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Alison Goes to Paris - 2/02

Alison's Tour Guide to Paris
The French Are Different

If you've never been to Paris, before you go, you should know about certain things that are just plain done differently in France, so that you don't freak out and scare yourself out of a perfectly good time.

The Personal Space Issue
In America we talk about people having "personal space", usually an area of about 12 to 18 inches around themselves they like to keep uncluttered. In California, we even talk of "personal energy fields" and express great concern over their being "invaded" by others. We take great pains to stand a certain distance from people in crowds and lines and become distressed when other do not. OK, if you are going to enjoy France, you need to get over this one right now.

I suffer from claustrophobia, so the first time I stood in line at the totally huge Virgin Megastore in Paris, I thought I was going to have a panic attack and die right there in the store. People in France will stand practically on top of you in line. But, and this is a big but, THEY ARE NOT DOING IT TO BE MEAN. This closeness is not meant to be rude, a power play or any sort of attack on your person. (Believe me, if they want to be rude or attack you, you'll know about it.) This is just how close they are accustomed to standing.

It took me awhile, but as I watched I saw that they do actually have personal space. It's just that it's only about 4 inches. When someone, heaven forbid, accidentally invades this almost imperceptible barrier, there is a lot of "Pardon Moi" and "excusez" and moving back into the correct place in line.

The fun began when I found I could play at this game too. One night in a crowded bar, I found I was able to glide through spaces I wouldn't have dared to attempt in Los Angeles. I just turned myself sideways, exhaled and proceeded to squeeze on through, smiling and muttering "pardon, pardon". Not only did no one stop me, no one even noticed. They went right on talking and drinking as I slid right across their backs to the other end of the bar. Truly weird.

The lack of personal space thing is of course much more enjoyable when you are around French people you actually want to get to know. When they sit down next to you, they sit down RIGHT next to you. They look directly at you when you're having a conversation and get right up in your face to do it. They get, as we say in California "right up in your grill". And when they're done, they don't want to shake your hand, they want to kiss you. Twice. On both cheeks. (People from certain areas of France even insist on three kisses.) NOTE: THIS IS REGARDLESS OF GENDER OR SEXUAL ORIENTATION SO DON'T FREAK OUT. I initially found this extreme physical attention a little unnerving, but one of the other pluses is that most French people are extremely good looking, so I decided I like this part.

The Cuteness Epidemic
Did I mention French people are extremely good looking? Many of the older tourist books come right out and openly discuss the extraordinary beauty of the French women. This is because they were written by and targeted only to heterosexual men. Had there been input from any straight women or gay men, they would have to tell the whole truth: that the men in France are as gorgeous as the women. My friend Thom and I almost sustained neck injuries from the bad case of "swivel head" we developed on the Champs Elysees.

Here's the deal: Don't spend all your time telling them how cute they are. They already KNOW how cute they are, they're French. They take it for granted that they look the way they do. Try not to gawk, stare and drool, they'll think you're crazy. They definitely thought both Thom and I were crazy.

The Smoking Issue
The good news: Do you like to smoke? Do you hate being run out of restaurants, bars, nightclubs and people's homes to go smoke in the street? Do you love the smell of tobacco? Do you wish more than anything that you could just whip out a big unfiltered cigarette and just start huffing away at the dinner table, right in the middle of a meal, without so much as a dirty look from anyone? MOVE TO FRANCE! Yes, that's right, ladies and gentleman, pack up your ciggies and run to the airport, for France is the smoker's paradise. Join the French as they puff away with Parisian pride.

The bad news: Me, I don't smoke. Never have. In fact I'm somewhat sensitive and prone to respiratory infections. So in the words of Rosanna Rosanadana, I thought I was a gonna die. These people smoke like there's some sort of national contest going on and the person who smokes the most cigarettes in a day wins a million Euros. They seemingly all smoke, all the time, absolutely everywhere. (Except one: You are absolutely not allowed to smoke in the catacombs. So if you don't mind hanging out with several million French skeletons, you can hide down there from the smokers).

There are ways to avoid total asphyxiation, however. One: stick with the larger mainstream hotels and restaurants that offer "no smoking" sections for tourists. (The smokers rule the place. Non-smokers are exiled to section where they can be alone with their perverse "oxygen habit".) Two: spend a lot of time outdoors. The air is quite fresh at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Three: make friends with some French people and hang out with them. French people who like you will not want to see you die and will put out their cigarettes from time to time, in an act of mercy. This will give you a buffer zone between you and the French people who are still smoking.

The Muslim - Islamic Thing
Another opportunity for possible culture shock, here, so, just a teensy reminder - you're not in the United States. History lesson: Algiers used to be a French "Colony'. A lot of people in Paris are from Morocco. A lot of people in France are Islamic. Sadly, many Americans, (unless they're from a major metropolitan center like New York or L.A.) have simply never even seen an Islamic person, except on their evening news, (and then, let's face it, it's usually someone yelling about how much they don't like us.) This combined with current events have caused some Americans to become absolutely hysterical at the very mention of anything remotely Middle Eastern.

In Paris, several television channels are in Arabic, (about as many as are in Spanish in Los Angeles). The Koran is in the nightstand next to the Gideon's Bible. It's OK. It's supposed to be there. Try not to get paranoid. DO NOT call the front desk and say, "Help! There's a Koran in my nightstand! Islamic terrorists have invaded the hotel!" They will not like this. The front desk clerk is very likely to be Islamic, as is the owner of the hotel. Chill out and don't act like an idiot. If you've really never been around any Islamic people, consider this your big chance to meet some under more pleasant circumstances and hopefully bring about world peace.

OK, tell the truth, so do they totally hate us or what?
There is a common misconception that all French people really hate Americans. This is not entirely true. (I should stress that in my case, every single person I met was as nice as could be. They were also extremely upset about the whole horrible September 11th business and expressed great concern and sympathy for everyone in America.)

There are indeed some French people who simply hate anyone from the U.S. as a matter of principal, but this is not the norm, especially among young people. And as you may have figured out, (if you watch the news and are not in a coma or something), many people world wide take great exception to a lot of U.S. foreign policy decisions and are very offended by the sort of "hey, it's our world and you're all just in it" attitude our country does have an unfortunate tendency to put across.

The Good News:
Not everyone in France is willing to hold all this personally against you. Just as we don't hate everybody who happens to be from a country we're fighting with, (OK, if you're the kind of person who's still waiting up with a shotgun for the "Russkies" to invade, or you scream every time you see anyone in a turban, you probably should avoid international travel anyway - you wouldn't like it), most French people are willing to judge you on your own merits.

They also seem to want to like Americans. Many French people have a sort of romanticized picture of us, just as we do of them. We are Disneyland and Mickey Mouse and Coca Cola and Levis and MacDonald's (OK, for some people, this is big points off), and Hollywood and Marilyn Monroe and Elvis, (not to mention "Little House On The Prairie"). They would like us to be sweet and innocent and brave and crazy like we are in the movies. They find us amusing. They think we're kind of cute, in a stupid sort of way.

The Bad News:
They also find us incredibly annoying. Did I mention that they will judge you on your own merits? Yup and quickly too, so have your act together before you get off the plane. You may have to live down the reputation of generations of whiney, spoiled brat tourists.

Number one: Be polite. Smile. Learn to say things like "Please", "thank you" etc. in French. (S'il vous plait, merci). They are used to Americans barking orders and stomping around like they own the place. Do not contribute to this stereotype. Two: Dress normally. You don't have to be the height of Paris fashion, but remember, you may be on vacation, but they're not. It's a country not an amusement park, for heaven's sake, so lose the big shorts and sandals and put on something you might wear if invited to lunch at say, your friend's mom's house. Three: Eat the food. If it's good, say so. (Trust me, it will be!) People in other countries are very tired of Americans who come thousands of miles to whine and ask where they can get a hamburger. If you want American food, go to America. You want French food, go to France. Figure it out. Four: Avoid the whole whining thing in general. They think we're overly spoiled and sheltered already. Try not to prove it by bleating constantly about "eeeew, this tastes funny." "eeeeew, everything's so foreign", "eeeew nobody speaks english", "waaaah, we don't do it this way at home." (You'll sound like that kid in the third grade you couldn't invite to parties, cause your mom couldn't cut the crusts cut off his sandwiches exactly the way his Mommy did.) Five: Do you know anything about France? Do you like art and history? Read up before you go. They've pretty much got the market cornered on the world's favorite art pieces and most breathtaking historical sites. Ask to see them. They will be happy to show you and I guarantee you won't be disappointed. As an American, wouldn't you like someone from another country to ask you to show them the Liberty Bell, the Lincoln Memorial or the home of Paul Revere instead of just asking how late Disneyland stays open? So when you're in Paris, try to see something besides the strip shows.

Speaking of Strip Shows, About the Sex Thing
Yes, the French are sexier then we are. I don't know why, maybe more practice? The fact is, America got started when the Pilgrims landed. Pilgrims, as in the puritans. As in no sex. As in people who felt that all of Europe was too loose and sexy for them, so they came here and we've been trying desperately to loosen up ever since. (It took us nearly 200 years just to get HBO. The Pilgrims would not have enjoyed HBO.)

Meanwhile, back in Europe, with the Pilgrims gone, everyone apparently just went nuts. This means that over the last 200 years, they continued to get, shall we say, "looser" than they already were. Therefore, if you were raised in a very puritan style American household, the behavior of many French people and the sort of things they allow on their television could, upon first viewing, cause you to faint dead away. Remember though, they don't think this stuff is a big deal. They've actually gotten sort of bored. Things we might find terribly exciting or shocking are a huge yawn to the French.

As a result, they think we are pitifully uptight. (Even my friend Thom and I, who come from the depths of West Hollywood, were looked at with chuckling condescension, as if we were poor little dears just out of convent school.) Due to the behavior of certain American tourists, they also think we're big hypocrites. They say that we get upset if people sunbathe topless, are horrified if there are naked people on the TV, but the first thing we ask to see when we get off the plane is the Moulin Rouge. "Hey where's the naked girls at??" seems to be the battle cry of American tourists. They have a point.

Look, if you like that sort of thing, by all means go. The shows at the Moulin Rouge, the Lido, the Crazy Horse and all that are supposed to be the best in the world. (Don't ask me, I was busy in the catacombs.) But try to chill. As I mentioned before, French people, especially the people you'll see out in the clubs in Paris, are very beautiful. And they do sunbathe topless, and they do show people completely naked in their television shows, (not just on cable), but they don't freak out all over the place about it.

There seemed to be a greater tolerance for indulging in "pleasures of the senses" in general. The idea of it being healthful or virtuous in any way to avoid things like red meat, butter, alcohol, cigarettes, candy, sugar, coffee or chocolate, (or God Forbid, Sex!!), just didn't seem to be catching on big with the French. It was pretty much chow down, drink up and smoke em' if you got 'em. (And apparently, in France, CANDY IS GOOD FOR YOU.) So in this environment, you can hardly expect to be able to tell them to put their pants back on.

France is great. Paris is the most fabulous, gorgeous, exciting city on earth. French people are really cool and really sweet and just waiting for a chance to prove to you how nice they are. The food is to die for. However, if you are easily startled, prone to fainting, terribly shy, uptight or prejudiced, or you have any sort of "delicate constitution", you should probably go somewhere else for your vacation. (As I mentioned earlier, I have claustrophobia and I had to get over it in a big old hurry or just go home.) You should also schedule a suitable amount of recovery time after you get back. Thom and I were completely up for an adventure and the place still wore us out. And I'm not talking about just jet lag here. Only go to Paris if you seriously want your mind blown. You will not be disappointed.

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