Arriving to Paris, I was ready for a fight. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to visit Paris. However, that unsavory stereotype of the Parisian rang loudly in my head, like a cathedral bell. During our time in Southeast Asia, we encountered more than a few French tourists who painfully reenforced some of those stereotypes: entitled, rude, inconsiderate, indifferent. Too cool for school.
An image came to mind when I thought of Paris – not so much the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame, but that classic scene in, “National Lampoons European Vacation” where the obliviously ignorant Griswolds get repeatedly insulted by the smug waiter. But we aren’t starry-eyed tourists fresh from the airport terminal, we’re seasoned travelers dammit! Those ornery scumbags weren’t going to get away treating us like lowly rubes!
We reserved a studio apartment for the week in a great location, near the Notre Dame cathedral. However, as time crept closer to our arrival and we confirmed our details with the owner of the apartment, he informed us our arrival time was inconvenient for him and would have to charge us extra to arrange for somebody to meet us with the keys. To me, it sounded the equivalent of telling a child he has to rake the leaves in the backyard before playing, then hearing the child whine, complain, and stomp around the yard before finally plopping down in the leaf pile, a sullen, dramatic pout drooping across his face.
Carmel was as diplomatic as a Washington bureaucrat negotiating with this guy (who I maturely dubbed Jaques “The Jerk”) and we came to a resolution, despite his final e-mail sounding like he was doing us a favor doing business with him. I wished I owned a T-shirt with a vengeful, frightening eagle swooping over an unfurling canvas of red, white and blue with the words: THESE COLORS DON’T RUN splayed across loud and proud. I would have eagerly worn it the morning we landed in Paris.
We arrived to a rendezvous location to meet Jaques “The Jerk’s” friend who had our keys. The man was waiting for us and crossed the street, smiling. We exchanged pleasantries, me eying him suspiciously, just waiting for him to give the wrong gesture…raise the wrong eyebrow…pucker those lips with disdain…go ahead! I was ready to counter with my own homegrown sarcastic comeback and All-American sneer.
Instead, the man lead us up to the nearby apartment, collected our money, gave us our keys and again, smiling, wished us a nice stay in Paris. Wait a minute! No mention of the previous e-mail tantrum from his friend? No last-minute “revisions” with our rental agreement? Who was this genial fellow, surely not a Parisian!
My humble homage to film noir
Well, to spare you a play-by-play of the week we spent in Paris, stereotypes were shattered. Every…yes, EVERY person behind a counter, in a ticket booth, waiting on us at a restaurant, were polite, helpful…and alas, even friendly. My awkward and equally stereotypically inept pronunciation of French was answered with courtesy and usually resulted with both of us laughing at my butchering of the language. No odious snickering or drawn out, impatient sighs.
Along the River Seine
Bookstore! I discovered this gem in the Latin Quarter
One of our biggest tests came during a busy lunch hour when Carmel and I decided to have a meal in a strictly local restaurant—this place was not for tourists: extremely lively with cozily cramped tables, the all French menu written on a small chalkboard hanging on the wall, the waitress who seemed to manage the entire room herself but had no time explaining anything. Carmel utilized what French she knew and we ordered lunch. It was touch-and-go until our meal came. Did we just order an entire bottle of wine! Did we order 3 starters along with our mysterious main courses? Did we order salads or stew? The food that came out was purely local cuisine—various meat parts encased in pork intestinal skin. Potatoes. Bread. And a carafe of wine. Not to mention a small bowl of mustard! The lunch, one of those memorable point-at-something-and-hope-for-the-best experiences turned out to be delicious. Especially the stone-ground mustard that I liberally splattered on everything. Nobody around us seemed to notice our giddiness. The waitress was all-business and accommodating. This was no Griswold-style mishap.
Mmmm….meat and potatoes
I was prepared for a fight but instead, I became smitten with Paris. It just looks cool – ornate statues seemingly at every corner, shadowy narrow alleys with picturesque balconies, meticulously groomed parks vivid with color and sound. Springtime in Paris downright enchanted me. I didn’t resist being wrong with this stereotype, I relished it. I loved sitting on the park benches, smelling the blooming flowers, lazily watching a group of school kids skateboard nearby, my nose and tastebuds noting the unmistakably delicious smell of fried dough emanating from somewhere close. For being a sprawling metropolis, Paris has that quaint, personal vibe usually reserved for cities 1/4 of the size.
The Luxembourg Gardens
With all this being said, Carmel and I invented a little game during our long walks through the city – Stereotype Bingo! We came up with a shortlist of Parisian stereotypes, hoping we would capture them during our strolls. You know the ones: somebody wearing a beret and/or striped shirt, somebody carrying a baguette, someone drinking a bottle of wine in a park, an accordion player, maybe a mime.
Stereotype Bingo had begun! Clockwise from top left: the essential black & white striped shirt; man carrying baguette; man wearing striped shirt AND drinking a bottle of wine (worth double!); and a woman jogging home with three baguettes!
We weren’t disappointed – we spotted many of these people, although it must have been an off-season with mimes. The game was silly and kept us distracted from Carmel’s bronchitis and our sore walking feet. And I’m glad that the stereotypes that we did encounter were strictly based on appearances, not on the interactions and attitudes of the people we encountered.
More stereotype bingo fun: no mime but a levitating gold man; a flowery accordion player; a man on the train who could win a French philosopher lookalike contest; and well…a beret wearing guy.
The morning of check-out, we finally met the owner of the apartment. He asked us how our stay was, wished us luck with our continued journey, all the while no hint of the pettiness from the previous e-mails. After our brief conversation, we handed over the keys and shook hands before leaving – a sincere respectful exchange. It was a good time to be wrong.