Parisians/New Yorkers: Vive Les Differences!

View from my window

I’m three years (and counting) into my on-again-off-again tenure in Paris–not quit a resident, not quite a tourist.  Having written previously about consequential strangers there and what it takes to connect with them, I more fully understand why  living amongst Parisians, a month or two at a clip, is a challenge.  I’m a New Yorker.

When I moved to Northampton, MA, from Manhattan, I told everyone (and later wrote), “I don’t miss New York.  I miss New Yorkers.”  When I’m not in Paris, I miss the city–the food, the beauty and, especially the Eiffel tower.  I now have people there–my people.  But I don’t miss the Parisians.

New Yorkers are in-your-face, cutting edge–rushing, sometimes pushing, always wondering what’s next.  In five minutes, I see more different types of people in Manhattan than I do in five days in Paris.  Parisians are proud, proper, and elegant.  Their style comes from within–it is attitude more than outfit, taste more than trend.  And no one is in a hurry.

New Yorkers–on the street, in stores–typically try to help foreigners who don’t speak English.  Parisians think we should learn French before visiting. In their city, the customer is always wrong.

New Yorkers smile at strangers, and get right down to business without fanfare. You ask a question, they answer.  Parisians rarely smile and observe strict social protocol.  On one of my early trips, I asked a bus driver, trying my best to be polite,“Ou et la soixante-neuf, s’il vous plait? –where is the sixty-nine, please?  He frowned. I knew I’d done something wrong.  Looking down at me (literally and figuratively), he answered with a sing-song “BonJOUR, Madame,” as if to say, “What, no hello? And you expect me to answer?”

New Yorkers traffic in psycho-babble and are willing to share intimate details of their lives at cocktail parties.  They move along the social continuum quickly; acquaintances can instantly morph into life-long friends.  Parisians play it close to the vest.  A friend who grew up in Paris and speaks French like a native, says of her Parisian friends–some of whom date back to grammar school: “There’s just so far they’ll let me in.”

New Yorkers quickly get to a first-name basis. I didn’t know that this was not the custom in Paris until I matter-of-factly introduced myself to the owner of the fromagerie on my street.  Even worse, I asked his name.  He was horrified but intrigued–and, apparently, teachable. He doesn’t flinch now when I call him Pascal. And whenever I pass by his shop, he shouts a hearty “Bonjour, Brenda!” in my direction.

Granted the language barrier makes it even more difficult to “know” the French.  But at least I have Francoise, whom I met in a Pilates class.  She is quintessentially Parisian–chic even in yoga pants and a white tee–and she speaks perfect French-accented English.  Most important, she knows (and loves) New Yorkers, thanks to years in “zhee schmata beezness.” We immediately were drawn to one another.  At a cute cafe around the corner from the studio, she began tutoring me:

Mayleenda, zhee Americans, zhay zheenk zhee French hate zhem.  Zhat ees not true.  Zhee French, zhay don’t like anyone.  Zhay don’t even like zhee French!

Francoise, left; Anne, our (English) Pilates teacher, right, at the American Library in Paris.