Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Paris vs ... Anywhere Else

One common feature of many of the people who live in Paris is that they absolutely, categorically, without any shadow of a doubt, cannot imagine themselves living anywhere other than France's capital city.* A lot of these people were born and grew up in Paris, but plenty of them didn't. Some of them are not even French. In fact, a lot of them are not even French, and go to extraordinary lengths to stay in Paris, despite the absence of any reason to do so other than the fact that they cannot bear to leave.

I wouldn't go so far as to count myself among this group of people. Why, just the other weekend, we went to visit Understanding Frenchman's parents, and I spent several days dreaming of a life in rural Brittany surrounded by this kind of view:

But even I, with my distaste for crowds, dislike of pretentiousness and lack of appreciation of world-class art museums, am starting to say to myself, after only ten months here, that if I decided to live anywhere else, it would have to be pretty darn special.

There are, of course, lots of fairly obvious reasons for that, ranging from the great pleasure I take in not having the responsibility of needing to run a car to the endless range of places to meet friends for a drink, to just how wonderful those said friends are. But because I like to theorise about unprovable matters, I also have another hypothesis about how somebody who has a very ambivalent attitude towards Paris like I do can feel quite so attached after such a short space of time.

I'm pretty sure it's precisely because, as well as being wonderfully rewarding at times, living in Paris is often such a challenge.

When I first met Understanding Frenchman, I used to laugh at him for choosing where to get on the metro depending on where on the platform he wanted to be when he got off. Now I take a very geeky pleasure in knowing that my daily commute is similarly optimised. (I know the best carriage to get a seat in on the RER too, but that's one secret I'll never tell.) Knowing good restaurants which are neither the lastest extortionate bobo hangout nor just another tourist trap is highly satisfying when there are so many of the latter two to fall into. And when you spend your day surrounded by people who are largely indifferent to you, finding a salesperson who smiles or a bartender who cracks a joke is infintely sweeter.

I also feel that being in Paris gives me a sense of perspective on the world that it's easy to lose when you live in a less diverse community. Seeing about twenty homeless people in the half hour after you leave the house in the morning might not be the most uplifting way to start your day, but it definitely keeps you in touch with reality (and conscious of just how lucky you really are). And in a city of two million people, you are likely to be confronted fairly regularly by behaviours you don't really like, but again, that's the way the world is.

So I wonder whether living in Paris isn't something akin to being an elite sportsperson, for whom harsh daily training and tolerance of discomfort leads every so often to moments of intense elation. Perhaps amongst the capital's residents there's a feeling that if we stopped training, even just for a short time, we'd never quite be as fit and ready to face the world and the high points of life would never be quite as high again.

*And possibly New York. New York seems to be a kind of exception culturelle among dyed-in-the-wool Parisians.


  1. Your New York comment made me reflect on an idea that I have about expats in Paris. Is it just me, or are there a high number of Americans that are from New York or lived in New York and are now living in Paris? I find that outside of Paris most American expats are not New Yorkers. That kind of makes sense as big city people tend to like sticking to big cities, but still I wonder why there are not higher numbers of New Yorkers living in other big French cities.

    So it looks like you enjoy meeting the challenge that is living in Paris. I know that it's not for me, but I recognise that there are distinct advantages to living there. I'm glad that you have taken to living in Paris and that you just seem to brush off the disadvantages of living there. You concentrate on what is good rather than what is not. I think that's a very good attitude to have.

    1. I've definitely always had that impression about New Yorkers in Paris, but your comment made me start to actually think about the numbers and of all the Americans I've met here, I can only think of two who were actually from NYC and one from just over the border in New Jersey. There is definitely a preponderance of East Coasters though, compared to when I lived in the "provinces" and people were from all over.

  2. Ha ha - one secret you'll never tell, do you watch gossip girl. I have never lived in a city before, but I love it. Everything is so convenient and beautiful in a different kind of way!

  3. Haha, I guess I just outed myself there. Takes one to know one though ...