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talking heads.

Being in an intercultural couple, Aurelién and I enjoy indulging in comparing the differences between our two backgrounds. Never in a competitive manner because neither culture could claim superiority over the other; they are both so different. But just making simple observations, as well as cooking up scenarios imagining how it would play out in both France and in the States. 

Being placed in new situations outside of our French life during our one month excursion in the US provided fodder to one of our favorite pastimes, adding more contrasts to dissect. Aren't we just total party animals?

What amazes him almost every trip abroad, but especially this one since we were out in California where perhaps it's heightened, was how most people are so open and willing to chat extensively with total strangers. Had I not spent as much time in Paris as I have at this point, hearing this observation would have fallen flat because up until this extensive experience abroad, I thought that most people engage in small talk with random folks you're sitting next to at a bar or a restaurant. It's taken a few years to discover that this is an American trait, that we look at dining or having a drink as a total social experience that is not always confined exclusively to our personal present company. 

On our honeymoon in San Francisco, we experienced one of the more extreme cases of a random interaction with strangers when a group of locals that we had struck up conversation with at a cocktail bar, kindly invited us that evening and treated us to dinner at NoPa; the city's most buzzed about kitchen in the Bay AreaThe handwritten thank you card I sent (after cleverly getting their home addresses), to me, still seems rather trite and have since been keeping an eye out in paying it forward somehow. 

Throughout our entire trip in America we engaged in small chats with random characters who offered us slices of information, portals into their lives; a restauranteur who had lived in LA for 15 years before moving up north enjoyed an espresso on his day off at the legendary Cafe Trieste; a young bartender at Tart who wants to be a real actress and is terrified of the idea of having to resort to working on a reality show; the server at Bottega on Long Island who has a cousin studying abroad in Paris and couldn't believe that restaurants don't serve mimosas here; the guy sitting next to me at the DMV who lost his license at a bar the night before his plans to drive out to Arizona for the weekend and incidentally had a boyfriend who used to live in my old building in West Hollywood; the vintage boutique owner who mistook our request to finding a good place to get a drink for a good place to get a joint, and actually gave us directions on where to legally purchase pot (ah, California). The stories were endless, each time leaving Aurelien amazed with how much information we were being given at such slight insistance. I don't even know what the parents of the kids that I teach actually do for a living, but I do know that Roxanne, our flight attendant on our flight back to New York prefers full-bodied, buttery white wines to the fruitier selections. 

Last week, taking advantage of the last warm summer's eve in Paris, in an unscripted change of after-work plans, Aurel and I decided to sit along the quai at Île de la Cité to watch the sunset, feel the warm air, and to enjoy our last bottle of rosé bidding farewell to the summer. Arriving, we saw that others had the very same idea and we had to squeeze in tight between other groups of friends and couples to get a good view of the shadowing bridges behind the setting sun, letting our feet dangle over the sparkling Seine. 



Being in such close proximity to strangers it would never occur to us to even consider striking up conversation; it's just not done here. If there was a group of Americans, perhaps, but Parisians, no way, they would just think it was intrusive. With our rosé buzz kicking in, we entertained ourselves by placing ourselves in hypothetical plot lines of asking our neighbors about their wine and snacks, professions, and what part of town they lived in. (I'm chuckling now just picturing this scene.) It was then that we were handed an opportunity to test our theory: a couple to the right of us were sharing with their friends animated details about their current trip to...California.

If there was ever a moment to chime in...

"Go tell him we were there!" I nudged Aurélien in a loud whisper reminiscent of someone's grandmother ordering them to shove the bread from the bread basket in their bag while the server's back was turned. 

"That would be weird." He responded flatly, turning to look out onto the water, sipping his wine.

"Oh come on, it wouldn't. We were just there, share a memory with one of your compatriots!"

And then I got the French huff, followed by a shrug, and a dramatic shoulder toss, "Yeah, my compatriots. N'importe quoi."

Just then, a Bateau Mouche came charging by, shining their offensive tanning-salon, high voltage lights along the water, blinding all of us who were enjoying the moonlit glow against our end-of-summer bronzed skin. Everyone shared a collective round of disgruntled moans while momentarily looking away from the water where many of our eyes met. Seizing the opportunity, I leaned over to the couple next to us, wished them a bonsoir, and said that I couldn't help but overhear that they were in California over the summer, offering that we were there as well! Hurray for Hollywood?

As it turned out, they were in California. It was nice. They ate well. It was sunny. And that was it.

And this is where the cultural differences between my husband and I swooped right in: Aurel thought they were really outgoing and forthcoming about their trip while I thought they were fucking rude. I didn't learn anything about their summer vacation. 

But I suppose that was the point.

The two of us had a good laugh about this on our Vespa ride back home with me of course reacting the scene in his ear. In reality, I'm sure the couple are quite lovely and I had just caught them off guard. I guess the old stereotype that first impressions of Americans are that we're brazen and arrogant, and the French are cold and demure will never cease to exist. (Okay and allow me to take some responsibility here, I also do talk way too much.) But who would ever want either culture to change? I, for one would not, it's these kinds of differences that remind me that I do live in another country while deepening my understanding of how people from different backgrounds function, respond, and interact; somewhat of a character builder in my opinion. 

I suppose I will always be somewhat out of my element here, which keeps my two feet firmly on the ground as I am constantly learning and evolving with my surroundings. And you know what, there's something really comforting about that.

25 comments:

  1. Aww, there's a wee guy that has a weekly market stall tour round a number of Provencal markets in the Vaucluse who totally bucks the French reticence trend, you need to go meet him :oD Actually there's a number of stall holders at the markets down there that could talk the proverbial hind leg off a donkey...

    Saying that, sit for any length of time at a bus stop/bar/stand in a queue in Glasgow long enough, and someone will talk to you, even at airports, maybe we exported some of that with the Highland Clearances ;o)

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    1. Well I need to get the hell out of Paris then if I want to chat it up! I had made some edits targeting this as more of a Parisian thing than a French thing since I don't know what daily life is like in other parts of France. I need to meet this wee guy! He sounds adorable!

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  2. Americans tend to talk to everyone once the opportunity presents itself. Whether its by the bar, on a plane, in the supermarket, waiting in long lines, anywhere and everywhere.

    They always have interesting stories about their lives, families, and travels. These opportunities not only provide minutes of good conversations but often it creates friendships.

    And i like it.Especially when i'm in a cab going to a location that i'm unfamiliar with.

    I love when a cab driver chats with me. They always tend to recommend places to visit and eat, as well as update me with the weather, the news, sports and sometimes even politics.

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    1. Cabbies in France are hit or miss; sometimes they are really helpful or will engage in small talk or sometimes, or rather, most of the time, they are on the phone for the entire trip.

      I think it's an American thing to be outgoing hence the stereotype that we come across as confident or even arrogant (depending who is saying it). It was just an interesting observation to make, considering the couple next to us was practically on the same vacation as we were!

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  3. I love these differences, though I do wish it were sometimes easier to infiltrate French conversations. I would definitely practice more if it were :)

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    1. Aren't the differences fun to dissect? Again, neither is better or worse, it's just an interesting observation.

      I had those frustrations when I first moved here, all I wanted to do was to speak French but never had the opportunity because all of my friends were American and I couldn't chime in on French girl talk on a cafe terrace....despite my attempts. : )

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  4. 1. "That would be weird." He responded flatly, turning to look out onto the water, sipping his wine. - I can so see Aurel doing this. So funny.

    2. I was thinking this morning how I will always feel out of place here. I'm sure maybe it's because I need more French friends but our natures our just different. We like to be outwardly talkative (in a positive way) and here it's just not done. Among many other things... but yes, I will most likely never fit in. The key is being OK with it :)

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    1. Hahaha Aurel was NOT having it. In America, he lets me do my thing but here he knows I'll only get frustrated so he tends to discourage my little social experiments.

      We'll never fit in as French women and as you said, the key is being okay with it. Engage and appreciate the culture while still being yourself...even if it means getting the odd look now and then. 'Tis the adventures of an expat!

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  5. What you described is not so much an American as a North American thing... I think Debs will agree that Canadians do the same, especially French Canadians. You can be waiting in line at the ATM or the grocery store and find out all about the other people:) I have people telling me their lives while we wait for the bus:)

    And I can go either way: I can chat happily to complete strangers or sit next to someone at a dinner party and not utter a word to that person because I'm not bothered (and I won't even feel bad about it). I can be both a rude French person and a chatty Canadian, so I totally understand both sides:)

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    1. You know I was wondering if it was an American or an entire North American thing. Since I wasn't sure, I didn't want to assume it was the entire continent that shared this social nature, although I had a sneaking suspicion.
      : )

      Totally, we all have our moments when we're just not into it. You can't be "on" all the time. And one way certainly isn't better or worse than the other. It's just how people interact.

      We went to a wedding a week after ours and I was just wiped out my eyes burned, I didn't really want to go (but we had to). At the party, I barely spoke to anyone, I ate my dinner, drank mostly Perrier, said hello to a few people, congratulated the bride and groom and we left around midnight. I thought I was being so rude. But...I was at a French wedding. The next time I saw the bride and groom I apologized for being so cool and not my bouncy self and they had no idea what I was talking about...so sometimes the French way works in our favor!

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  6. Just last week a guy in a truck beside me at a traffic light started talking to my dog. She did have her head hanging out the back window. When he noticed me looking at him, he said (insert heavy Southern accent), "Is that an Airedale?"

    I said no, and he said that mutts are the best. I drove away from the light (no kidding) thinking that something like that would never happen in Paris! And I only spent a week there.

    I like what you wrote about constantly learning and evolving with your surroundings. I think that's one reason I what to move somewhere else, whether in America or France.

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    1. What's funny is that since I published this post, my theory has backfired on me! It's like every Parisian read it and wants to prove me wrong. We were on the Vespa last night and a man, a little older than us on a scooter next to us, looked our way, smiled and said "La vie est belle". He continued and told us we looked like a lovely couple on our sky blue Vespa and then wished us a bonne soirée before zipping off!

      If I was meant to be proved wrong, I accept the challenge with delight because I love friendly chit chat!

      I think removing yourself from what you know and the comforts of your family, old friends and familiar towns is a real character builder. It prepares you for many life situations and how respond to people. I had saved up since I was 14 for my first big move out to California which then, had no idea that this experience would somehow get me to Paris. Sometimes you just never know and just have to trust and go for it. : )

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  7. During my sister's last visit she would be greeted with "How are you today....?" when she was getting service ; her, having lived in Paris and Switzerland for the last 30 years found this totally annoying.
    Whereas, we find it rude if the question is not asked. Where the conversation goes after the question is asked, is pretty much how chatty you want to be at the time. And much like Duchesse I can go to parties and not get past the "Hi.......Nice to see you again" before I go looking for the next person.

    This is timely since we are going to Oregon for 10 days where I will paying attention to this "difference". I am looking forward to finding out how friendly Oregonians are.

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    1. Cbaarch, your comment made me smile since I remember being pretty annoyed back in 1990 when I moved from Quebec to Ontario to be asked that very same question! I found it phony!:) Now, I think it's perfectly normal and gracious, and I reciprocate:)

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    2. @conrad - I am REALLY looking forward to your observations about the Pacific Northwest!! I used to live in Olympia (just an hour or so north of the Oregon border in Washington) and found people there SUPER chatty and laid back. I used to get coffee in downtown Oly and chat with the barista every day for like 15 minutes while she was helping other customers and chatting with them! Please keep me posted. Have a great trip! I just love the PNW.

      @Duchesse - So, how ARE you doing today? : )

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  8. Yup, this is one of those more subtle differences between the two cultures that you might not notice on a passing trip to France but once you live here, it becomes clear. My husband just wrote a post on these social differences in my new series (Ask Tom Tuesdays) for my blog, from a French perspective of course, and although I understand the French "way," I can't say I like it!

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    1. Hi Diane! I have to jump over to your blog to read your husbands posts and his perspective as a French native. What a great idea! Wish I had thought of it! Good for you!

      I actually experienced this on my very first trip to Paris that I took alone. I was bored one night in my hotel in the 7th and went to the corner brasserie for a glass of wine and sat at the -- wait for it -- BAR, not a table. There was a guy there and we had made some eye contact and so I smiled at him and said good evening. He looked at me strangely, threw money down to pay for his beer, mumbled something (I didn't speak French at the time) and stormed out. Diane, I think he thought I was a prostitute. So I learned fairly quickly that we don't strike up convos with n'importe qui....but I still try from time to time. : )

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  9. I find Brits are pretty chatty too, at least outside London/the south.

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    1. Yeah outside of London, I can see. Perhaps it's just a major city thing where people don't have the patience or time to chat..although NY and LA can be pretty chatty cities, so I don't really know anymore...

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  10. Have you ever met across Nicolas Dolteau (Coach Seduction) in Paris ? He takes secret camera videos around Paris starting conversations with girls out of the blue, like in cafe or street. Then he makes seminars and private lessons teaching guys how to do it. I guess this is different because he's teaching them how to "score" (I think you Americans say this ???) and you just being friendly :) But your post made me thinked of this ! Love the post comme d'habitude, you and *Seb* are such a cute couple !!! (; gros bis

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    1. Hi Francoise! Thank you for commenting!

      A seduction coach?? No, I don't know who this is. Sounds pretty amazing though! I hope I do cross paths with him out of curiosity of his "technique"..although I would be an easy target because I think most French men are adorable!

      And yes, sadly, we (or rather guys) do say score. Is there a French equivalent?

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  11. This made me laugh so much --> "Aurel thought they were really outgoing and forthcoming about their trip while I thought they were fucking rude. I didn't learn anything about their summer vacation. "

    You know it's funny, because I haven't thought much about it before, but people here definitely know more about me than I do of them. They probably all think I'm insane. x.

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    1. Sara, I was like wait, that's it? That's all you can tell me about the vacation? While Aurel seemed completely satisfied with the "details" of their trip. It was pretty funny.

      Yes, I can see people knowing way more about us than we do about them...I suspect our blogs don't help much maintaining our mystery.

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  12. >>"I find Brits are pretty chatty too, at least outside London/the south."<<

    yes but the Brits can only talk about the weather....or football! LOL!


    As a reserved Brit, I always admire my American friends ability to chat with strangers but last year I stood in a Boston Target store queue with mounting anxiety, as the checkout girl extracted from the woman in front, purpose of the purchases ( daughters 18th birthday) address,(some nearby street) how long they had lived there, (six months) where they had come from, (some other town) marital status, (divorced) occupation,(some office job) school the girl attended, grades and where she was going next. All this whilst packing the purchases!

    I tell you the US government need not spend fortunes on foreign hackers to get information about citizens, all they need is a few of these talented checkout girls!

    Fortunately when it came to my turn, she was distracted by the manager emptying the next till and I made a quick escape.

    Love Denise

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  13. Oh this sounds so incredibly familiar. It is much the same in Belgium - except randomly you will then encounter a really friendly Belgian who will throw you off (and then you feel like the rude one for not sharing more - but you are still recovering from the shock).

    I'm planning a move to London right now and it is both really nice and a little unsettling to already start having little personal conversations with people. Still not as open as in the States, but you already notice the polite conversation coming back into your daily life. Someone asked me about Thanksgiving in a department store last week and I was honestly speechless.

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