David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

My Trip to France (Part 1)

I’m in France on vacation. Paris, to be exact. Literally across the street from the Louvre, to be more exact. You can see the Eiffel Tower from the balcony of our apartment (as evidenced by the photo below).

View of the Eiffel Tower from our apartment windowI’ve never been to France before, or even Europe. In fact, I’ve never actually been outside the United States, with the exception of a handful of trips to Mexico and a cruise two decades ago.

So it must be of some sociological interest to someone to know the first impressions of a man visiting a foreign country for the first time. A few key things I’ve noticed about France, in no real order:

1. Sirens. You hear them constantly in Paris — perhaps it’s the rioting, which is supposedly going on in the suburbs as I write this — but that tinny, high-pitched, clown-hornish whine is completely foreign to my ears and keeps the French emergency vehicles from fading into background noise. The only place I’ve actually heard these sirens is in the movies, and they don’t seem quite real. Every time I hear one, I can’t help thinking that somewhere there’s a Muppet in trouble.

2. Small cars. Washington, DC isn’t the American capital of SUVs, but you still see plenty of them around. You can’t drive a mile without seeing at least a handful of SUVs and a pickup truck or two. But after 48 hours in France, I’ve seen precisely two of them. All of the cars here are ridiculously small, especially the one-person smart cars that make the Cooper Mini look gargantuan. It’s kind of refreshing to drive down the highway and be able to actually see more than two carlengths up the road. Or to stand on one side of the street and have an unimpeded view of what’s on the other side.

3. Different fixtures. The world is flat, or so Thomas Friedman says, but don’t tell the people who manufacture European doorknobs and toilets and electrical plugs and light switches and all the other ephemera that normally fade into the landscape of everyday life. I find myself in these endless reveries about the parallel evolutions of the elevator button, amazed at how these common devices can look so different from their American counterparts and yet still work so intuitively. It’s nice to know that American cultural imperialism hasn’t yet conquered the small things, that there are still European light switch manufacturers that have fallen beneath the notice of some faceless megacorporation across the Atlantic.

David Louis Edelman smoking a cigarette in Paris4. Smoking. People smoke in France. You see it on the street, in restaurants, in cars. (Observe, for example, this local bohemian seen loitering in a very narrow, French-looking street near a bicycle. I believe there was an accordion playing in the background too.) We saw the very disconcerting site the other day of a man lighting his cigarette as he was walking in to a restaurant. This kind of tobaccoism is still prevalent in the American South and parts of the Midwest, but it’s pretty much vanished from the so-called Blue States.

5. The weight gap. For a country famously full of gourmands (and a diet stuffed with carbohydrates and fattening cheeses), the French are a remarkably thin people. Perhaps it’s all that walking caused by the dearth of taxicabs and escalators. But nearly everyone you see falls under the U.S. Surgeon General’s definition of height/weight proportionate. The kind of abundantly, gloriously, fuckityouonlyliveoncely fat people that you often see in America are nowhere to be found here.

6. Brand-free streets. In the United States, you can’t walk down the street without getting visually assaulted by a group of thuggish brand names. Nike, Coke, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Gatorade, 7-11, Bank of America, ESPN. In Paris I expected a corresponding assault by thuggish French brands, but that’s not the case. You can look up and down major thoroughfares in Paris and see nothing but independently owned retailers. Shop windows don’t have the aggressively enticing displays here like they do in the States, so for example, convenience stores that carry Coke products don’t feel the need to broadcast it in three-foot-high letters.

More observations later on in the trip. That is, if I don’t get too caught up in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, which I had the good fortune to find (in English!) at the Shakespeare & Company bookstore.

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  3. Emily on February 5, 2008 at 12:08 pm  Chain link

    Oh, your funny. I laughed so hard when you talked about everytime you hear those sirens you think a muppets in trouble. Also about the fuckityouonlyliveonce fat Americans and also about the thuggish commercial advertising here. You make me want to go to France. Too funny.

  4. Bertrand on April 20, 2009 at 9:14 am  Chain link

    A french point of view :
    Hi david, i’m Bertrand From Paris.
    Your story is funny, specialy for a french. Your vision is so American.
    I would like to help you to understand Paris (Just Paris) by explaining the several questions you wondered.
    First sirens; It is not because of Riots in suburbs. The last riots of 2005 was very far from paris. The way it was exposed by the american TV, was surrealist. Nothings happens in Paris. If you heard a lot of sirens, is just because Paris is with London the two biggest cities of Europe… Even if it looks like a village, Paris concentrate a huge population. The place where you stayed, is also a main axis of Paris. The American sirens makes me the same effects of “muppets”. Your are not use to hear this sound.
    The small car; You probably never had the opportunity to drive a car to Paris, but when you want to park it, you would understand why this car are so small. Streets and buildings were built before the car invention. So this car is the result of a darwin law : adapt or die. Smart cars adapt to the old European cities.
    The different fixures : yes your agree. I feel the same in USA.
    Smoking: if you want to come back to France (You are welcome), you would notice that smoking is restaurants, bars or disco is not allowed anymore.
    The weight Gap: This following point is only my opinion about this difference. Even if French does’nt practice a sport, you probably noticed people likes to walk. Not as a sport but as a pleasure of walking in streets. There is a word for this “promenade”. An other fact, You are agree, people eats maybe more, but always at the same hours and a various type of food. Cooking “(Cuisiner)in France is not a word to prepare food, but a kind of pleasure.
    Brand-free streets: In Paris, to preserve Paris beauty, advertising is located in some places authorised by the city hall adminitration.
    I hope this explaination would help you to understand Paris

  5. David Louis Edelman on April 20, 2009 at 9:30 am  Chain link

    Thanks, Bertrand, for the French perspective. Ten days was far too short a time to spend in Paris. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to come back someday…

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