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Since around the age of twenty, I’ve often wished that I’d be born French. There is something unmistakably cool about being French and particularly Parisien(ne), and I spent much of my year in la belle cité trying to put my finger on exactly what it is. This week I will attempt to sum up in five points the fastest way to emulate the Parisian je ne sais quoi so that anyone wishing to visit Paris will blend in (almost) seamlessly with the crowd.
1. Banish colour from your wardrobe. The Parisien(ne)s regard colourful clothes with profound suspicion. If you take a quick sweep of the city’s streets you will find blacks, browns, greys, white and occasionally a bit of blue. Furthermore, a good-quality leather jacket is a fashion staple in the warmer months for both men and women. If you want to accessorise, then it’s safest to go for some colourful earrings, a bright scarf or a striking shade of lipstick. Anything more flamboyant than that will instantly identify you as a foreigner.
2. Whatever you do, don’t smile. Allow me to digress – I was out on a date with a charming young Frenchman back in early 2010. He took me out to a bar one evening and as we entered he immediately bombarded the proprietor with a load of questions on the service and produce provided in rapid French. I kept quiet until the lady turned to address me … in English. I was a bit taken aback since I hadn’t opened my mouth thus far – how did she know I wasn’t French? My date later explained it was because I had smiled at her when I walked through the door. Apparently the Parisian thing to do is get straight to the point re: why we should patronise this particular establishment? What will we get out of it? Is it best for us? This kind of made sense to me since we English are extremely reluctant to complain about anything and tend to accept whatever we are given, smiling all the while.
3. Don’t get too drunk. Yeah, basically, try not to get too drunk. One thing I found particularly remarkable during my time in Paris was that I rarely saw a Parisien(ne) puking his/her guts out and/or lying in a gutter. Wine is respected, revered even, so much so that it is proudly coupled with complementary food courses, and is as such intended to provoke engaging conversation rather than inebriated rambling and passing out. If the Parisien(ne)s are guilty of a bad habit, then it’s smoking, not getting plastered.
4. Have a complicated love affair. There is a reason that Paris is called the city of love: there are couples groping each other in broad daylight (i.e. straddling each other on a park bench) everywhere. However, in my experience a Parisian love affair is as tempestuous as it is passionate. The Frenchman I dated, for example, was a committed polygamist and made no secret of the fact that he was dating several women at any one time, which naturally led to arguments and upset at times. That is not to say that all Parisien(ne)s are like that, but it must be said that quite often when I was introduced to assorted French girls, especially at parties, they would look me up and down rather disconcertingly, as if assessing how much of a threat I posed to the security of their relationship. Ah, l’amour!
5. Speak French. All the dark clothes, cigarettes, impossible romances and impassive glances in the world will not make you truly Parisien(ne). At the very least, make the effort to try to speak French to the people you meet. They really do appreciate it and you may well find that you get much better service in restaurants, etc. Also, it makes you sound way more sexy (if you are able to get your tongue round the r’s, that is…).
For all my advice and experience, however, I still have a long way to go before I can comfortably blend in with the Parisian crowd. In spite of my passable French language skills and my nods to Parisian fashion, I still have a vivid memory of being at a party in Les Halles and have a fellow guest exclaim to me after a five-minute conversation, ‘Ah, t’es trop anglaise, toi!’ [‘Wow, you’re so English, aren’t you!’] I think it’s safe to say that I still have a lot to learn before I can count myself as one of the coolest kids in Europe.