I’ve only had one summer fling in my life and it happened when I was 16. Christian was a tan, skinny and totally negligent Southern Californian who had begrudgingly moved to New York for his first summer internship. I was much like I am today: I sunbathed wearing SPF 45 and a baseball hat out of a waking fear of the sun’s aging effects — I was, and am, about as capricious as a retiree. His summers were skating and surfing, mine were lobster bakes and summer camp. We went together like rash guards and ribbon belts, nachos and sushi, boardwalks and Bar Harbor — but somehow the impossibility, even undesirability, of a long-term relationship created an oddly amusing short-term attraction. After all, that’s what defines a fling: indulging in a person, place, or thing that could never be permanent. I once had a fabulous week-long fling with Dominos cheesy crust pizza, for instance.
I speak of flings because I’ve come to consider Paris my first fall fling. I have a crush on Paris, but I know it could never work out. Paris, the intoxicating, the legendary Paris, makes life American-style virtually impossible.
An American day runs like a well-oiled machine: high-protein, sterile, digital, 24/7, take-out, automatic and cardiovascular. These are all adjectives that do not exist overseas. Here, my “habits” are called “nevroses”, or neuroses: I shower too much, do laundry too compulsively, work too much, obsess too much about eating and diet too often to be French.
I’ve noticed that trying live an American life in Paris feels like trying to walk up a down escalator. No matter how fast you move, the lackadaisical pace of Parisian life foils your every attempt at efficiency. Nothing and no one can escape being sucked into that languorous mire called the French lifestyle. I swear even the Internet here works (or doesn’t work) at its own leisure.
The first time I went to a grocery store in Paris, I waited in line for 15 minutes while the old man in front of me absent-mindedly left the cashier mid-purchase to finish collecting various groceries that he had forgotten to pick up. I, the impatient American, rolled my eyes and threw my hands in the air at what I considered an appalling display of incivility until I realized that here, I was the jerk just for being at all shocked or annoyed by his behavior. In France, haste is discourteous and inelegant. If you find shopping at grocery stores to be slow, dining out at restaurants will be even slower. The nicer the meal, the longer the process.ÊYou can lose three hours at a brasserie, and even getting food at Micky D’s is a 30-minute affair.
There’s an expression among Americans here: “In France, the customer is always wrong.” It’s an obvious reversal of an American idiom. In France, this doesn’t just apply to commerce, but to libraries, universities and government institutions as well. If a store doesn’t have your dress size, it’s because you are too big or small; if a library doesn’t have the book you are looking for, you are studying something impractical; even the French grading system is based on a “system of discouragement” in which a professor can mark 30 percent of your answers wrong and still give you an A-. Here, it’s important to get used to being wrong.
And of course, in Paris, Americans are wrong much more often than their native counterparts. Experts may say we’re moving towards a global community, but there are certain cultural values that just don’t translate from one country to another. One example that comes to mind is the word “healthy”. In America, I think of myself as a pretty healthy gal: I’m active, I eat my vegetables, take my Flintstones, drink plenty of water and avoid cigarettes like the cancer-sticks that they are. The French conception of “healthy” is much less demanding. As best I can tell it involves tobacco, red wine, a generous dose of sarcasm and plenty of idle time. Healthy means happy — “spiritually” healthy. To the French, my cardiovascular, multivitamin, preservative-free lifestyle is not healthy, it is nevrose.
If Americans can part with their habits for long enough, what most of them love most about Paris is the freedom to be temporarily lazy — a feat they would never dare back in the Go-Go United States. The French, you see, have two speeds: slow and sleep (three, if you count drunk). My gym — the only chain in Paris — is open from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. and closed on Sundays, for instance. “Exercise” must also be a culturally relative term: one of the classes my gym offers is piano lessons.
After two months in Paris, I have stopped walking up the down escalator. I’ve learned how to lose an entire day just showering, buying food, drinking, complaining and sleeping. I’ve learned that piano lessons, cleaning and even fast-paced reading are all forms of exercise. I have also learned that the fling — the cross-cultural crush –goes both ways. Maybe our politics aren’t good enough for the French, but our Chuck Taylors sure as hell are. New Yorkers may be neurotic but New York is still chic. Don’t let Jacques Chirac fool you, we’re cool and he knows it.
Opposites attract: Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett, me and Christian, Turner and Hooch, Americans and Paris. We’re in love for a time, but it would never, ever, work out between us.
Liz Gunnison is on the lookout for a rebound.