Long legs and croissants, red wine and clothing boutiques, chocolate and Macarons! It seems like to most people that there just cannot be a more pleasant place to live in the world other than Paris. I mean, who doesn't want to be sipping Bordeaux wine on the Seine river / Jardin des Tuileries / [insert any Paris location] in perfect 73 degrees weather? Okay, yes it rains a little here, and gets a tad bit colder in the winter - so you just go sip your Bordeaux wine under the heated covered outdoor patio of a café by the Seine instead. What could possibly be wrong?
Well, here are some things I never expected from Paris. I'll start it off with a quote from a well known book called A Year in the Merde ("A Year in the Shit"), written by a Brit when he came to work in Paris:
“I saw that I was witnessing an important lesson in Parisian life: I mustn’t try to make people like me. That’s much too English. You’ve got to show them that you don’t give a shit what they think. Only then will you get what you want. I’d been doing it all wrong, trying to win people over. If you smile too much, they think you’re retarded."
This is no doubt lesson #1: Smile sparingly.
In New York, smiles are given generously, to neighbors, friends, parents, strangers you make eye contact with, anyone and everyone to whom you ever speak. In fact, if you do not smile, something is seriously wrong. The person may even take it as a sign that you intend to end whatever relationship you have with them. Smiling is serious business.
In Paris, don't feel offended if Parisians are not interested in smiling or speaking with you. Smiles are personal, given only when the person truly feels like it. Do not smile to strangers, waiters and waitresses, or any person unrelated to you. The assumption is that you don't care, and even if you do, smiling only makes you look strained. Just go au naturel.
The upside, is that when a Parisian does smile at you, you know that, congratulations, you are now important enough to them to well, be smiled at.
#2. Waiting in line
In New York, it is considered a great offense (yes, people actually get offended) when you make them wait too long. Time is considered the most precious resource, and yes, if you take more than 5 seconds reaching for your wallet, an apology is expected to the person after you.
In Paris, even if the line is atrociously long, the store, cashier, person in front, will have no problem making you wait. The plus side is that no one will ever get upset or roll their eyes at you if you spend more than five unnecessary seconds. In fact, you could be looking for 10 minutes for your wallet and no one will say a thing.
#3. People who went to the top Grand Ecoles will always be superior to others in all ways
In the US, there comes a point in life where work experience means more than your educational background. In France, this rarely happens.
The French are obsessed about their Grand Ecoles, the top school system that only the very selective few get into. The most well known being HEC Paris (business), Science Po (science and politics), Polytechnique (engineering), Ecole Normale Superior (government), and Ecole National D'Administration (government). There are actual jobs that only recruit from these schools, and even in the work place, where you went to school will significantly impact the development of your career in terms of placement at top leadership positions. If you didn't succeed in taking that one exam the terminale year of your high school, good luck trying to make it up the rest of your life*.
#4. Train delays and union strikes
In the beginning, I was ready to go on strike myself. Prior to coming to Paris, I seriously thought strikes existed only in history books and in the context of some massive revolution. 1 day less of paid vacation? Strike. Changed hourly work wages by 5 cents? Strike. Unemployment numbers rose 0.7%? Strike. It snowed? Strike (ok, just kidding about this last one).
Now, I'm used to it. I've also become an expert at finding alternative forms of transport. And this brings me to my last point...
#5. Everything is flexible
In the US, there are rules. If you don't follow them, you either get shamed publicly or the police comes after you (depending on how severe the crime). I used to take great pride in "bending the rules" in the States whereby I thought missing the deadline by one week was such an enormous accomplishment.
In Paris, missing the deadline is the norm. I signed up for figure skating class and they allowed me to pay in however many installments whenever I want. It's been 6 weeks of class, and I have yet to pay, but that's not to say that I won't be paying, of course.
Another example? It's extremely shameful in the States to cut people in line, even at the airport. In Paris, my boyfriend and I were late to our flight to Morocco, and the entire line urged us to pass them. "Go on," they said. "Don't be shy".
There are always two sides of every coin.
Smiling less means clearer communication about who likes or doesn't like you. Waiting in line means you too are not afraid to take your time. Clear rewards for education means people are rewarded more for their intellect (good or bad depending on how you think about the situation). Strikes...well, did you know on strike days, everyone gets to ride for free? And being flexible. Well, at the end of the day, the French still manages to be some of the most productive in their work, even working on a rumored 7 hours per day.
*There are, of course, always exceptions.