• It makes waiters happy when you linger over food.
• Overall, the men here seem very confident, almost arrogant. There’s a lack of hesitance that I find startling. As a woman walking alone on the street, they look you up and down, ask you to go for coffee at the slightest provocation (like say, accidental eye contact), and all of them talk about romance. The cab driver, “Paris is for romance!” The shop owner, “Are you married? Paris is for romantic!” The waiter sets my paté down, and indicates that the chef has arranged two half-slices of baguette in the shape of a heart, “We are so romantic!” he jokes. Then he sets down an extra set of silverware, and says, “It might be too much food for one” and raises his eyebrows.
• The people on the crosswalk signs are slimmer.
• It’s been so long since I’ve seen colored toilet paper, I forgot it existed. The rolls in our first Paris apartment are pink.
• Parisians entertain at home. I return to the apartment Friday night to a fuzz of American pop songs. The complex windows are lit up, with Parisians perched on the sills of a dozen small parties, blowing cigarette smoke into the night air.
• In couple grocery stores I frequent, the items at the back of the store are dramatically cheaper (like three to four times less expensive) than identical items at the front. I suspect this is for tourists who just stop in to grab something for a picnic, versus natives who shop there for groceries.
• For the most part, men wear clothes that fit them. What’s more, men wear their clothing tight, and women wear their clothing loose. (Though, I’ve seen six or seven pregnant women, and all of them were wearing tight dresses. Also, all of them looked to be in their forties.) No one seems to know how to wear sneakers — all attempts I see are awkward and seem to be trying too hard. The shoes are too new, or have slim laces, but most often the problem is men wearing them with dress socks. No one carries messenger-style bags here.
• They take more time with flowers here, and they’re much more affordable. The bouquets in street stalls are gorgeous, and roses are less hybridized. They smell like roses, and each one looks different, like roses you’d find growing on a bush in your grandma’s backyard.
• The inexpensive cheese, chocolate, and wine in the local shops, are still pretty damn good.
• Regular Goldfish crackers have a weird flavored powder on them, like Doritos.
• Hot cocoa is chocolate melted in warm milk.
• There’s often no salt or pepper on the table.
• People don’t seem to keep much ice in their freezers, perhaps because of space? One tiny tray of cubes in both the apartments I rent.
• Pharmacists can make an initial diagnosis and give you medicine.
• People don’t really pull over for ambulances (which have a different siren than in San Francisco). At most, they sort of stop where they are and let the ambulance go around. More than anything else, this mystifies me.
• There are many more women and children on motorcycles.
• The children’s books are gorgeous here. Many more pop-ups, better quality paper.
• People switch in and out of languages in casual conversation. Speaking French, then perhaps quoting a movie line or song lyric in flawless American-accented English.
• For the most part, they lack tattoos. In the fashion-forward parts of town, I can tell who the New Yorkers are because they have tattoos.
• People tend not to wear fabric with a pattern unless it’s on a scarf. Monotone clothes are much more the usual here.
• According to the bartender at the American bar across the street, it’s tough to get a good cocktail unless it’s rum based, and no one knows what Tiki is.
• People are so quiet; it’s a delight. They talk softly, and set things down softly. My waitress startles and apologizes profusely for accidentally setting a plate down too hard and making a noise slightly louder than the tone of conversation in a cafe full of people.
• People watching is nearly a competitive sport. If the weather is passable, the tables inside restaurants are empty. Everyone sits at the sidewalk tables, openly gawking at passersby. There seems to be a tacit agreement that people at cafe tables can stare, while people walking by on the sidewalk should go about their business and only take casual note of the thirty or so people staring at them. Walkers take a cursory glance to see if there’s anyone they know, and in the happy circumstance that there is, walkers stop and join their friends for drinks. Conversations stops when a beautiful woman walks past. Both genders go quiet and stare.
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- At the airport, there are defibrillators on the walls. Is this true at home, and I’ve just never noticed it?
- Instead of sweeping, a woman drives a golf cart with a giant push broom attached to the front.
- The apartment keys are huge, like old-timey jail keys in a cartoon.
- My pillow case is open at either end, instead of being sewn shut on one side.
- In the shower, I have about four minutes to shave before the water goes icy and goose bumps make it impossible.
- The washing machine is tucked in a corner of the bathroom. It’s about the size of a mini-fridge, but a bit taller and slimmer.
- There’s no dryer, but a line outside on the balcony with a bucket of clips. I can see all of the neighbors’ clothes drying in the sun, and I study each article, trying to ascertain whether it’s indecent to hang my skivvies outdoors.
- There’s a Starbucks near the apartment where sugar seems to be the only element of your drink you can control. You have to ask for milk, and straws, and napkins.
- At casual restaurants some of the sugar packets are huge, which means there are small plastic spoons tucked inside.
- Coffee or tea comes with a little cookie.
- Soda often comes in bottles, and I’m continually surprised that my drink is empty because the bottles and cans are slightly heavier than at home.
- In restaurants, they charge your card at the tableside with handheld scanners. Presumably so the waiter never walks away with your credit information.
- If you don’t ask for it, no one will ever ever ever bring you the check.
As I mentioned, lights in public restrooms are often motion sensitive and rarely stay on long enough.
- Cab drivers know where to find most everything. I never once had someone get lost, or ask for directions to where I was going.
- Food is delivered on scooters, with warming boxes attached to the back that say “DOMINOS.”
- Olives are cured differently. They taste awful to me, almost like vomit, and the first time I taste them I am sure they’ve gone bad. The second and third times too.
- At the antique mall just outside town, there is a huge stall filled with nothing but fur coats, stoles, and other furry particulars. The abundance of animal pelts hanging on racks, pooling over chairs, lumped in baskets, seems improbable, and startles my Californian sensibilities.
- Kids here are welcome, just part of life — they’re everywhere, tearing around on bikes by themselves, having dinner with their families at late hours by our standards. Hank stays up until midnight eating, playing with us in the square, and no one bats an eye. This is perhaps because there are tourists everywhere with their equally jet lagged kids in tow. Regardless, it’s lovely.
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You feel ill in a foreign country and fumble your way to a public restroom. You close the door, hook your purse on the back, and attend to the matter at hand. You are perched on the toilet in a large windowless room when the light blinks out.
Ah. Motion sensor.
You sigh. You wave your arms above your head with enough vigor to signal an airplane. Darkness. You crouch, and try again on a slightly higher plane, The electronic eye remains indifferent.
Your pants are around your ankles. The only potential light source is your cell phone, which is somewhere across the room. You find this inconvenient.
You settle in to think in the darkness. After a minute or so, the edges of the room begin to compress around you. Surely something nocturnal is crawling toward your ankles.
Enough. It is time to seek alternate accommodations more suited to the task at hand. You reach for the toilet paper roll. And, of course, it is empty.
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I finally make it home from Paris Bastille Day celebrations at 3 a.m., having been trapped in a huge crowd at the Eiffel tower.
I’m woken at 10 a.m. by vuvuzelas. The American bar across the street from my apartment is hosting an American theme party. I watch them out the window as they arrive and laugh at each other’s costumes. There’s a small group of men in overalls with no shirts, one of them is wearing a new Giants baseball cap — my home team. There is a single black man, he has a pick lodged in his hair. They scream and honk when cars drive by, the cars honk back. Everyone cheers. More men arrive in Hawaiian shirts and straw hats.
The women show up wearing workout sneakers, low-cut T-shirts and shorts, or shirts with slogans printed on them. They have fake tattoos drawn on their upper arms, large flower fascinators in their hair. All of them are carrying things — multiple plastic bags, huge purses, messenger bags with the straps worn cross body, and an inexplicable giant SpongeBob doll. Two more women arrive with huge cameras around their necks and begin snapping, so the Parisians gamely pose by removing cell phones from their bags and taking selfies.
Another car drives by and honks. They cheer.
A few hours later, the men begin to do push ups in the alley, sitting on each other’s backs. Then one of them overturns a keg and tries to run on top of it like it’s a barrel. While his friends hold him up on either side, they shout traditional American sayings like:
AH, fuck me!
That game was RIGGED!
They also imitate American tourists imitating French people:
VIVE LA FRANCE! VIVE LA FRANCE!
There’s a detail out of place of course — every one of them is smoking. And smoking. And then having a cigarette afterward. I watch their increasingly athletic efforts until someone arrives with a bull horn. The noise grows frantic, and a man’s voice shouts “THREE, TWO, ONE!” The whole group takes off on a sprint around the block, kegs hefted over their heads.
It has been quite a while and they haven’t returned. I would assume they surrendered the effort, but that would be tasteless.
Viva la France.
My dear friend Helen Jane was one of the first professional bloggers. She designed the web site right here, and she’s been living in Napa for nearly a decade. I’m always asking her where to go and what to do when friends are in town, so she wrote up a Go Travel for us on Napa Valley, California. Go have a look.
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