Too American to Stop for Dinner

I’ve been absolutely swamped since I arrived in Paris. I have been naively trying to live a normal life (cook for myself, work out, go out, read, etc.) in addition to getting settled in a new city. But there really aren’t enough hours in the day to do this. In fact I am only able to write anything at all on this blog because I spend two captive hours on the train every day – and even this time is crammed with studying French and reading.IMG_20130626_130844_048

This hectic lifestyle has led to several instances in which “dinner” has consisted of grabbing a sandwich from a street vendor and eating it on the metro or while walking to French lessons. At first I did this without a second thought. After all, I was hungry and in a hurry; it’s what you do in these situations.

I am not exactly sure what made me stop to think about it later – maybe it was an odd look from someone at the station, or just a subconscious feeling of being “different” while stuffing my face with a baguette sandwich. Whatever it was, I became acutely aware of the fact that no one else around me was doing this. At first I figured it was just a coincidence; but when I stopped and thought about it, I really couldn’t remember seeing anyone else doing it. So I started keeping an eye open for it, only to eventually confirm my suspicion: people just don’t do that here.

A related experience was my initial surprise that food was allowed on the metro – especially given the fact that the train ticket wardens will reprimand you pretty harshly for putting your feet on the seats. They definitely care about keeping things clean, but there are no signs prohibiting food. However, neither are there are there any signs prohibiting painting, for example, or other messy things that you would never do on a train. Rules arise out of necessity; people don’t prohibit what their citizens or customers don’t do.

(Incidentally, I am writing this on the train right now, and three guys just got on my carriage sharing a bag of popcorn. Though it wouldn’t have exactly disprove my point, I thought it was ironic – until I realized they were Russian.)

The point, of course, isn’t just that the French don’t eat on the trains; it is that they don’t live rushed enough (the critic might say “ambitious enough”) lives to feel the need to eat on trains. And although the French appreciation of leisure isn’t exactly a secret, there was something intriguing about seeing it manifested in such a simple and unexpected form.

Freedom and Rootlessness

I remember how reluctant I was to buy furniture when I finally moved into my own place in San Diego. Until then, I’d always lived with roommates, and they’d furnished the common area. I only owned a bed, some clothes, a cheap bookcase, and desk that Mike had given me and I had no qualms about throwing away. I preferred it that way, because I knew that I could pack up and move in a moments’ notice.

But when I moved into my own place, I finally had to buy my own furniture – that is, if I wanted to live comfortably, and in a way that would prevent my friends from thinking I was a hippie. Suddenly the effort it would take to move increased dramatically. I would either have to sell my furniture, or throw it away and lose everything I’d spent on it – not just the money, but the time I’d invested in measuring, shopping, selecting, buying and transporting everything. I felt tied down.

Moving to a new country isn’t just exciting because of the immersion in a new culture, or the opportunity to learn a new language. It is also exciting because it forces you to sever the ties that bind you to your previous geographical location, and this severance results in an incredible sense of freedom.

In order to move abroad, you have to quit your job, sell your vehicle, cancel your insurance, get rid of your furniture, terminate your lease, purge your belongings (because you can only bring so much on the plane), pay all of your outstanding bills, close your credit cards, your phone plan, your gym membership, etc. You do something similar in your personal and social life: you stop making plans in your home country because the cost of returning to participate in them will be prohibitive. You have to truncate the growth of new friendships and give up any dating opportunities you had in your old location. You say goodbye to your old friends and family, and they immediately expect to hear from you less.

The end result is that you step onto the plane with little more than a few duffel bags and your memory – both of which are conveniently portable. You have no bills, obligations, meetings or responsibilities. You revert to a state of independence that for most is little more than a faint memory. Everything behind you is closed, everything ahead of you is new, and anything could happen. The feeling is something like the one you have on the last day of your final exams in university, when all commitments and ties to your education suddenly expire. Your life lies ahead of you, uncharted and full of potential. It is a powerful feeling, and one that I am realizing plays a much bigger role than I expected in defining the experience of living abroad.


whatsappIf you have a smartphone and want to stay in touch, download an application called WhatsApp. It’s a free web-based texting program. Because it is web-based, it allows you to send texts internationally to anyone who has WhatsApp (which I do).

WhatsApp imports your phone contacts automatically, and my account is linked to my U.S. cell phone number. So If you have my U.S. number (703 area code) in your phone, we’ll automatically be in touch if you download the app.

Living Versus Visiting

It has always bothered me when I hear people claim a little too readily that they’ve “lived” in a foreign country. I knew a guy in San Diego who would refer to the time he “lived” in Colombia, when the truth was that he spent 11 weeks there on a work trip – hardly “living.” Or people sometimes ask me about the time when I “lived” in India. But I was only there for four months, and during the fourth I was traveling to a new city every other day. In my mind, I only accumulated three months that could conceivably count towards the claim of “living” in there, but they never felt like “living” to me. I was visiting at best.


A view from the train as it arrives at the station near my office.

One of the things that surprised me most during my first few weeks in Paris was how quickly some things stopped feeling like vacation and started to feel routine or ordinary. As I said, when I was in India, nothing felt that way, even after three months – and despite the fact that I did essentially the same thing every week for the duration (on the weekdays, at least). So I had supposed that it would take at least that long for the novelty to wear off here in Paris. But it didn’t take three months; it didn’t even take a week. In fact, I was mildly shocked when, as my train pulled into the station near my office on the third day, my commute felt a little… well… ordinary, even boring. I am sure this was partially hastened by the fact that I’d taken the same train to the same station several times before moving here, when I’d visited my office for meetings (at the time it was my client’s office). And the fact that French and American cultures are less polarized than American and Indian cultures probably distorted the comparison a bit. But I knew these things weren’t enough to speed up the feeling by more than a week or two. Something else was at work.

I should point out that Paris in general didn’t feel ordinary on the third day – far from it, and in fact it still doesn’t. It was just my commute that felt ordinary, and a few other small things in the weeks that followed. In any case, my feeling of surprise got me thinking, and it wasn’t long before I realized what was going on…

I was surprised by the feeling because I’d always assumed that the distinction between “living in” and “visiting” a country was simply a matter of time. In other words, I’d always assumed that after spending sufficient time immersed in a new environment, its novelty would start to wear off, and you would begin to feel like a local. Around about that same time, you could also legitimately start to claim that you “lived” there, because the same comfort that made the place feel ordinary would start to make you behave like a true local – for whom the place is ordinary. Any less time, and you’d remain impressed with and distracted by the things unique to that place, and you would still sound pretentious claiming that you “lived” there. What that threshold was exactly, I didn’t know. Probably it was more than 4 months and certainly it was more than 11 weeks – but I assumed there was a threshold.

What I’ve realized very quickly, however, is that the distinction between living in a place and visiting it is less a function of how long you live in a place and more a function of how you live there. Parts of Paris felt ordinary to me, not because they lacked substance or grew stale quickly, but because they were immediately and primarily functional. This isn’t so surprising in and of itself, but the degree to which it is true was very surprising to me. That even a small part of an experience could feel “ordinary” after only three days, when I’d spent months in places that never lost felt that way – this was a shock. But it was exactly the kind of thing I hoped to learn by moving here.

Place Charles de Gaulle

The traffic circle that surrounds the Arc de Triomphe, known as the Place Charles de Gaulle, ties together 12 twelve city streets. It goes without saying that it is a busy intersection. In fact, as anyone who has driven through it can attest, “busy” is an enormous understatement. The chaos inherent in combining so many streets is compounded by the fact that there are no real traffic controls in the circle – no lanes, lights or signs. Drivers enter the circle where they will, and simply do their best to find the fastest route to their desired point of exit.Place Charles de Gaulle

At the end of my first week here, I drove through the circle with my relocation agent. And when I commented on the lack of order, she explained how it is managed: if an accident occurs in the Place Charles de Gaulle, there is a unique precedent whereby the legal responsibility is shared equally among the drivers involved, regardless of who actually caused the accident. The resulting fear of liability forces drivers to be more defensive, and presumably, this is more effective than some highly-complex and expensive traffic control system.

I am not sure whether this was a pre-meditated (and quite clever) feat of “psychological traffic engineering,” or just the organic solution that has arisen while the city government continually procrastinated in dealing with the mayhem. I suspect the latter. But in any case it is an interesting phenomenon.