Ten things in Paris… that are done here in their own special way

Or, to be more precise, are done in a way that surprises me. For all I know, it’s entirely normal in many cities that I’ve never lived in, but I wouldn’t know. Anyway, things that tickle me.

10. Everyone lives in flats. (That’s not strange in itself). To visit someone, you would think that you could call their little buzzer thing to let you in: that would be logical, right? The problem being that there is often an outer door that you have to get through first, with a security code and no buzzer. (Bit like being back at St. Anne’s, really!) Either you know the code, or you loiter outside and wait for someone to arrive that you can tailgate. Or you do like I did on my first day and go in to the opticians next door and ask if you can slip out of their back door into the courtyard. Either way, you may be protected against intruders, but you’ll also end up with a list as long as your arm of the codes for any friends you want to visit.

9. There are no real bins on the street, just plastic bags. (This is apparently to cause less damage if a bomb is put in them.) Said bags are changed regularly, so they’re rarely overflowing (none of this attempting to wedge something that you know won’t fit and is going to fall out as soon as you walk away, but that doesn’t count as littering because you didn’t directly drop it on the floor). They are also frequently and quite openly rummaged by various people walking along the street who like the look of whatever might be in there. Considering that a lot of people also use them for bags of household waste, I reckon plunging in there is pretty courageous…

8. I may have mentioned this before, but the sheer range of yoghurt available in the supermarket is overwhelming. Even a tiny ‘city’ convenience version will have a full aisle devoted to the stuff, including reduced ones that have been broken off the multipack (maybe someone’s nicked the others?) In Le Bon Marché’s Grande Épicerie (very expensive food hall on the Left Bank, which also bizarrely sells lots of normal things like cereal, and tins of Campbell’s condensed tomato soup for 3.25€), there were tiny delicate slices of prosciutto, shavings of cheese and little morsels of chocolate as free samples. There was also a woman manning a stand with three yoghurt pots and a load of spoons, into which you were expected to dip to taste. Even as a dedicated ‘try before you (don’t) buy’ fan, that is a step too far.

7. It seems to be entirely accepted that large numbers of people will use the métro without paying. Various degrees of athleticism in leaping barriers are on display, whilst it is not uncommon to be asked if you will hold a gate open for someone (and their band of friends) to sneak through. And to think I hovered awkwardly for ages when I had my big rucksack and couldn’t get through the gate when I first arrived in Paris, not wanting anyone to get the idea that I was faredodging when I asked if they could hold open the no entry door so that I could squish through… Oh, and that’s all without mentioning the frequent times the whole barrier system at a station has crashed, so they just open the gates and let you through.

6. There are no yellow boxes. This, when I realised it, was a stunning revelation into the problems of Parisian traffic jams. Once you’re past the traffic lights, you are allowed, no, expected, to stick firmly to the tail of the vehicle in front, even if you can see that your lane isn’t moving and a cross flow of traffic is about to get a green light but be unable to move because you’re blocking up the junction. That’s just their bad luck, after all! Should you attempt to defy this unwritten rule, expect a flurry of increasingly angry horns to sound behind you. And yes, that does include when a traffic policeman in front is telling you to stop.

5. How do you move house when your flat is on the top floor and there isn’t a lift? Hire a company with a funny crane thing to take all of your boxes and furniture out of the window, of course! Now, if we had those at Oxford, wouldn’t life be so much easier? I suppose everything has to be pretty well packed though, since you wouldn’t exactly want your box full of underwear bursting and tumbling five stories to the street, would you?

4. Want to stop to pick something/ someone up, drop it/ them off, buy a baguette, check your phone, pick your nose..? On a very narrow, double-parked street with nowhere to pull in? No worries, just stop and pop the hazard lights on. People behind will wait. Well, they don’t have a lot of choice in the matter…

3. You want to go and do some shopping at the market. You have two options: a) the chic wicker basket tucked daintily over your arm, carrots with tops poking out of one end and baguette at the other, or b) the shopping trolley on wheels favoured by old ladies throughout Western Europe, and just about everyone over here. Just be prepared to have to lug it up and down umpteen flights of stairs. Oh, and bear in mind that it’s all pretty irrelevant, since you will be given everything in bags anyway (the look on the face of the man that I told I didn’t need a bag for my single solitary orange…)

2. When arranging to meet someone, there is at least a 90% chance that they will suggest a métro station as a suitable place. They give you the number of the exit, which makes absolutely no sense if you’re arriving from above ground (and chances are that if you do get there by métro, this will be the one that isn’t visible where you get off, leaving you to wander hopelessly lost around tunnels for longer than the actual journey there took in the first place.

1. English may be used to demonstrate that something is chic, fashionable or cosmopolitan (that it has ‘standing’, as they say), thus rendering Marks & Spencer’s and their microwavable Chicken Tikka Masala Champs Elysées-able. However, this Anglophilia will disappear as soon as you enter a museum (even in the Louvre all of the painting descriptions are written only in French), café (just because they’re advertising ‘thin, tepid apple pie’ doesn’t mean they actually speak the language), shop or attempt to ask for directions anywhere. Unless you go to the opera where they’ll helpfully surtitle in English as well as French. This may seem mad and highly contradictory, but that’s what we love about the French, non?

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