Notes from a year abroad in Paris
Having lived for a couple of weeks as an Erasmus student in the world’s most romantic, most visited, and most talked-about city, I feel I’ve already experienced a slice of the infamous vie Parisienne, complete with its joys, delights and occasional obstacles.
The baguette, the hackneyed symbol of all things French, appears dutifully on the table at every meal. Stick thin Parisians buy this elongated loaf by the armload, hurrying through the city streets at dusk, juggling briefcases and bread or tripping through cobbled streets in impossibly high heels.
The two or sometimes four kisses, planted on alternate cheeks at every greeting, continue to confuse the staid Anglo-Saxon ex-pats, who awkwardly hold out a hand or offer a restrained nod and smile, only to be smothered in over-zealous smooches by their Gallic counter-parts.
Haussmann’s architecture lines the streets of the city. Twisting iron balconies front the tall slender windows of elegant, pale stone buildings and tree-lined boulevards weave throughout the city. Deplored when first introduced, the Baron’s plan for Paris is now one of the most celebrated things about the awe-inspiring capital, and one of the reasons I linger so often gazing at the architectural flair proudly displayed at every turn.
A young, floppy-haired Frenchman whizzes through the Bois de Boulogne on a velib’, gripping the bike’s handlebar with one hand and struggling to light a cigarette with the other. Only in France. Along Boulevard Haussmann, a girl in a trench-coat and, true to type, a beret, pedals through the rush-hour traffic.
The metro, heralded by the iconic art nouveau signs, zips through the city’s heart, swallowing people up and spitting them out on the other side of the heaving metropolis. The Parisians step on, engrossed in a thumbed paperback by Balzac or Voltaire or some other such weighty tome, a symbol of French society’s reverence for the intellectual.
Wandering through Paris, weaving through the chairs, tables and chattering clientele spilling out onto the streets from pavement cafés, I admire the Parisians’ effortless chic and savour the mouth-watering wafts of freshly-made croissant drifting from the boulangeries dotted around. Coloured macaroons – pastel purple, rosy pink and pistachio green – glow like little gems in the windows, amidst pastries and cakes of such hunger-inducing appearance that one wonders how the inhabitants of this gorgeous city stay so slim.
So far, so clichéd. Contrary to the traditional portrayal, however, the stereotype of unfathomable Parisians is just that. Their icy exterior is merely a façade, and can be chipped away at with a smile and melted with a few words of imperfect French. I cringe as the sounds of their elegant Latin language collide with my flat English tones, although according to the French, this is très charmant. I have yet to be convinced.
But before the green-eyed monster tightens his jealous grip, be aware that everything you’ve ever head about French bureaucracy is not a myth: a Kafkaesque labyrinth of pointless, endless form-filling, infuriating administrators and unfathomable bureaucratic processes awaits if ever you elect to live or study across the Channel. You have been warned.