Shifting Speeds to a Parisian Stroll

THE other day a French woman asked me where I was from. I hesitated before answering. ``I was born in the States,'' I said, ``but I grew up in Paris.''

My response might well have seemed absurd, since I have only spent three years of my adult life in the French capital. But I meant every word of it.

Paris. Even its silky sibilance whispered of marvelous things to come, the promise of velvet-lined adventure, of all things civilized and extravagant. Convinced that the city was waiting for me with open arms, I stepped off the plane at Orly, one more bright young emigrant from American shores, and into the cab that would take me to my new home. (Two ugly furnished rooms in what happened to be a historic landmark, it was really more an address than an apartment.) Autumn was showing its best that day - a clear, unseasonably warm afternoon with more pedestrians than automobiles in the street. This, I thought, augured well as a sign of greeting proffered by this most cosmopolitan of urban centers.

Logically, then, I should have paid attention to the rainy days that followed, too. I had never known weather to be inimical, but that November had a vicious edge. The rain had the peculiar quality of being personal; every drop - cold and somehow hard, like a stone - became an insult. Clouds, like dirty sheets, got caught in the amputated sycamores lining the avenues. The sky, a trick ceiling, kept descending, sealing in the city, threatening to crush us all. There was no light, even at noon, just an absence of darkness. With all its monuments, Paris looked like the tarnished silver tea service of some ancient, irrelevant duchess.

Cold, secretly lonely, my resources thinning, I nevertheless dug in my worn-down heels and persisted in my self-appointed mission of putting down roots. If I had been wrong about Paris's open-armed welcome, I would simply impose myself. I was, after all, young and American and equipped with a liberal arts education. And frankly, I was more accustomed to success than failure.

Having sent my solid, energetic r'esum'e to everyone I could think of, I waited daily for the calls that were sure to shower down on me, offering positions in advertising, journalism, education. I watched the women in the metro and counted the days before I'd be able to afford their close-cropped, professional, yet oh-so-feminine suits. I observed the slow ritual of five-course lunches through restaurant windows feeling quite poignant, yet confident that my day would come to sit at these same tables. I couldn't wait to refuse dessert.

Unfortunately, those Franco-yuppy aspirations dissolved the day my second rent was due. Burying my pride, I borrowed money to pay it - and the phone bill, and the gas, and ... oh yes, food. And along with my high hopes and misplaced pride, I jettisoned my morning espresso and newspaper at the caf'e across the street, a detail I had until then considered de rigueur in any Parisian experience. I started buying cheap coffee, which I filtered through paper towels, and reading the morning paper at home.

Those sacrifices were easy compared to giving up my great-est illusion: that Paris was, specifically and consciously, the Place for Me. Stranded on the roof of my bourgeois building one night (it's a long story) under another icy rainfall, I was staring at the city spread out below through angry almost-tears, when I experienced my first epiphany. Slowly, like a veil, or a shroud, the realization came over me that it was I who had been wrong all along. Paris, I finally understood, was none other than a belle dame sans merci, a splendid reclining queen, generous in her beauty and cooly, cruelly indifferent to her admirers. There on the roof above the city at midnight, I thought I heard her laughing. And I hated her.

What I know now is that the demise of an expatriot's courtship with Paris is a vital step in their relationship. It is, of course an embittering phase and I remember happily dashing many an American's illusions. When someone would say to me, wide-eyed and breathless, ``Ohhhh, you live in Paris!'' I would respond with a glacial, ``Yes, but it's no big deal. Just like any other city, really. Except that you can't get good ice cream, and everything closes at six....''

But I learned. With every slap of the queen's hand I learned. Faced with the unblinking impassivity of every potential employer I met - so obviously nonplussed by this strange creature before them, femina Americana, with her unchecked candor and sense of entitlement - I learned to market myself in an entirely different way, learning the rules of their game and playing by them. Realizing, for example, that the polite and efficient Parisian taxi driver is an extinct species (if it ever existed at all), I simply cut out the extravagant tips I had hoped would evoke a couple of intelligible syllables (for example ``thank you''). I stopped scorning three hour lunches and started enjoying them.

What it amounted to was shifting speeds, adopting a completely different mode of living. Paris is, in fact, a matter of rhythm. And of priorities. The French might be slow in getting things done, hard to reach by telephone, excessively concerned about their vacation dates. But if you relax a little, think for a moment of form first and content second, you start to understand them. Life in the United States races along; in France it strolls. And while strolling will never get you across the finish line first, in the end you will have seen more along the way. And you won't be out of breath.

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