The Art of French Indifference: What life in Paris taught me about the futility of fitting in
By Michele Piercey
I’m sure it’s common, when embarking on an overseas posting, to have ambitions of learning the language, becoming immersed in the culture, and making lots of local friends. If you are given to romanticism (check) and unrealistic expectations (check) and that country is France (check) that desire likely burns especially hot. This would not be my first time living overseas –as an aid worker, I had been to many beautiful but challenging places and had met my recently acquired husband, an American diplomat, in the Middle East – but I’d only ever been to France as a tourist. I had long been smitten with the country, and especially, with its people.
After all, what’s not to emulate about the French? Their cuisine has inspired roughly one billion cookbooks. They elected a telegenic, radical centrist President who, it is said, “could seduce a chair.” French women are globally recognized paragons of style. Someone published a book about how they apparently subsist on wine, butter croissants and cheese and don’t get fat. Not only do I want to live among them, I declared to my husband as we packed our suitcases, I want to be one of them. This would turn out to be harder than it looks, which I suppose is the point. But it took me a little while to realize that the key to fitting in in Paris, is, perversely, to not to care about fitting in at all.
Before I figured that out, the first step – dressing like a local -- turned out to be devilishly confounding. The French woman’s daily uniform centers on a couple of key elements: a long, fabulous coat, a scarf, and bewitching accessories. The coat and scarf remain well into June and come back by September at the latest, global warming be damned. The plain white sneaker features prominently and somehow it works, when it’s all pulled together with a kind of uncontrived élan. I already owned many of these items and donned them all enthusiastically before hitting the town (and by “town” I mean “grocery store”.) Yet, before I’d even opened my mouth, waiters and shopkeepers alike would immediately address me in English, a sure sign that I’d convinced no one. My teenaged stepson asked me why I had taken to dressing like the lady who lives in the bus shelter. “Hush,” I told him “I’m being bourgeoise.”
Even if I had nailed dressing like a Parisienne, my thighs would have given me away. The obesity rate in France is as high as most of the western world, but in Paris, is a paltry 10%. On the face of it, this is a mystery. Eating is a national pastime, if not an ideology, in France. The long lunch, with wine, every day, is an institution. Many Parisian businesses close from noon ‘til 2 to give ample and dignified time for déjeuner, and French schools cater multi-course hot midday meals for their students. As another COVID-19 wave threatens a reversal of France’s return to quasi-normality, it was the President’s announced intent to exclude the unvaccinated from public spaces and the café scene that caused 20,000 French citizens per minute to sign up for vaccines the next day. Food, good food, is really important here, and ordinary people spend time, and money, on eating that most Americans never do.
The received wisdom about why Parisians are thinner and in better health is that they consume less overall than we do, and they walk a lot. Both seem true to me, and explain, perhaps, why the athletic shoe has been elevated to fashion staple. However world-class, the urban public transport system requires lots of walking, and multiple flights of stairs to catch your train. Breakfasts – petit déjeuner – are indeed petit and late, by our standards. Dinners are often smaller. This approach to eating lasted exactly one day in my American family, and I can’t just blame my New York pizza loving husband and growing stepsons. While I walk plenty, my greatest success as a would-be Parisienne has been my consumption of baguettes, which I eat with abandon; it’s late in life for me to take up the espresso-and-a-cigarette breakfast habit. I’m big boned. Whatever. Is that an almond croissant?
At any rate, looking like you fit in is pointless if you can’t communicate. My French, according to my online French teacher, herself a native speaker, was “really rather good" when I arrived, and it has continued to improve. I’d studied and worked in French, and could hold a conversation on most topics, with only “minor disturbances to the native speaker” as they define it at the Academie Francaise. Yet to many Parisians, depending on their mood or inclination, I was nigh on incomprehensible. Early on, I would pose a question about something as innocuous as the cost of a cabbage and be met with a quizzical look or a sigh and a response in some version of English. My husband, on the other hand, though newer to the language, seemed to make Parisian friends wherever he went, chattering away in his charming Franglais. I should state from the outset that even people not married to this man would immediately recognize that he is strikingly charismatic. Once, in a Paris dry cleaner, the clerk refused to help me until my husband the gregarious diplomat intervened to explain what I was saying. Oh monsieur, she gushed, votre français est magnifique. Pas du tout, he answered, “oh not at all”. I am pretty sure she swooned at him. She definitely shrugged at me.
I was peeved, yes, but after that exchange I also realized something especially important about finding my place here. The core of Parisian style isn’t about wearing the right accessories, or even being elegantly slim: it’s about being elegantly indifferent. Like cats and mean girls I have known, Parisians find you far more interesting if you’re more concerned about your own happiness than about impressing anyone else. Having figured that out, Paris instantly became an easier, and more welcoming place. Scarf askew? Perfect. Leave it. Hair out of place? Tuck it behind your ear. I ditched the coat (except when actually snowing) and kept the jeans and white sneakers and wore them to cover perhaps hundreds of miles sampling coffee and croissants across my new city, a look more Parisian soccer mom than chic local, but (cue Parisian shrug), it works for me. Cream in my coffee? An emphatic mais oui. Don’t know the word for something? Point to it and feign your own version of ‘je ne sais quoi’ with your fetching foreign accent. If someone claims not to understand me, these days I just press on in blithe indifference and trust that eventually pragmatism will trump linguistic haughtiness. This is really the point: Instead of trying to be embraced in Paris, I embraced my Parisian life. I will never ‘pass’ for a local, but that turns out not to matter; putting my own enjoyment ahead of anyone’s approval is the most Parisian thing I can do.
© 2021 by Michele Piercey. All rights reserved.
Michèle Piercey lives with her handsome diplomat husband, nature-loving stepson, rescue mutt, and pet lizard in Paris, France, where they are in their final year of a three-year posting. She teleworks for a US-based international development firm and likes wandering Parisian flea markets and swilling café au lait in her spare time.