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.
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.