Tuesday, January 31, 2012

I'm watching you watching me

One thing I have noticed during my time in France is that the French are observers. Not only are they extremely aware culturally and politically, they are incredibly socially aware. Let me explain what I mean by that.

I never noticed how anonymous I felt in America until I spent some time in France. Walking down the street, each person I pass by here gives me the once-over, sometimes almost undetectable in the split second that it happens. However, it happens almost without fail for every single person I pass on the street, in the metro, on the train. They just like to look! And if they know you well enough, they will almost certainly comment on whatever it is they've just observed.

If you have a large lunch one day, it's "Wow, you must be hungry today!" Drop a chickpea on your lap? A little giggle from someone across the table. Yawn slyly to the side? You'll probably get a, "Ooh, you're tired today!" I've since learned to yawn more stealthily while at school.

If you hadn't noticed, French cafés are set up with the chairs facing the street - because the street is a stage! Women passing by one another in the street will assess the other's outfit, shoes, and general sense of style (or lack thereof). People speaking or laughing too loudly will suffer the stares of everyone in their general vicinity. Oohh...did you drop something? Perhaps trip a bit on that section of uneven sidewalk? Look around - someone is watching you!

Now this may be a tad dramatic, but the point is, I am living in a country of observers. Keen observers. Undercover-agent-for-the-CIA type observers. Interestingly, when I went to Berlin for Christmas break, I realized that wonderfully, beautifully, mercifully, Germany seemed to be the opposite. They seemed to be a country of "do what you want"-ers.

I hadn't realized how much I missed that feeling of anonymity, of being able to behave how I naturally do without worrying about the social repercussions. I hadn't even realized I had been behaving in a socially acceptable "French" way until then. This phenomenon was especially observable when I observed French tourists in Germany, like a kid in a zoo; I could spot them from miles away. Everything they said to their friends was in a low voice, like they were telling a secret. They were always looking fabulous, because even dressing is a social activity. You only see sweatpants, hoodies, and sneakers in gyms here! And let's be honest, the French don't really do gyms.

Now this attitude has its charms, of course, and I really enjoy the old-world formality of the French culture.  I love chatting over a café and people-watching with friends. I love how anybody who passes others who are eating will almost always say, "Bon appetit!" I love how dinner and lunch are affairs, not just meals, meant to be enjoyed and lingered over.

Hot baguettes from down the street aren't too shabby either ;-) Nor are mussels caught from the English Channel, enjoyed a few meters away at an amazing restaurant in the beautiful port town of Dieppe.

And I guess dungeons peeking up from down the street are pretty nifty.

With that being said, I am really, really looking forward to grocery shopping in a sweatshirt and yoga pants when I get back to the US.

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