visit them regularly. Be sure to say your bonjours when you enter and mercis when you leave. And for goodness sake don’t pick up or make a mess of the merchandise. Instead, explain what you are looking for. So many of the people working in the stores of Paris are specially trained. They take their skills seriously. If you show that you appreciate them for this then they are sure to warm up to you… eventually.
There are some places where you can feel right at home very quickly. Here are two of my favorites:
There are a few of these shops around town. Some specialize in housewares, while others have lots of great fabric. All of them are in lively neighborhoods. But the pull for this particular boutique is the petite brown-haired titan of style that I have come to rely on. Naima is the only person that has ever been able to pull together all of my conflicting ideas about what I like, what I need and what I can afford and come up with something absolutely fabulous every time. She must see me coming from down the street because she always leads me to the very thing… a rich, velvety pillow, a vibrant silk cover or a sparkly tassel that I didn’t even know I needed but fits perfectly in my little Paris perch. Finding someone like this who can nurture your sense of taste when no one else around seems to understand you is heartwarming.
La Crêpe Dentelle
While few places can make me slow down while eating long enough to savor every ingredient, this place easily does it. Add to that its family-run charms and visiting this award-winning crêperie is like stopping by a favorite uncle’s house. Some nights the madame takes the orders; on others it’s their stunning daughter. But you will always find the chef reigning in his tiny kitchen, whipping up haute cuisine versions of the northern France staples. Sometimes he does manage to slip out from behind his counter and take time to chat with the customers—he’s offered me a generous number of tips for making my crêpes better. Here’s some advice for you though, if you want to get your dinner a little faster: don’t ask the chef about his sailboat. But it’s almost worth it to see such a warm and friendly smile.