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an illustrated journey of an american in paris
I apologize if it comes across that France is all daffodils and Laduree. In reality, like all great capital cities, a quarter of my time is spent on the Metro. Another quarter is a bureaucratic wild goose chase. And as a freelancer, another quarter is spent working and/or stressing about not working.
The weekends are welcome change of pace. The only excuses to leave the flat are buying bread and attending the ubiquitous aperitif, or French house party. The apero is quintessentially French, reminding me of what I am not. In short, it is nothing short of a bowl of mixed nuts, carrot sticks, a strict byob policy, and a smoky room of heated conversations. Unlike the All-American, all-inclusive parties I know, at an apero, one must fend for oneself. I try not to read up so much on all the The French Do the Darndest Things books that stack the shelves of all the anglophone bookstores in Paris, but I did find a particular a-ha moment thumbing through Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow’s take Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong. Nadeau and Barlow compare conversation in English-speaking countries to badminton. Both parties must keep the conversation afloat by tossing it systematically back and forth. On the other hand, conversation in France is a proper duel. Wit, knowledge, and general fun facts of Haussmanian architecture are used to formulate an attack to outsmart the rival. And conversation is not something that everyone can engage in. It must first be engaged with guile.
I am an extroverted introvert, finally accepting the fact that I lean more towards the introverted side of the pendulum, feeling like I must be crass and crude for people to like me. So this leaves me in an uncomfortable place at aperos. I cling to mon mari for a while, but my smiles and head nodding can’t initiate me into the conversation. I usually just plant myself next to the buffet and desperately make eye contact. One bowl of cherry tomatoes and a wine mustache later, I am still immobile and impersonal, kicking myself for not throwing myself into the ring. I try spotting out someone I can use my impressive knowledge of American primetime sitcoms from the 1990s. But no one’s even looking at me! I make eye contact with a few guys. All they want to know is the origin of my accent and if I’ve heard of Bon Jovi.
Yes! I’ve finally reeled someone in! An acquaintance of mon mari, you know, that chick with the bangs. Someone finally feels my desperation and comes up for a little chat. “What are doing at this moment?” “Uh, nothing really. I’ve just discovered steak-flavored chips. And you?” “No, what are you working on at this moment?” “Oh”, I say, whipping up the roster of expos I’ve seen in the last six-months to keep me in the intellectual joust. Before belting out how how fabulous the Matisse was at the Pompidou, I’ve lost her to the kitchen. After several hourly trips to the toilet and a bottomless verre, the soiree is over. Phew!
So what’s a conversationally disenfranchised expat to do? Fortunately, alcohol is welcome in these settings. And thankfully, not all aperos are like this. But after a long week, sometimes I would rather spend an evening with company of Don Draper and the gang at Sterling Cooper Draper Price. Much like sussing up the illusive extroversion inside of me, it takes a little bit more courage just to take a deep breath and be myself in my new social climate. But all in all, it is much easier to do, especially if I can scope out someone who speak intelligently of the Cosby Show.