Before I left for Paris (where I am spending two-and-a-half months living alone and working on my grad-school thesis research and a writing project), people warned me about the intolerant (especially of Americans), cold, and cavalier (especially about their dog's excrement) French.
After a few missteps (most notably, melting down three-quarters of the way through my first intensive French lesson, as the language center in my brain, shocked by French after so many years of Spanish, kept forcing me to helplessly conjugate verbs in some sort of Spanish/French hybrid), I settled in, and had a chance to take stock of my new home, and evaluate some of the stereotypes proffered by my well-meaning and/or protective American informants. In Paris, despite the seemingly vast divide between my culture and theirs, I realized I could learn an awful lot.
Aside from the dog poop, of which there is a lot, the first thing I noticed in Paris is an almost non-existent inclination toward disposability. No one here walks around with a "to-go" cup of coffee. And I mean no one -- I haven't seen a single soul carrying one in the two weeks I've been here. Back home in New York, it's de rigueur for every other person on the street (including me, admittedly) to be carrying a cup from Starbucks or their local coffee shop, but not here.
Also, in the grocery stores, customers have to bag their own groceries. The simple act of doing that yourself is another opportunity to think about things: what kind of bag you're using (I recently saw one customer at my local Franprix load his fruit, yogurt, cans of soup, and toilet paper into his briefcase!), what you're putting in the bag, how many you're using, and by extension, what you will need to eat and use at home (did I really need that roll of paper towels or will my dish towels back at the apartment suffice just fine?). My landlord uses the plastic bags from the grocery store as her kitchen garbage bags. Now, so do I.
Anyway, in Paris, as in many European towns and cities, people do most of their shopping in small markets: they buy their fruit at one, their cheese at another, and then stop at their local boulangerie or patisserie to buy that day's fresh-baked bread, and walk out holding the loaf, which is covered on one part only by a piece of paper big enough to accommodate their hand. I certainly haven't noticed anything like a Wal-Mart, Sam's Club or Dollar Store.
I'm not sure how deliberate all of this is, because the Parisians I've met so far don't strike me as jumping on the bandwagon of the hot, politicized movement of the moment (in the United States, one of them being, of course, the environment), but so far it's been a valuable lesson for me in simplicity and paring down, and something concrete I can take back from Paris (I'll at least carry my own mug to the coffee shop instead of getting yet another cup that will go straight into the trash can ten minutes after it's placed in my hands) in lieu of a beret or mini Eiffel tower trinket.
And of course, I've been supremely conscious of the French perception of me as an American. I recently met another (American) woman here, and we were sitting in a café chatting. She was extremely loud, talking and laughing, and the café was extremely quiet -- I cringed, imagining all the local people sitting around us, demurely sipping their aperitifs, turning up their noses at the ugly Americans.
But there's another, even more unexpected part of Paris I'm getting to know: plenty of warmth and openness, even (especially?) toward Americans. My immediate disclaimer is that I am a young woman, here alone, so of course men are going to be, ahem, warm (that particular stereotype holds water: some French men can be relentless). But well beyond that, I've by now met men and women -- in bookstores, at the gym, at author readings, at cafes, and in shops -- all over the city who have made my assimilation smoother. Everywhere I go, I always make a concerted effort to speak French, and all the people and groups whom I've met sit and listen serenely, even though it takes me ten minutes (and numerous consultations with my French dictionary and notebook) to stammer out one just sentence. Then they answer me in French -- slowly -- and I answer back. Viola! Conversation ensues. Another new friend of a friend of a friend, who is French, took me under his wing, inviting me out all the time, and introducing me to his large and lively group of companions here. From my first night out with them, I've gotten emails and phone calls from the various guys and girls with offers to see plays, have coffee, and practice my French.
I think the French camaraderie I'm discovering goes hand in hand, at least in part, with its café culture, prevalent here more than anywhere else I've ever been. Part of that translates from a slower, more relaxed pace of life (c'est possible, even in a big, cosmopolitan city), and the aforementioned deviation from disposability, but most importantly, it offers license for la parisienne to linger in cafes over her café au lait or the vert for as long as she chooses, by herself, or with an acquaintance or four. Each café in Paris has a slew of as many chairs as possible squeezed into one area, most of them facing out toward the street, and people sit in them all day along; everyone has equal access to the energy of passersby, of which there are what seem like hundreds, even on tiny, quiet side streets. (Here, people stroll everywhere, or if not, they hop on their bike or moped, not in their Denali, to get where they need to go.) Paris's café culture supersedes over-the-top imbibing, too: it's about socializing, sitting around comfortably, and relaxing, while drinking wine, or just an espresso or a Coca-Cola. So perhaps another reason I have yet to see a person carrying a to-go cup of coffee is simply that a staple of life here is having most beverages out somewhere, sitting down, preferably with friends, even if it's when you don't have tons of time; in other words, taking (at least) a few minutes to enjoy.
I'm not a Paris apologist or romantic revisionist--I'm there are plenty of countervailing arguments or other sides of the coin to all of the (positive) things I've become cognizant of here. But I think what I am learning at the end of the day is just that a person can learn valuable lessons from doing things on her own -- whether it's living in a foreign country, bagging her own groceries or sitting down in a café.