Many buildings in Paris are “signed” and dated by their architects. The signatures usually look approximately like the one shown here – usually in a similarly prominent position on the façade of the building. Not all buildings have them; but many do, particularly the more ornate ones (for example, the building on the right in the photo, the one that is partially covered by the inset, does not).
Today I was walking back from the one Chipotle in Paris with a friend (gotta celebrate American Independence somehow…), and we stumbled on this little 4th of July celebration outside of an American Restaurant. Everyone was dressed in 50’s outfits, there was live music, dancing, a mini statue of liberty, and – as you can see – plenty of American flags. Check out the guy in blue dancing in the second picture. He could have stepped right out of Grease.
There was a time where the French toilet experience consisted of “squatting over a hole in the ground” – the same way that is still done in most developing countries. In fact, if you do a Google image search for “French Toilet,” it is clear that the reputation has yet to wear off.
These days, French toilets aren’t all that different from American ones, except in one respect: when you flush, you have options. You can either do a small flush, with less water volume, or a large flush, with more. Obviously this decision is made depending on the size of whatever it is your are trying to force through the plumbing. This is interesting to me mainly because it exists in France but not the U.S. – and particularly in light of two facts:
- The U.S. is pretty concerned with being “green” these days. Maybe not more so than Europe, but it still seems like something that would catch on given the current trends.
- It isn’t expensive or difficult to implement. These are purely mechanical toilets, just like most American ones; so it wouldn’t drive the design or manufacturing efforts very much to start offering this in the United States, and, supposedly, it saves a lot on water costs.
I realize that dual-flush toilets exist in the U.S., but they aren’t common. Here, they are everywhere. In fact it is almost impossible to flush a toilet without feeling guilt-tripped into opting for the smaller option.
In any case, little differences like this between France and the U.S. really make you think: why didn’t this technology catch on in both places? What is it about The French that makes them want options when they flush, but not when they choose health care?
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.
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.
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.
If 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.