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To ward off any impending jet lag upon my arrival in Paris, I ignored my desire to take an afternoon nap and chose instead a late afternoon stroll in my neighborhood in Ivry sur Seine. Even though I am no stranger to Paris, I was immediately struck by the dissimilarities between my French surroundings and the Washington DC suburb which has been my home for the past six years. It is often worthwhile recording one’s initial impressions before they surrender to the monotony of familiarity and routine.
Ivry-sur-Seine, my base when in Paris, is a largely blue collar, commercial town just east of the Paris city limits. Lacking in both pretention and cobblestone ambiance, it is best known for its twin smoke stacks and large immigrant population from Mali. It is however conveniently close to the center of Paris and boasts a concentration of more than 200 artist ateliers, a source of pride for the community. Every September, these artists host an Open House weekend drawing over a thousand visitors.
From the moment I stepped out of my loft in Ivry, it was clear that I had left the United States behind. The French have an undeniable knack for the Art of Living, a certain enjoyment and appreciation of life’s small pleasures which I find irresistible. There are the obvious differences – chocolate éclairs and tartes aux fraises instead of donuts and muffins; geraniums instead of impatiens; baguette-wielding businessmen; trim young women going about their business on bicycles; young Yves Montand wannabes on motorcycles and the omnipresent pigeons.
But observing social behaviors in the local park was a real lesson in cultural relativism. France prides itself on its public parks and its residents take full advantage of them. Despite butting up against a mass of railway tracks and factories, my neighborhood park in Ivry is clean, beautifully designed, well-maintained and safe. One of the first things I noticed was the muted conversational tone used in public. It was like everyone in park was using their “inside voices”! Another sight one does not see too often at 6 p.m. on a weeknight in the United States is young fathers still in their work clothes and without spouses in tow, playing soccer with their kids, pushing strollers and tying shoelaces. Either there is an abundance of divorcés or this is a lovely after-work ritual allowing the mamans time to wind down and prepare the evening meal. The older gentlemen were playing boules in front of the municipal building whose grand façade was etched with the words liberté, fraternité and egalité.
Children at play were equally revealing. I watched as little boys wielding long plastic swords chased each other around while another group of little boys were shooting at each other with realistic-looking guns. On the circular path in the children’s play area kids on tricycles, bicycles and scooters were participating in a veritable Tour de France, racing laps at breakneck speed. Ah…les enfants! There didn’t seem to be any parents decrying the practice of running with sharp objects or playing with guns. Nor was there a single raised eyebrow about the absence of bicycle helmets. This was true laissez-faire in action!
My immersion in cultural diversity continued as I headed back to my loft. Every second lamp post was plastered with posters calling for all patriotic Frenchmen (and women) to come out in full force and support the general strike planned for the following day. Workers were uniting in opposition to President Sarkozy’s attempt to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. Striking is a national pastime which cripples the French economy on a regular basis.
My next stop at little café/resto for a noisette delighted me by distributing posters advertising a Poetry Slam to be held on the premises the following week. The management was offering poets a free drink for every poem. How very Gallic! However, my last stop at the supermarket was the ultimate French moment. Standing in the ‘fast’ lane with my meager baguette and goat cheese, I ended up waiting an eternity behind an older gentleman who was having great difficulty deciding if he should buy the pink or the white champagne. The cashier indulged him by talking in depth about the different champagnes and eventually involved one of the managers who, with equal patience, discussed the pros and cons of the various choices. Aqua vitae indeed.
I try not to wax lyrical about France, I really do. But it’s hard. I try to remind myself of the country’s social, political and economic ills, its racial tensions and its endemic sewage problems. But as I arrived back at my little pied à terre and turned on the local news, I was greeted by a ravishing weather forecaster in skinny jeans, stiletto heels and a tank top telling me I was in for some fine weather. Pondering these cultural clichés, I filled a glass with tap water and could swear it tasted just like Evian….