Tasting unfamiliar foods, taking wild forms of transportation, or immersing yourself in an incomprehensible language are the types of experiences that drive most to travel. Some are locked away in travel journals, others are fodder at cocktail parties, but it’s those rare experiences that challenge a persons fervent beliefs of what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s normal, and what’s just plain weird.
Like sweet mayonnaise and canned corn on pizza (Japan); like a young teenager using his finger to plug the barrel of his aging Kalashnikov assault rifle as he boards your bus (Laos); like hearing someone loudly clear their throat on an airplane, and expel the contents on the carpeted floor (China). I like to categorize such experiences as “sh*t that wouldn’t fly back home.” While they can be mystifying, or even infuriating, at moment of exposure, I’d argue that they keep the soles of our walking shoes thin and our frequent flier portfolios plump.
Here’s my first installment: Shit That Wouldn’t Fly Back Home – Paris Edition. Neither wrong, nor right—just different.
As with most densely populated metropolises, parking in Paris is at a premium. Subterranean garages exist largely for day-tripping tourists, so if residents don’t want to pay $350 a month to park the cars, they need to duke it out on the streets to find a rare vacant piece of curbside real estate. And some are forced to get creative. A Smart Car, one of the smallest vehicles on the road, can wedge its sub-nine foot chassis nearly anywhere. But what if the parking spot is even smaller than that? How about backing your car up perpendicularly to the curb and gunning it?
Sidewalks are saved from parked cars through ample use of metal pillars, which are spaced close enough to both each other and the curb to dissuade even the smallest vehicles from blocking the pedestrian thoroughfare. But this “out-of-the-box” thinker found a solution: just park on the actual sidewalk.
On a recent walk near the Eiffel Tower, I watched a new Audi park at the apex of a corner, throw on his emergency flashers, get out to admire the fact that he was effectively obstructing both crosswalks, and tucked into a local café for dinner. These brazen infarctions are startling for a Seattleite who received a $75 ticket when six inches of his bumper was hanging over a yellow curb (thank you City of Bellevue).
Dog Sh*t on Street
I’ve explored this topic in another post ad naseum (literally, I almost threw up) but this ranks high in the “shit that wouldn’t fly back home.” I am well aware that plenty of dog excrement isn’t picked up in the U.S. but few owners would have the audacity to encourage it in broad daylight, on a sidewalk, in the direct line of sight—and smell—of numerous passerby. Fines for such infarctions may be relatively light in the U.S., but public scorn is strong enough to keep such activities in dark alleys and secluded parks.
The speed with which cars approach pedestrian crosswalks
Rules for pedestrians across the planet are generally the same: wait for the little red guy on the other side to turn green. Seems simple right? Well, wait until you are in the middle of a crosswalk and a car approaches your side at 80 miles an hour. The confidence that you are in the right-of-way will crack as quickly as your fibula when it meets the bumper of a Renault. French drivers don’t appear to be crazy, but place an occupied crosswalk in front of one and they suddenly turn into Michael Schumaker approaching his pit crew. The driver, of course, will stop but not until it is very clear to all parties that he or she decided to spare your life. To save face, reduce the size of your eyes, complete your crossing, and go find a clean pair of underwear.
Dogs, Cigarette Smoke, and $75 steaks
Fortunately for the few people who don’t regularly suck cigarettes in Paris, smoking isn’t allowed inside restaurants. Outside spaces, however, are free game, even if said space is the enclosed atrium of a five star hotel. Pardon my stubbornness, but if I purchased a $75 steak prepared by a culinary artist, it’s hard for my taste buds to appreciate the harmony of ground pepper and cumin when my nose is battling the Marlboro to my left, and Virginia Slim to my right. If any smoke is to be obscuring the view of my meal, especially an expensive one, it better be hickory.
But the dog sitting in the chair next to me, he can stay. Assuming he doesn’t growl and snip at anyone that passes the table, like the little shi-tzu (pun intended) pictured below.
Visa paperworks, a gluestick, and 738 euros in stamps
The long and arduous process to obtain French work visas is worthy of its own post (perhaps its own blog) but one step struck me as particularly absurd.
Kristi was instructed by her office to go buy stamps. Not postage stamps mind, but “fiscal stamps.” The reason for purchase was unclear, but she was given instructions to buy them from a Tabac, a bar that sells cigarettes (our local tabac also functions as a off-track betting facility to equally serve all vices). Handing over 738 euros, Kristi received a small stack of stamps of varying denominations, held together with a paper clip. I’ve never been so underwhelmed with what $1000 can buy you.
Fast forward a week until we were seated in front of a French bureaucrat, one meeting away from finally receiving our cartes sejours (French ID cards) and the freedom of being able to come and go from France as we pleased (our tourist visas were about to expire). When prompted, we handed over our stamps. He flipped over a piece of paper and took out an Elmer’s glue stick—the first I’d seen since the 1st grade. With a heavy hand, he applied three vertical lines of glue and neatly placed each stamp one over the other. It took several minutes for him to create a grid with all eighteen stamps before my incredulous eyes. Once they were all neatly in place, he took his large and shiny date stamper and cancelled each stamp. The definitive, rhythmic sound … ka-chunk ka-chunk … must be auditory porn to a bureaucrat.
In the day when technology allows you to deposit a check with your phone, it’s mystifying that any payment process, let alone one as important as a visa approval process, would still require a mediocre adhesive.
Closing business for entire month
Most Parisian shops are closed in August, some for a week or two, others for the whole month. An entrepreneurial mind would realize the opportunity to stay open and steal customers from their closed competitors but this urge is either suppressed or overridden by the healthy need for time off. If you need anything from a small neighborhood store better get it in July or you’ll have to wait until September. Most Parisians take vacation during this month as well, which may or may not be related to the fact that their local bakery is closed for several weeks (Lonely Planet states that 80% of Parisians eat bread three times a day).
Requiring three months notice to fire someone
I am not experienced in any sort of labor law (let alone French) but it is commonly understood that holders of certain work permits, especially civil servants, are impossible to fire. If your employer is somehow able to circumnavigate the quagmire that is Human Relations, they can give you no less than three months notice. While three months notice is certainly more humane than making an employee pack a box on the spot and be escorted out by security, I can’t imagine that said employee would be terribly effective at their job; the term “dead man walking” comes to mind. Similarly, if an employee wants to quit, they must give three months notice, six times the standard two weeks given in the states.
Getting hit on by your doctor
The penultimate step in our visa process was a perfunctory medical checkup. The efficient process took place in a corridor lined with doors. Chairs down the middle allowed applicants to wait, facing out, for their names to be called. Kristi got called up first and, because the chairs were only a couple feet away from the doors, I could hear most of her conversation with the middle-aged, male doctor.
“Wow, you are very beautiful. Why did you come to France?”
“My company moved my husband and me to Paris.”
“You are married? Oh, that’s too bad…”
His tone conveyed true disappointment, but neither her marital status, nor the fact that her husband was sitting within earshot, dissuaded him from continuing to flatter my wife. After a few minutes, their time was brought to a close and he was legally obligated to call my name. For some reason, he didn’t display half of the warmth during our interaction, but thankfully he didn’t refuse to stamp my paperwork or subject me to invasive tests out of disdain. He was a sweet soft-spoken man so the situation was more comical than anything, but I couldn’t help but think which of his statements to Kristi would be more indemnifying in front of a North American review board.
Moving your dinner table to sit down at a restaurant
Space is at a premium in Paris and fashionable eateries can be as tightly packed as a box of madelines. If a North American approaches a packed café, they may be dissuaded by the possible lengthy wait. But if you are a small party of two, you may be surprised at how quickly you’re waved forward: just expect to move some furniture. When we visited the popular Entrecote restaurant (which serves all you can eat steak and fries), the maître d simply gestured us to our table, as depicted by the illustration below, and walked away.
It was physically impossible for anyone to sit down on the other side of the table, save a Russian gymnast or the little Chinese guy from Oceans 11. Used to this now, Kristi and I moved the chair and the small table into the narrow aisle, moving it back once Kristi was seated. American eateries need to have aisles of a width mandated by the ADA and no one ever expects to move more than a chair, and in nice restaurants those are moved for you.
No stars at Thai restaurant
French people don’t like spicy food. Our first indication should have been when the waitress made no mention of stars when taking our order at a well-regarded Thai restaurant in Paris. Asking for sauce piquant (spicy sauce) at our local Korean restaurant yielded a small dish of garlic-infused ketchup. Unfortunately, the bill is the only thing that makes my brow sweat when visiting any Asian restaurants in Paris.