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WORLDVIEW: A Parisian Persona

Sujin Shin '13 explores the French way of life

By Sujin Shin
On October 18, 2011

The essence of Paris is sublimity. I can barely take a leisurely walk on these worn, cobblestone streets without distraction. At every corner I find something wonderful that makes me stop in my tracks: an 800-year-old gothic cathedral, a 17th-century marble fountain, a baroque theater topped in gold and the occasional Parisian Adonis in a bowtie.

But with sublimity comes intimidation. While Paris is excruciatingly beautiful, it is also unsettling and overwhelming. I'd thought the speed of life would be akin to the bustle of New York City, but I was wrong; it's slower than that of New York, but colored with more nonchalance and recklessness.

It was vain of me to think that I could just move here and expect the Parisian rhythm of life to conveniently resolve to my own personal andante. But I accepted this challenge and made it my goal to become a real Parisian.

Unfortunately, I was never cut out for city life. Sure, I've lived five minutes away from New York since I was four, but I have never been able to handle too much at a time. There was always the comfortable, sleepy tempo of my hometown just beyond the George Washington Bridge to come back to at night. But in Paris, though there is some semblance of metric structure, if you're a proper Parisian, you must ignore it.

It's an unspoken rule: No one regards the stoplights and walkway signals. No matter what the color is on the other side of the street, an impatient Parisian will weave expertly between the Peugeot sedans, carelessly flicking the butt of her cigarette onto the ground with her nose in the air and a wooden expression on her face.

I admired her daring and high-fashion boots. I wanted to be like her. One reckless afternoon, I attempted to imitate her nonchalance and by crossing the street on my own terms, but being a flatfooted slowpoke from the suburbs, I was almost hit by a runaway Renault van that totally disregarded the red light.

Behind me, a particularly irate art student who had seen my failed attempt at traffic finesse, yelled "CONNARD!" (a rather offensive French word) at the car speeding away. He looked at me and said in his best—but worst—American accent, "That man is crazy, non?" I nodded jerkily through my double heart attack, feeling more un-Parisian than ever.

Ever since I was young, I idolized Parisians so fantastically from afar; to me, all French were softly discoursing every night in smoke-filled salons with impressionist paintings on the walls and fine wine in hand. So many heady philosophers and brooding writers lived and were inspired here, and so many of the greatest artists and musicians found their genius here.

I felt like I didn't fit in the ranks of these enlightened and beautiful people. I discovered, of course, that not all Parisians are geniuses and philosophers, but you do need a certain confidence to relate to them. To interact with Parisians, you need to be a suave talker. If you're a study abroad student with a meager four years of French instruction, they will quickly grow impatient.

Therefore, Parisians scare me. And no, I don't mean that the people are cold and unwilling to be friendly (in fact, I discovered that they tend to be more personable than city dwellers in the United States if you're lost or trying to find something). I mean that I was and still am too shy and insecure about my French to start any interaction.

I'd struggled for a few weeks, wanting desperately to feel like a real Parisian but also being unable to resist being an embarrassing tourist.

But one typical gray morning at Montmartre, exactly one month into the semester, I pondered my situation over a tiny cup of coffee and had a small epiphany.

As I sat in a small café, breathing in the savory aroma of freshly baked baguettes, I mindlessly stared into the distant Parisian horizon, at a gently serrated line except for one tall building off to the left of the city. After a long minute, I slowly realized that I was looking at the Eiffel Tower.

It was a strange emotion, seeing this striking monument of French creativity and ingenuity, but feeling as if it had been a part of my view for my entire life. And yet it wasn't a negative experience: there was no disenchantment, no wisps of apathy, only contentment.

I sat at the café with my coffee and my attention slowly unfocused from the stunning historic monuments and adjusted to the quotidian sights and sounds: a young girl with golden ringlets clutching her mother's jacket, the distant harmonies of a jazz band at the steps of Sacré-Coeur, the confused tourist with a giant map going the wrong way.

There is a certain subtlety to the joy I feel in living in Paris now. In the beginning I felt only wonder, awe and crippling veneration. But it's not that my senses have been jaded to the grandeur and quaint charm of Paris. It could never disappoint me. My love for Paris is an evolving mix of deep appreciation and delight.

I think my relationship with Paris must be comparable to the experience of a smitten newlywed slowly growing to love her spouse in a deeper and more significant way. Now if only my marriage wasn't doomed to end during the final days of the fall semester.

Editor's note: Sujin Shin '13 is a former staff writer for the Justice. 

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