the French and their attitude towards other cultures.
« Hurluberlu »
When I was taught this odd word in French class a few weeks ago, I almost laughed out loud—not because it’s a silly looking word but because of it’s meaning : a bizarre, inconsiderate person on the street. I was not surprised at all that the French have such a word—it is so fitting ! Since I’ve arrived in Paris, I’ve had many conversations with friends as well as French people about the way Americans and other foreigners are viewed here. The French stubbornly stick to their stereotypes about Americans, no matter how many times they’re proved wrong. A French guy asked me what I was studying in school the other day, and he cut me off after hearing the first discipline (the environment), saying “but, no, you are joking? I thought all Americans hate the environment.” Not every American!
With every interaction I have, I learn more and more about the intricacies of the Parisian attitude towards foreigners. I can feel their eyes on me when I walk down the street, and know that they can tell I am American. Sure, it sounds as if I’m being paranoid, but it’s true—most people in my program feel the same way, and Parisians have before confirmed my suspicions. I’m still not sure what gives it away—perhaps we have a different gait, perhaps my clothes aren’t Parisian enough (there’s a definite prevalent Parisian aesthetic, just like there’s a New York prevalent New York aesthetic, which I never really noted until arriving here). Most days I don’t care if I look as if I’m straight out of Brooklyn or New York, being here has in some ways made me prouder of my American origins—but there are days I don’t feel like sticking out, and so I challenge myself to look as Parisian as possible. I wear the boots I bought in Marais, and my black scarf, and fitted dark jeans and a bulky sweater and simple make up—there’s no way my clothes can give me away as American when I go out on the street. Also, I’ve been asked before (in the US) if I’m of French origins, so I don’t think my features give anything away. When I step out on the street, I make a game out of it—I have this weird theory that French peoples lips are constantly pursed, because of the different vowels they have to pronounce— so I sort of purse my lips slightly. Then, I walk slower than normal and make sure not to look at the beautiful buildings and strange happenings that I pass on the street—and make absolutely sure not to crack a smile—but I’m convinced: they still know! How do they know!?
I’ve started not to care that I can so easily be pinned as American anymore, after my friend Priya and I realized a few things about them—mainly that there’s no way we, alone, can influence their attitude towards Americans, no matter how many times we prove their stereotype wrong. We figured they probably refuse to let go of said stereotypes because they really dislike change—not because they inherently hate foreigners. The infiltration of foreign cultures confuses and, possibly, scares them more than it infuriates them.
The first thing you learn here is that the French do not, ever drink on the go and rarely eat on the go (the only exception being that when they’re carrying their baguettes home, they pull pieces from the bread as they’re walking and nibble on it, but I feel out of place when I attempt to eat fruit or anything else when walking around, because that’s bread is really all they eat on the go here)—and they never, ever, ever eat on the metro. I was finishing an apple one time and stepped into the train forgetting that I had the core in my hand, and was stared at for it. I awkwardly ran out at the next stop and threw it in the trash. There are of course reasons for their not eating on the go—they love to sit down and enjoy food and make an event out of eating (which we should do more often in America, in my opinion). They don’t understand why a person would eat on the go, because it is not at all enjoyable. Anyway, despite the fact that fast food, eating on the go, and acting anything like an American is a huge cultural no-no, they are obsessed with McDonalds (there is always a line outside the one near NYUParis’s campus) and they also have boulangeries and mini chain café stores in big metro stations! It’s as if they’re trying to adapt some sort of American cultural phenomena while rejecting it at the same time. Yet, I rarely see the French patron the stores that exist in the metro because they are so against the idea of buying and eating food in such a manner. They love McDonalds, but they wait for their food for a ten or fifteen minutes then sit in it for two hours—completely defeating the purpose of McDonalds in the first place. To me, they just seem amusingly confused—it’s as if they’re trying to adapt to the prevalence of fast-paced cultures while at the same time resisting such cultures by not fully giving into said cultural practices. They’re struggling to keep their French identity among the more and more prevalent presence of multiculturalism.
How much longer will the word hurluberlu be used here? In New York, “a strange person on the street” is not applicable to anyone, because everyone is strange—there may be groups or types of people that one can observe in New York, as well as in Paris, but there’s no strange person in New York. How much longer can the French continue to cling to their ideal of a pure Parisian while alienating any outsider, when Paris is continuously being inundated with people from other cultures? Their confusion over such dilemma is already evident—shallowly adapting to globalization by putting Chez Paul in every metro station is not really working. Sticking to such ideals is of course important, in order to conserve all that is inherently valuable in their identity. I do think that they should be guarded against the infiltration of a fast food, big- chain culture, against a fast paced culture, against an overworked culture—but can’t there be some sort of more fluid middle ground? Is this method they’ve developed of superficially adapting some foreign customs while sticking to their age-old stereotypes about said cultures the only way to achieve a middle ground?
The French, I believe, have it right, when it comes to work and food and general enjoyment of life. Paris is a city but it is not nearly as numbing as New York because Parisians put great value on living life simply. It is the very simple, small things that make life bearable for them, and they fear that changing one thing will disturb the balance. Perhaps when they sit a McDonalds for two hours, they’re, in their own way, resisting a change that they believe will push them further towards a way of life that they disagree with—despite the fact that McDonalds essentially represents that way of life that they disagree with. Their apparent confusion is maybe just a symptom of their resisting and accepting different cultures at the same time. As I said before, they seem afraid of change, but for good reason—if they were to attempt to be open minded and accepting in the way that New York is, it is likely that certain cultural nuances, which may seem illogical or unimportant to an outsider, would be trampled by the influx of foreign values. And though a fuller acceptance of foreign values and customs could possible change their culture for the better, there’d of course be unintended consequences. It seems that the French’s way of compromise is this phenomenon of having boulangeries in the metro. They feel as if they can hold onto those details they feel are deeply important if they are superficially flexible when it comes to incorporating technology, convenience, etc, into their culture. They may grab a café a emporter in the metro, but in doing so, they may make up for such a ‘betrayal’ of their French custom by stubbornly sticking to a different tradition. Therefore, they’re still partially resisting foreign influence, in order to protect those many little details that are oh-so-French… in order to protect those seemingly unimportant details that really do make their culture.
So, what are those details that make up their culture? In my eyes, it’s the following: the way Paris goes so quiet at night. The patience needed to live in an apartment where there’s no microwave or dishwasher or efficient elevator—where there are only a few mugs and plates because that’s all that is needed. How Parisians don’t move for others on the street, and get in your way because they feel like stopping or slowing down or looking in a window (I hate it so much, but have to admit that New Yorkers are a little too intense when it comes to sprinting from one place to another, as much as that suits my stride). How stores don’t open or close precisely when they say they will. The fact that I have to buy vegetables, toilet paper, cigarettes, wine, coffee, and bread all at separate stores, which are all open at different, odd hours of the day (I don’t think I’ll ever understand what type of stores are open when). Details like: the way I got stared at when I tried to buy more than a day’s supply of food at Monoprix. Apparently, the French plan ahead when it comes to large societal changes, but not when it comes to what they’re going to eat for breakfast all week. The way the metro breaks down weekly, during rush hour, and how such an inconvenience is accepted as a way of life— when it occurs, there is no annoyance or anger on the behalf of most commuters, or if there is, it’s imperceptible. The communal salt at restaurant tables that everyone puts their fingers in—and how it’s not considered unsanitary. The way everyone finishes all the food on their plates, every time. The way French people never fail to shut off the lights whenever they leave a room. The way you have to open the Metro doors by yourself, and can jump off while the train while it’s still moving (that’d be grounds for a law suit in New York—the minute someone tripped and harmed themselves getting off— I can already imagine the newspaper article). How everything is less standardized: almost every bathroom I’ve been in has a different way of turning on the sink or flushing the toilet; almost every restaurant has slightly different customs when it comes to seating yourself, when it comes to getting the check.
Minute, every-day interactions take just a tad more patience, just a tad more presence of mind here—but that extra time it takes to do little things here forces a real change in attitude. In New York, many practices revolve around convenience, around time-efficiency. Everyday interactions with objects, even with people, can be done without thought—it’s very easy to get around New York with your brain on autopilot. Wake up, leave your apartment, click the elevator button, get downstairs, walk outside, go to the nearest coffee shop, buy an Americano, pay with a card, catch a cab, recite your destination, multitask in the cab by surfing the web on your blackberry and drinking your coffee, arrive at your destination, pay with a card, get out, get through your day, make your way home. So, I don’t blame the French for being so afraid of change, and understand the confusion that stems out of their trying to adapt to other cultures. They’re trying to protect the essence of Paname. It’s hard to be on autopilot in Paris, and if the day arrives where la plus part des gens are capable of such a thing, it will no longer be the same city. It will no longer be Paris.
Notes/ translations, etc:
1) les plus part des gens: most people
2) Paname is the nickname Parisians give to their city; a term of endearment: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paname
3) the photo was taken by me, just a photo of the metro...