Monday, January 23, 2012

foreign affairs

Paris is full of surprises, some more charming than others.  These idiosyncrasies are elusive and come to light over time.  When at first something seems out of the ordinary we think, ‘how odd’.  With the second occurrence, we marvel at the coincidence.  By the third time, it’s ‘Aha…’ And that’s what I call the slow reveal.

With each passing day, the underbelly of Paris comes to fruition in new and baffling ways.  Before long, I’ll likely lose the ability to call out these cultural quirks.  In the meantime, I consider it my duty to document all that is new and unusual, as well as any misnomers I encounter along the way.

time traveler

So this is Paris

Men over age 50 have the most appalling after-lunch burps.  Beware of garlicky downdraft in passing.  It’s seriously gag inducing. 

Elderly women are fast-moving and wield oversized purses like weapons.  Stay out of the way or they’ll mow you down without batting an eyelash.

French women are often petite but there are women of all shapes and sizes in Paris.  I’ve asked and the most popular size in women’s clothing stores is a size 8. 

Eggs are not refrigerated in the grocery store.  Weird but true.

Coffee is downright disgusting with very few exceptions.

best to drink it at home.  trust me.

The after school snack (le goût) is far from a healthy affair.  Mothers, grandmothers and nannies dole out cookies (straight from the box), baguettes and pastries with reckless abandon.  There is nary a whole grain in sight.

School children write nearly everything in cursive, with a fountain pen and accompanying ‘marker’ that erases mistakes; but only once.  After that, they have to rewrite with a permanent pen.

french hello kitty endorses cursive.  how about that.

The supermarket sells whole, skinned rabbits, eyeball sockets intact, wrapped in plastic on yellow styrofoam trays.

Nearly every breakfast cereal is studded with chocolate chunks or nuts.  Or both.

Organics are few and far between.  Our neighborhood produce vendor laughed out loud when I asked for organic broccoli.  Before we left Seattle, we were eating about 75% organic.  Now, we eat less than 25%.   

Parents rarely shop with children in tow.  It’s unusual to encounter children in grocery stores and clothing boutiques.  This is brilliant, when you think about it.

unhappy camper
shoe shopping at the camper store: not a happy camper

Waving is a dead giveaway that you aren’t French.  Parisians are all about nuances, such as nods and tiny smiles of approval.  I’ve managed to curtail my wave reflex but for the first few weeks, I would catch myself mid-wave and then run my fingers through my hair in a pathetic fake out attempt.

Ironing is a national pastime.  Dryers are small and often combined with washers.  Laundry emerges looking like you’ve slept in it, hence the French infatuation with ironing everything from kitchen towels to boxer briefs.

back to the ironing board

Twice a year, there are huge sales called Les Soldes, when virtually every store in Paris offers drastic discounts.  These bargains are thrilling yet dangerous.  As my dad always says, “Show me the money you saved.”

Whenever we stop yammering and start listening, we notice how eerily quiet it is on the streets, in stores… practically everywhere.  We aren’t especially loud people but we felt loud when we arrived in Paris.  Either we’ve gotten quieter or we’ve stopped caring.  It’s hard to say.

Despite their general adherence to convention, Parisians aren’t afraid to make loud statements in clothing and decor.  It’s not uncommon to see mousy types and models alike rocking black leather pants or cobalt blue stilettos.  But never at the same time.  The rest of the ensemble tends toward understated.  Confidence is key to making it work.

yellow dress
step aside, little black dress. 

Decor is often monochromatic with injections of color from, say, a hot pink chair or vibrant throw pillows.  This allows for changing the overall look while maintaining a neutral backdrop. 

knit balls 
très original : enormous knitted beach balls to accent the home

Most Parisians like to excel at whatever they do.  Perfectionism is pretty much the cultural norm.  Before we moved here, I thought of myself as borderline OCD.  Now, I’m not so sure…

That’s all for now.


  1. Sarah, this is one of my favorite posts! I really enjoyed reading about all the quirky and fun things you have observed. I would love to hear more, please. :)

  2. It was nice meeting you on saturday, Sarah !
    Hope to see you again soon.
    My email is a available on my blog, come and visit ;)

  3. Sarah I can't believe you have not found a good cup of coffee yet! I love french coffee! Have you started eating baquettes with nutella on yet for breakfast!! Also love your point about cursive writing. It is the same in London. I think Grace's sister Molly has the best writing in the whole school. Everyone in Seattle can't quite believe how beautiful it is!! Ayesha

  4. Psalmie- I'm so glad you enjoyed it. I've been observing and writing these things down since we moved in earl December. It was so much fun to finally compile them in a list. xoxo

  5. Marie-Adélaïde,

    I enjoyed meeting you very much! Thank you for sharing your blog. I have already taken and quick peek and look forward to reading more... Yes, I hope we can meet again.


  6. Hello Ayesha,

    I've found a few places with decent coffee but nothing that compares to Seattle's many fine coffee establishments. We occasionally eat baguettes with Nutella, but consider it more of a splurge than a daily occurence.

    I love that they teach cursive, here! I remember learning it when I was in 2nd grade and it was great fun! I'll bet Molly is proud of her nice handwriting. She should be!

    Thank you for writing,


  7. That's it: it is now my mission to find you on the streets of Paris so that we may wave wildly and chatter in our brash American way. ;-)

  8. mari, i would love to wave wildly and chatter loudly with you in paris (just not in the proximity of anyone i know). ;)