[Memories of Paris] Culture & Creature Shock

The first day in a new city can be a bit of a trial.  Throw in different culture, different customs, different transportation, different street signs, and a language barrier, and you can pretty much count on lusting after your pillow by the time night falls.  However, most people who travel to foreign lands know to expect these things going in.  It doesn’t prevent them, but it makes them a little easier to deal with, along with the knowledge that the next day will be easier and that things will seem less, well, foreign.

My first day in Paris was no exception to this rule.  Even after having spent a week in London, Paris was still a shock to the system.  I’m lucky enough to have received a solid education in French in high school and to have been one of those who took well to it, but even so, ten years down the road, the language skills get a little rusty.  And since I never reached true fluency, being thrown back into near-full immersion was enough to make me resort to that comfort phrase the French have learned to despise: “Parlez-vous anglais?”

This question, so simple in construction, often goes over in a less than stellar manner.  I imagine too many ugly Americans have passed through Paris to save it from being associated with the arrogant belief that everyone in the entire world should speak English, as opposed to the possibility that the person speaking it simply wishes not to offend a true francophone by completely butchering such a beautiful language.  In my case, my fear was in being able to understand a native Frenchperson’s response.  I do OK with basic speech, and I could likely converse at ease with most six- to eight-year-olds, but the mental speed required to keep up with the thickly accented words flying from the mouth of a hurried owner of a boulangerie (so different in sound than those emitted by even a fluent American) is a skill I admittedly no longer possess.

In London, when we were lost, it was no problem to approach a group of native Britons to ask for directions.  Worst-case scenario, you get basic directions with a smug look.  In most cases, you get amusement at how far off the track you are and then clear, polite instructions to get you headed back in the direction you need to go.  In Paris, you are often met with a scowl.  If you make the mistake of starting with “Parlez-vous anglais?” the scowl deepens and is accompanied with a curt “non!” or a begrudging “un peu” before getting a quick shake of the finger in the general direction you need to go and a slew of quick, often incomprehensible words.  I exaggerate, of course, but not by too much.  The English are burdened by their polite reputation; the French by the imposition of the rest of the world to visit their beloved Paris.

So, between annoying eighty-five percent of the French people I came in contact with, the sardine can of people that was the Eiffel Tower, and my complete inability to decipher the subway map (the description from my journal reads: “The Métro looks like a tangle of Christmas lights after a year jumbled up in a box that’s been moved from one house to a new one and gotten dropped and tossed a few times along the way.”), I was ready to get to the hotel and crawl into bed.

Sadly, as soon as I pulled back the sheets to do exactly that, I discovered that something had beat me to it.  I grabbed a piece of paper, folded it, and smashed the round critter between the leaves.  Upon seeing the red contents of the bug upon the unfolded paper, I knew we were in trouble.  I told my sister to get out of her bed, and I went to the computer.  There I confirmed my fears with a quick Google Image search and then looked up the French word for bedbug.   My poor sister had not had the foresight to look before she collapsed, and thus she’d spent a good five or ten minutes sharing space with the flesh-eating, blood-sucking creatures under the sheets.  I stomped down the stairs and up to the clerk’s desk, along with the piece of paper bearing “la carcasse de la punaise.”  He was sufficiently horrified — so horrified, in fact, that he was adamant about not venturing into our room.  He handed us a key to a new room, and I waited for the accompanying offer to help us move our partially unpacked luggage.  No such offer came.

I’m sure the other occupants of our hall, as well as those on the floor below us, appreciated our midnight trek to the opposite end of the hall, which took several trips to get all of our things transferred.  We checked our beds thoroughly before we got in them.  One of the insects had managed to latch onto my sister’s pajama pants, and so I banished her to the shower, clothes and all.  It was after 1 a.m. by the time we finally slid into our beds, paranoid, exhausted, and afraid to go to sleep.  I, for one, laid a T-shirt over my pillow and covered my torso and shoulders with a cardigan, having decided I was only willing to risk bedbug bites on my legs.

Eventually, I did fall into a quite satisfactory slumber, despite my fear of being eaten alive and/or horribly disfigured in my sleep.  Fatigue wins out over everything in the end.  And the good thing about having a nightmare of a first day is that there’s really nowhere to go but up on the next.  Upon waking, the bedbugs having been content to stay in our original room and spare our lives, we experienced our first French breakfast, which vastly improved our impressions of Paris.

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2 thoughts on “[Memories of Paris] Culture & Creature Shock

  1. Bedbugs–some of the itchiest bug bites I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter.

    My high school French teacher used a history book as a textbook. We laughed that we could describe the architectural features of Notre Dame and how the Gauls elected their chiefs, but couldn’t find our way to the bus stop. My inadvertent strategy during our own summer trip was to start with the manglings–and then the French person asked, “Parlez-vous . . . ” It helps, though, that I travel with the two ambassadors of cuteness (my kids)–they seem to dispel people’s rude impulses.

    • Yes, I quickly learned my lesson about how to open a conversation. I quickly switched to opening in French, following their response with a “pardon?” and an apologetic expression, at which point they either switched to English or slowed their speech. I still got exasperation on occasion, but not as often. 🙂

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