When I first came to Paris I expected it to be much like New York, except maybe prettier. I’ve always seen the two cities compared to each other. They’re both large, they both have world-renowned museums, they’ve both been breeding grounds for great artists and revolutionary art movements, they both have incredible shopping, they both have great public transportation… the list goes on and on. In my mind Paris was the prim and proper cosmopolitan city while New York was its gritty boho counterpart. But the longer I’ve been in Paris, the more I’ve realized how different the two cities are.
One of the biggest and perhaps most striking differences is the way people treat each other in Paris. New York has a reputation for being touchy and not entirely friendly, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that people in New York are rude, but they certainly do appreciate their personal space and anonymity. Before I came to Paris I was told that I shouldn’t expect much better from Parisians. Most people said Parisians are snobs and just as unkind to strangers as New Yorkers. But I’ve actually found that this is not true. People in Paris have largely been friendly and welcoming. As soon as they hear me struggle with my French they instantly try to respond in English in an attempt to help me out all the while praising my shitty French and bashing their own shitty English-often justifying it by saying they “speak English like a true Parisian,” (i.e. very poorly).
But what’s even more striking is that people actually acknowledge other people here. My little southern heart glowed the first time I walked into a Parisian café and was instantly greeted with a warm bonjour (in Texas smiling at and greeting strangers is just a sign of good ole’ southern hospitality). It still flutters a little every time this happens, and it does a whole backflip when someone wishes me a good day on my way out. When I run into my neighbors as I’m walking out of my apartment, they always smile kindly at me, even though I’m the weird American girl who always wears too much makeup (by Parisian standards at least). People smile at you on the streets just because and I have to admit, it’s very refreshing.
Even the way people act on the metro is worlds away from the behavior you see on the subway in NYC. Here people actually wait for people to get off the metro before they try to hop on (a concept that is lost on New Yorkers). If you’re trying to get off the subway, good friggin’ luck not getting crushed by the mob of people crowding in that doesn’t give a damn if you have the right of way. And you can fuhgeddabout people caring if they bump into you (even if they actually knock you down, they’re not taking the time out of their day to say something). In the Parisian metro however, if the metro comes to a sudden halt and someone lightly taps you because physics do not cease to apply in Paris, they will turn, look at you, and actually apologize. What’s more, people are courteous; they give up their seats without having to be told (in New York, much to my amusement, there are stickers on the subway describing the situations in which you should give up a seat-because the MTA feels the need to imbue some manners on the lost lambs that are New Yorkers). Men give up their seats to women, young give up their seats to old, friend groups give up their seats to family groups, it’s a big old game of musical chairs-and its fantastic.
The most astonishing thing about Paris is that here, you can look at people. People watching is normal, in fact it seems almost encouraged. There are so many places to do it, parks, wide streets, etc. Parisian cafes seem built for people watching with their sidewalk seating outfitted with strictly street facing chairs. In fact, the waiters always get perplexed if you turn the chairs to look at whomever you’re sitting with. You don’t get attacked with a hostile “whaddayewlookinat?!” when you watch someone go about his or her daily life like you would in New York. You don’t look like a deranged person when your mind wanders off as you look at someone. People don’t mind if you look at them because they’re most likely looking at you-especially if you look particularly touristy. What’s more, people make eye contact in Paris. I never thought I would write about people making eye contact, but the comparison with the little eye contact in New York is so striking, I had to mention it. If you’re looking at someone in the metro, they’ll eventually look at you until you both look at each other’s eyes, and guess what? It’s not awkward. They don’t look at you brows furrowed, lips frowning, wondering what the hell you want from them. They just go on doing their thing.
Sometimes I do find myself reverting to my New York ways and cursing all the friendliness and hellos and watching of me. But as a little short girl who sometimes gets bounced around the metro like a pinball, it’s nice for people to apologize when they’ve almost just elbowed me in the face for a change.