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Coming to Paris from Washington is a jolt. Coming back to Washington from Paris is a tectonic event.
The shocks and buffets in Paris are small. I have to remember that the baker and the caviste are closed on Sunday. I have to remember that I can saunter when jaywalking because Parisians drive more slowly than Washingtonians and aren’t routinely talking on their cell phones, but the eye computes this so readily that there is very little difference. When I sit down at a table in a Parisian café, I need to remember not to look for a matchbook to prop up one of the legs to keep the table from rocking and the coffee—served in china, not in a paper cup—from sloshing all over me because pochettes aren’t free and handy. I have to remember that a yellow plastic electric sign outside a restaurant does not mean cheap, bad, or merely Asian food, but can welcome me to a very good meal, not to say an expensive one, and a lovely ambience. I have to keep my eye out for the residue of dogs. And though always polite at home, I have to remind myself to increase my quota of excuse mes and you’re welcomes to fifty percent more pardons and je vous en pries. But these are adjustments of a day or two on the streets of the city.
In Washington, the effects of returning are seismic, but they are not caused by anything inanimate. Missing the bread, the terrine, and the good cheap wine are not so serious, if a bit sad, nor are the bigger cars and buildings or the studied swank and the calculated garishness of shops all that hard to take in stride: I grew up with them. The quake is set off by other people, which is how Sartre defined hell.
It’s always something small that starts the shock waves. The bar in my neighborhood, where everyone knows me by name and knows what I’m going to drink without asking, is comforting to return to—it is what my my Parisian pal Renaud calls, archaically, my ouateringhe aule—but puzzling. I always go inside, order from the bartender, then take my drink outside to the terrace. I do this because the waiters and waitresses are inside, sitting with a book or a crossword or chewing the fat, not tending to the customers. Considering the minimum wage in Washington is $2.77 an hour for tipped employees—about a third of the miserly minimum for other workers—you’d think they’d want to get the tip that I give to the barkeep. And friendly though I am with a couple of them, I am always surprised when one of them, who hasn’t bothered to greet me and take my order, sits down with me uninvited and starts telling me his troubles. But this is a small enough thing, an eccentricity of a café where no one is really in charge—though can you imagine that in Paris? Anyway, there’s something bigger.
It is hard to know how to begin, where to get a handle, but I’ll put it like this: I no longer like looking at my fellow countrymen and -women. American obesity is famous. It is overwhelming to me after just a few weeks away. How can so many people be so fat? I don’t mean people who need to lose a few or are, in the case of women, zaftig or plantureuse—I mean bigger than I can see all at once even with excellent peripheral vision. Parisians assure me when I see a fat person there that I’m looking at a foreigner or, at worst, a péquenaud, a rube, probably from the south. I have no way of telling if this is the truth, and neither have they, but it is visibly true that there are few very fat people in Paris though Parisians are getting chubbier. On the streets of Washington the grossly fat, not merely a bit overweight, are everywhere and all the time. In fairness to the capital city, many of the obese of all ages are tourists from the middle of the country where the obesity—compared to the comparatively svelte east and west coasts—is astounding. But there they are.
And they dress so badly. Shorts and T-shirts in Washington’s sticky summer make sense, but I wonder why they never seem to fit. The men tend to bagginess, the women to bagginess below the waist and tightness above, and neither sartorial strategy helps at all. Even those who are in good shape look as if they have picked up something off the floor, headed out the door, and thrown themselves into the streets, presumably to appall me. They don’t seem to appall one another.
There are no dowdy women in Paris—a myth I rather like, but certainly there aren’t many— but is there, I wonder, a dire shortage of mirrors here and everywhere in America? Have these people not had a chance to look at themselves and so go out without knowing how they appear? It seems unlikely, yet qualities other than clothing seem to suggest this might be true.
It’s rare in Paris that I ever see a young woman—or even one of sixty—who has decided to take herself out of the appearance sweepstakes, who has given up on trying to look her best, who has decided to be as affirmatively unattractive as possible. In Washington, the dropouts are commonplace, with hairstyles, wardrobes, piercings, and accessories that are unbecoming to the woman (and frequently to the man, too) who is wearing them, the most powerful finishing touch being a couple of square yards of tattoos. And unlike the absurdist dressed up for the day as Batman or a gorilla, the appearance dropouts can’t just shuck the costume. The tattoos come off slowly and painfully, the hair takes a long time to grow out, the wardrobe is expensive to replace: they have made a commitment. But to what? To ugliness? To shock value? Can anyone still be shocked? I don’t know. And can you, by the way, imagine a server in a restaurant or a café in Paris who has piercings in the nose and lips? In Washington, this requires no imagination.
Or, another tremblor under me when I return: women drinking beer out of bottles in public. These are not street people, alcoholics. These are women, often grown women, in respectable bars and cafés who may even remind the waiter not to bring a glass. Years ago, I noticed girls doing this, but this was at the same time that girls were wearing their baseball caps backwards, like the boys—and maybe drinking out of the bottle was leveling the differences between the sexes. Or not.
I’m getting cranky with the passing years: I keep saying that the list of things I don’t get gets longer. But the fat, the sloppy dress, the bad table manners make it hard to come back to Washington. The effects wear off, but slowly and still send out aftershocks for long periods of time. Why is it that Americans have so little self-respect? They are often self-absorbed and self-centered: so, do these latter self-qualities trump the former as if to say what I do and how I look are for me, not you, so don’t look?
I cannot imagine a respectable or at least a sober parisienne drinking beer out of a bottle, covering her legs and arms with tattoos, or showing a muffin top beneath a cropped shirt. Her self-respect would be much too great, but so would her sense of respect for those who see her. Ditto the men. And for me, for my little sociology, that is the clue to the difference between the two cities, between the jolt of Paris and the tectonic shift of Washington.
I do not mean that Parisians are playing to an audience and hoping to feed their egos, which is not to say that Parisians by and large don’t have a healthy dose of vanity. Nor do I think I suffer from Francophilia at the expense of my American brothers and sisters—hardly, considering how many French friends read my stories and ask me why I don’t like Parisians. Some people I’ve run into in Paris are unpleasant and often worse, but the worst of them seem to realize that they owe it to their fellow citizens not to offend them—unless they mean business—and not to distract them from their own thoughts and lives. This is not an extravagant compliment, not at all. It simply means the French don’t have a stake in bothering or annoying others because they do have a stake in not being bothered and annoyed themselves. In America, we used to call this good manners.
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