July 14th is Bastille Day in France, the date which the country celebrates its independence.
Unlike Americans who threw fought to gain their freedom from a foreign ruler an ocean away, the French struggled to gain their liberty from home-grown rulers (royal heirs and self-appointed emperors) who often lived down the street.
And it wasn’t as cut and dry a process for them as it was for the United States. The pendulum swung from democracy to dictatorship a few times before the rule of law, not the rule of force, was made permanent.
Now, thankfully, their democratic institutions are firmly in place. Business and innovation somehow thrive in an often oppressive and byzantine regulatory environment. The social safety net is wide and sturdy. Even as citizens seem to protest one issue or another almost every weekend, overall quality of life is high.
There is a tolerant and even welcoming attitude toward long-term visitors like my wife and me. Parisians are generally patient with my primitive French. Compliments from neighbors and strangers alike are not uncommon when you’ve dressed particularly well on a given day. But friendships grow at a glacial pace, not because Parisians are unfriendly, but because they’ve seen Americans come and go so often. They aren’t investing emotionally for the short term.
Elegance is a way of life and is not determined by how much money one has spent. Simplicity and restraint are appreciated more than foreigners might realize. An air of mystery is an asset to be cultivated, but it’s considered gauche to tip the balance and fall prey to the imposter or poser syndrome.
The idea of ‘bien eleve‘ or being well raised is the yardstick by which Parisians most often judge others. This includes not only wardrobe and etiquette (especially how you treat others who can do nothing to you or for you). but deportment, that often inexplicable way someone presents or carries himself or herself. As I’ve mentioned, American parents often tell their children to be happy. Parisian parents tell their children to be wise. (“Soyez sage.”)
Tellingly, Parisians tend to judge talent and accomplishments not in terms of ‘the latest’, but in terms of ‘the greatest’, especially when it comes to art, literature, and history. This is predictable in the city whose residents have included Victor Hugo, Pablo Picasso, and Napoleon Bonaparte.
Needless to say, for me the past four years here in Paris have been enlightening and entertaining. My wife and I have developed a keen, often amused appreciation for the people and the culture. When one of us shares a fascinating or unusual story with the other, the response is often, ‘That is so French,’ or, more specifically, ‘That is so Parisian.’
Without first-hand experience over time, it impossible to accurately comprehend what someone means when they say, ‘That is so French.’ But after assembling a constellation of reference points through interactions in daily life, long conversations in cafes, and the reading of a few history books, you, too, can develop you’re own working definition of the phrase.
Of course, I have been told that I experience this city and this country from a privileged position. And it is probably true. I am financially comfortable. I live in a neighborhood that, when mentioned, raises the eyebrows of even well-heeled Parisians. (Wisely, I have learned to not mention it.) My perspective is limited but my engagement is not: my circle of acquaintances runs the gambit from aristo to artist to barista to security guard. I wouldn’t call myself a man of the people, but over the years I have met and talked with a lot of people.
Over time, the influence of the city has become more noticeable, especially lately. (More on some of that in another post.) My wardrobe is evolving from the easy, tweedy earth tones and soft blues of my American life into the high-contrast white dress shirt and black everything else of the typical Parisian. Shocking, I know. How long this shift will last is anyone’s guess. What has prompted it is also unclear.
My suspicion is that, like most people, I am subject to the influence of my surroundings. I am also aware of how different my life is here in Paris. It’s a rainy, pedestrian city. For all its pomp and extravagance, it’s a subtle city. For all it’s bohemian pretensions, it is formal and structured. So, in the end, for someone of my background and with my preferences, it is different only in type, not in kind.
Still, life here is unique, mostly in small, numerous, frequent, and wonderful ways.
Over coffee recently, a friend congratulated me on ‘Independence Day’. Surprisingly, I hadn’t thought about it. I’d forgotten it was July 4th. I laughed then shrugged, commenting that, after a few years here, I’d become half-American and half-French.
My knowing friend, an elegant native of the city, precise in her dress, manner, speech, and thinking, corrected me with a gentle pat on the hand.
She was right, of course. I am slowly but permanently becoming a creature of this city, not a citizen of this country.
And I guess to day is as good a day as any to express my thanks.
Merci, Paris. We’re just getting to know each other.