Paris: city of romance, city of wine, cheese and…belligerent drunks? Gropers on the subway? Public urination? Though it is called the City of Lights, Paris, as I have come to know it, actually has a dark and seedy underbelly.
Having decided to study here for the semester, I am starting to wonder what I have gotten myself into. I have been here before—as a tourist with money and a never-ending list of museums to visit—but this time the city is for real. As an inhabitant of Paris, I have discovered that life consists of far more than the Eiffel Tower and public displays of affection. Budgeting in one of the most expensive cities in the world is a harsh reality. I’m even beginning to hate the English-speaking tourists, if only because they make my morning metro ride (already forty minutes) longer by jamming the doors. Yet despite the fact that I am no longer one of the American tourists, I am still the victim of anti-American sentiment. Or perhaps it is more appropriate to say that I am the victim of sentiments in general: Parisians have a lot of them. The question is how to deal? Become baguette-wielding poodle walker in an attempt to fully integrate? Curl up in a ball and hide? Never the passive type, I haven to write and tell the world of my lamentations, misadventures, frightening intrigues, and ire-rendering twists
Despite my initial misgivings, I am starting to enjoy the fact that everyone here has an opinion. Take Claudine, my host mother, for example. A sixty-something chain smoker, she is a former communist-turned-socialist with an anorexic cat. She spent her childhood in Algeria and, like her cat, has lived countless lives since. Above all else she is a practical idealist. If she could, she would spend all day raging about the evils of genetically modified organisms, and she can tell you a hundred things wrong with socialism; however, in the end she will settle for whatever she thinks will help those who most need it.
Her daughter Nelly, in her late twenties, is still fighting for perfection. A self-described “typical Parisian youth,” she has thrown herself wholeheartedly into the debate surrounding the upcoming election. She has promised me that if Ségolène Royal, the female candidate for the Socialist party, is not elected president, she will move to Berlin. Sound familiar, Bush haters? I wouldn’t put it past Nelly, though. She practices for her future expatriate existence when she comes over for lunch by making me dance to German pop music with her. Needless to say, conversation with these two is always lively, and when you find that a language barrier makes it difficult to express an opinion, it’s nice to have plenty to listen to in the house.
What is not so pleasant is the daily harassment from complete strangers. It seems that many, especially the mentally unstable, are scared of the so-called “American” tactics of Nicolas Sarkozy, the forerunner for the political right. While they clearly love Ségolène (she is affectionately referred to by her first name), their hatred for Sarkozy, and for me, is becoming a little overwhelming. Speaking English in the street, even if discussing such harmless topics as the newly shaved head of Britney Spears (which I was, I am ashamed to say), has caused comments such as “vive la Gauche, cretin” thrown at me. Granted, this man was unwell—he continued by telling me to insert something somewhere I didn’t catch, and then, I think, said something about my dog—but I am at no loss for examples.
Take for instance the man I encountered while getting off the bus my second week here: he walked out from behind the waiting area and heard me conversing unobtrusively with my friend in English. He proceeded to tell me (and believe me, it sounds even more insulting in French) that I was “going to burn in hell” and that I was a “dirty slut.” He was also crazy. And drunk. But that only made him willing to express what many only think.
Claudine thinks that these stories are hilarious and harmless, and to a certain extent she is right. None of the politically active name-callers have ever been physically aggressive. Much worse then the anti-American xenophobes are the Parisians with problems devoid of a patriotic hue. These lovely citizens are usually public drunks, such as the one I saw last week while waiting on a corner, a practice which in retrospect is not a good idea. I heard a noise that, if it can be spelled, would look something like “Graaaaphagapha-grahumbabadump” and looked up to see a man stumbling towards the curb on the other side of the road. He was facing me, but didn’t seem to care that I was there—an insight confirmed when he unzipped his pants and peed for a solid ninety seconds onto the street. After a leisurely finish he stumbled a few steps and collapsed face down on the ground. All I could think was “Oh, God. He’s dead. I just saw a man die while peeing.” Luckily, a Good Samaritan called an ambulance for him, and he was conscious and grumbling by the time it arrived.
That, while unnerving, is still not as bad as the Metro. Paris is a safe city in general, as long as you keep your wallet close, but to be a girl alone on the Metro is a daily exercise in evasion tactics. There is a new breed of “dragueur,” or semi-professional pick-up artist, usually in his late teens to mid twenties. The typical dragueur operates something like this: Step one—pretend to think the girl is French and ask for the time. The less practiced ones will ask for a tissue, until they realize that runny noses are not usually a turn-on. Step two—act delighted when they realize she is foreign! Proceed to speak to the girl in broken English until she can’t help but laugh. Step three—take her laughing as a declaration of interest and ask her out for a drink, for her number, or propose an intimate vacation for the coming weekend. Slick, yes? But this new dragueur sees no need for such formalities. He simply walks through the tunnels with a look on his face that says “Hello. I am a pervert, and I am going to touch you now.” And touch you he will, unless you are nimble and perceptive.
As I have learned, dear friends, it’s better to be yelled at by a man with an agenda than groped during rush hour. But if nothing else, I am coming to terms with how things work here, and in a city where everyone is an expert, and even the taxi drivers can deliver polished speeches on healthcare fraud and how it is dragging down the entire country, at the very least, it is nice to understand.