Three Years On, Part II: Changes

Next month I begin my fourth year in Paris.  I wanted to use the milestone to share some reflections on how I have changed and ongoing tips on how to make the move yourself.  This is the second in a series of four.  You can find the first one here.

When people ask me “Why France?” I usually answer the question in Russian-doll format – answering “why Europe,” then “why France,” then “why Paris.”  So too, when I reflect on how three years of living in Europe have changed me, I think in these categories.

PARIS

Cars: more than ever I am anti-car.  Paris has an outstanding and extensive network of buses, trams, metros, and bikes, all overlaid across a city which is eminently walkable.  I support the current Mayor’s ongoing legislative push to exclude cars from the city center.  Cars are not a divine right.  They are an innovation, and they need to be put in their place side-by-side with pedestrians, bikes, scooters, etc., not accommodated as the sine qua non of modern life.

Neighborhood-focused: in my first year in Paris I went all over the city to visit restaurants and bars to know the city better, until I fell into the familiar routine of most Parisians: staying within a 15 minute walk of my apartment.  There is a deep comfort and familiarity that comes from knowing your streets and block by heart.  Sixty-five percent of my Paris life is located inside 8 streets near my house in the 2nd.  I love that, and I love knowing all the nooks and crannies that make up that little world.

FRANCE

Language: with classes and study it’s not difficult to obtain a conversational level of French quite quickly – but beyond that you will have to study diligently, because if you don’t have to speak a lot of French every day, your progress will be slower than those who do.  I’ve learned to be patient with my progress.

Scale change: France is roughly “.8 Texas” in size, I often tell people.  I’ve gotten used to the idea that France is a “big country” and that Belgium is a “small country” and that Liechtenstein is a “tiny country.”  When I contemplate it now I realize just how enormous the US seems to most of the rest of the world.  And yet, as a believer in smaller countries (I believe they are more easily governed) I am ever more convinced that the US is simply too large of a country to be governed well.  It’s breaking into 3-5 nations would do the entire world much good, as the instant effects would be to end dollar hegemony and US military overreach.  It’s also the only circumstance under which I would ever contemplate a return to the US, because then there would be real hope for real change.

Bureaucracy: I understand the French completely in this regard now.  They want all their paperwork just so, and everytime I’ve had it thus, the process, whatever it has been, has been expeditious.  Fill out the forms and wait.

Dairy Snob: In America it is the cereal and snack isles that present you with almost limitless choices, though it’s all highly processed and generally not good for you.  In France you are confronted with that same panoply of choice when you get to the cheese, yogurt, and dairy sections.  The French truly love their dairy products, and most French cows are kept in the grazing conditions they have enjoyed for centuries.  You get to really love good butter, cheese, yogurt, and milk.

EUROPE

Guns: I have come to realize that America’s gun culture is a weird substitute religion.  I served in the US military and as such have, in the past, owned and used guns for range practice, to keep up my marksmanship.  But this whole “right to bear arms” is an irrelevancy in the age of drones.  Stockpiling weapons only makes sense if you’re:

a) paranoid enough to think that the government is going to come to take them or
b) stupid enough to think you have training, skills, or firepower to resist if they do or
c) you are willing to die for the abstract “right to bear arms” (whatever that means) which would make you a martyr for your gun religion.

Guns, in their proper context, can be an enjoyable hobby, like archery.  But in America, it’s a religion, and that’s unfortunate, because it’s pretty poor fare, as religions go.

The EU: I came to Europe as a hardcore Euroskeptic and lover of small government and nation-state sovereignty.  I was in Glasgow for the Scottish Referendum in 2014, cheering for Yes, I was in London for Brexit, cheering for Leave, and yet I live in France, a nation that was a founding member of what is now known as the EU.

I would say that I am still a lover of small government and would happily support Scottish departure from the UK and Catalonian separation from Spain.  Let them try it on their own.  The worst that can happen is failure – but at least it’s something ventured.

And yet, I see that the EU does do good.  I accept that it has played a role in keeping the peace, but it must share credit at least equally with NATO, which has more than words to back itself up.  If the EU is to succeed (and I’m not opposed to its success) its future might lie in a two-tier approach – one in which there is tighter, deeper cooperation – for example with France, Benelux, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, in which there is an integrated government, executive, and judiciary, and a second tier which is the greater EU, which would lie outside a currency union but exist in a free trade zone with some limitations on freedom of movement.  This would allow countries to sign up for more Europe or less Europe, and it would be better than the current “one size fits all” absurdity that puts Greece in a currency union with Germany.  The world is changing and the EU too must change if it wants to not just survive, but thrive.  Hence I remain a Euroskeptic…of the current iteration of the EU.  Hopefully it can change, especially as Brexit negotiations will lead to existential questions.

Pace of Travel: When I was a tourist visiting Europe from the States, and even in my first year here, I was in a frantic “see all the things” mode.  Who knew when I would be in Europe again, I thought to myself, so why not go at a breakneck pace?  But when you live here you realize it’s all within reach, be it a 10€ bus ticket, 25€ train ride, or 50€ flight.  And, should you keep your health and wits about you, it will continue to endure and be there for you.  So, when my friends come to visit, I try to slow them down too.

Pace of Life: This is perhaps the most wonderful thing about my life in Europe.  I’m a business owner and have been for many years.  As such I’ve been able to take off for short and long trips at almost any time of the year.  But I could only do so with fellow independents.  In Europe, all my friends with jobs have plenty of vacation time, and as such we can take short trips together all throughout the year.  We partition life and work and leave the office in its place when it’s time for life, and vice versa.  Americans throw around the phrase “work hard play hard” but, in Europe, it’s just called life: there’s work, there’s life, and time to enjoy both.  No need to binge or “go hard” on either.

Through all these changes I observe that there is no “right” way to do things in various countries and cultures.  There are just different ways to do things.  But, some of those ways are better than others, and I happen to think that Europe does a lot of things well.

Why I don’t hate Starbucks in Europe (I actually kinda love it)

Americans take it for granted that they can sit in most coffee shops or Panera-like establishments and work for hours, after buying one token item of food or drink.  If the place is busy enough or you don’t plan to be there very long, you don’t even have to buy anything.

Starbucks staff, I feel, are trained not to come up and accost customers who haven’t purchased.  This is probably due in part to Howard Schulz’s “third place” philosophy, in which he aims to create an additional place of comfort that isn’t work or home that people wish to go to in order to relax, meet friends, or work (for more on Schulz and his underrated ways of thinking or management, read the worth-your-time Pour Your Heart Into It).

Why is Starbucks a valuable resource for the practical European traveler (who doesn’t carry the angst characterized by “I would never go into a Starbucks in any country” hubris of the wannabee coffee snob or aspiring hipster)?  Three simple reasons:

1)  They are everywhere.  You’ll find them in Berne, Switzerland, a little gem of a town, or in the heart of bustling Paris.

2)  They will let you sit down, charge your devices, use the wifi, and go to the bathroom, all without necessarily making a purchase.  The last particular point in a city famous for its lack of available toilets is an “amenity” truly worth the price of admission.

3)  You can sit and work, or chat with friends, uninterrupted, for as long as you need.  This has been a big part of why my Paris Chess Meetup meets at Starbucks (and why I have a book club event there next month).  Sometimes the staff comes over to watch us play, even, but we are always made to feel welcome.  The majority of us buy food and drink, of course, but that’s more about wanting to, not feeling obliged to.

This is to say nothing of the dozens of students that camp out at the huge Bux locations on Rue de Rivoli or near St. Paul in the Marais.  Laptops and books splayed out among study groups – these students are doing what they CAN’T do in a traditional Parisian cafe: study and work together.  Parisian cafes are great for writing (I’m writing this piece in one of my favorite ones right now, Le Poncelet in the 17th), but for student work and collaboration, when you likely live in a closet like my first apartments in Paris, you really can’t beat the Bux.

Every now and then the New World teaches the Old World a thing or two.  Even if the Old World doesn’t listen, or as in the famous case of the Montmartre Starbucks, fights back, it doesn’t mean you can’t leverage the secret.

Je ne suis pas Charlie: why I’m not marching in Paris tomorrow

This shrine, among others, was set up around Place de Republique this evening.  I had used the spot as a convenient place to meet two friends before dinner at my favorite Cambodian place in Paris.  I had completely forgotten Republique’s status as a shrine for the Left (there is a huge monument to “Liberty” in the middle of the square) and since I had not been avidly following the Charlie Hebdo news, I didn’t realize how decked out it would be: candles, pictures, drawings, graffiti.  People had plastered bulletins of Voltaire mouthing the now eponymous, “Je suis Charlie” all around the monument.  The devotion reminded me of a much smaller “shrine” in the largest cemetery in Paris, in Pere Lachaise, at the grave of Oscar Wilde.  When I first gazed at all the lipstick marks at his grave, I felt the same feeling I felt just a few hours ago witnessing all the people milling around the monument, around all the reporters doing stand-up interviews with whomever was around (hopefully you would be holding a child, showing that you were “teaching” your kids how to “stand up” to violence): bemusement.

While I will be the first to admit that I’m not the most empathetic of souls, I did feel the normal disgust at a senseless loss of human life.  Any civilized person would.  But then there’s what comes after.  Would I stand up for or march in “solidarity” with “free speech,” for a disgusting magazine, and for a national security policy that is essentially tone-deaf to the unique and challenging situation that is militant Islam (hopefully France doesn’t call it “workplace violence“)  Quite definitely, non.  If I’m going to march it’s not going to be to soak myself in some gooey sentiment of “solidarity,” but because I truly and deeply believe in something.  Because I would be willing to be tear-gassed and arrested for it.  Was I going to march for people who taunted Muslims with outrageous cartoons?  No way.  But before we even get to that, I suppose we should address what this is being universally painted as: an attack on capital F, capital S: Free Speech.

The media and governments and many of the “Je suis Charlie” drones (some of whom I count as friends!) push the idea that this was an attack on free speech.  I dispute that, but I suppose I should admit at the outset that I don’t accept the notion of free speech, either intellectually or practically.  It’s gospel to many people, as certain a value as 2+2 equaling 4 or the sun rising in the east, but to me it’s an abhorrent and dishonest modern fantasy: something that protects the prose of a child molester extolling the virtues of pedophilia in the same manner as that of a nun speaking about outreach to the poor and abused.  In a nation (and city) in which egalité is literally carved into stone, the idea of many ideas having “equal value” resonates – but perhaps because it is taken for granted it is never truly scrutinized.  “Free Speech” is a lie the West tells itself, and then is shocked when others don’t accept it as gospel truth.

So there’s my first stumbling block to the #jesuischarlie movement: I don’t accept the so-called “Western value” of “free speech.”  I think that there are ideas that are dangerous and words that are beyond the most foul and disgusting and rather than buy into a system where I accept that all ideas are equal (something I can barely type!) I accept that some things are beautiful and should be protected and some things are vile and disgusting and should be discarded.  The cartoons of Charlie Hebdo fall into the latter category.

That’s the second problem – while I find their cartoons disgusting (I cannot even bring myself to describe the Christian “satire” that this rag of a publication has served up) I do not believe that their pictures should have carried a death sentence.  But I do think the editorial staff knew what they were doing and in the French tradition of “brave journalism” were “daring” to do things that upset people, and they knew what might happen.  A true “Western value” (read: values derived from Christianity) is respect for life and we try, prosecute, and in some places in the world, execute murderers.  We don’t tolerate the wanton murder of people.  Yet, saying Je suis Charlie precisely means you are standing up for the disgusting values this magazine propagated (calling the magazine the French version of the American Onion is not just American oversimplification at its worst, its simply inaccurate).  Saying “Je suis Charlie” extends beyond the borders of empathy for the murdered to solidarity for their work, which was, at its very best, highly questionable, and at its worst despicable and wantonly provocative.

Finally, “Je suis Charlie” insouciantly marches with banners of “we are not afraid” while failing to examine the real problem: militant Islam.  NPR Americans whose “Muslim friends” eat bacon will tell you that Islam is a religion of peace, but those who have read history, have actually read the Koran, and know the violent arc that is the founding and ongoing mission that is Islam know otherwise.  When someone in New York whose name isn’t even remembered does an art exhibit depicting a crucifix in a jar of urine, does anyone fear reprisals from Christian terror groups?  No.  Because there aren’t any roaming around or training in special terrorist training camps!  There isn’t anything in the Christian New Testament that instructs Christians to convert people by any means necessary, up to and including the threat of murder.  This week France, when confronted with an Islamic terrorist attack, reacted the same way that England and Spain did when they experienced their own attacks in their own cities: explained how this had nothing to do with Islam, took no responsibility for military policy in the Middle East that stirred up such hatred and violence, and then pivoted to say this is a “terrorist” issue, without taking the time to point out this is a uniquely ISLAMIC issue.

Something that the West does well, for better or for worse, is tolerance.  We may not agree with you and may even disagree with you on fundamental human matters, but we will live in peace with you as long as you observe our laws.  The people who committed these murders trained in places where it is a crime to possess a crucifix!  Western governments have the opportunity to take a long hard look at this and ask if this is a problem of “religious fundamentalism” (something bland and generic that implies there could be such things as buddhist terrorists or hindu terrorists that are operating on even a fraction of the scale of Islamic terrorists) or of “Islam and the West.”  Those who’ve read history know that the Muslims tried and failed dozens of times over centuries to militarily invade Western Europe, conquer it, and put it under the Crescent.  It failed, perhaps most famously, on a 9/11 few know about, the night in 1683 when Jan Sobieski, King of Poland, arrived at the gates of Vienna to successfully repel the Muslim invasion.

The Muslims are no longer at the gates of Vienna.  They don’t need to invade Europe because they are already here and they will simply not permit “free speech” that mocks their religious beliefs.  You can say what you want about these men, but they truly believe in what their religion professes in its scriptures.  As for the West, it has to decide whether it will keep pretending to be shocked when these things occur or actually start to formulate public policies that take into account the realities of Islam instead of the lies we tell ourselves about that religion.  The march tomorrow blithely ignores that reality, preferring instead sentiment and tears.  There is a time for such things.  Then there is the time to fix public policy so that such things don’t happen again.  Je suis Charlie sure is catchy, but it doesn’t even begin to address any of the problems this horrific event has laid bare.

Why Paris?

Once people get past the shock of my moving to Paris, the usual next question is, “Why?”  Perfectly reasonable question.

When I first started answering this question, I responded with, “If you’ve been there, you know why, if you haven’t, when you come you will understand.”  But in a country populated by fellow Americans, that answer didn’t fly.  I had to remember that I couldn’t assume everyone had a good experience in the city of my dreams.  In fact, the default expectation, over time, came to be that they had not.

One of the things I’ve tried to do when I educate people about Paris is try to point out that some of the things they try to put on the French or Parisians are neither “French” nor “Parisian.”  They are simply “city” things.

Take for example, the sidewalk.  In a city like Paris, where walking is the norm and cars are the exception, there are certain lanes and flows.  There is a “fast-moving” lane in which people who know where they are going and are going there with a purpose and speed are walking.  There’s a medium lane where people know where they are going but aren’t in a hurry.  Then there’s the tourist lane.  Maps out, smartphones in hand, with the pace of a turtle.  Hey, we’ve all been there.  No harm in it.  Just don’t be upset when people bump into you because you stopped in the middle of a sidewalk.  It’s not your yard or a garden.  It’s a sidewalk.  And you would get bumped into in New York or Chicago just as easily as you would in Paris.

I’ve also been told about how many people are there.  No argument.  Almost 30 million people visit the City of Light every year, on top of the millions of French (plus one more American, soon!) who make that city their home.  But that’s part of city travel.  You’re not going to really understand how and why people live in the chaotic and yet ordered mess ANY city is unless you’re willing to lay aside some of your (unreasonable) prejudices and (reasonable) discomfort to simply move forward and embrace the experience.

Another is the language barrier.  Yes, sure there are French who genuinely don’t speak more than a few words of English.  But many French people do.  Americans often don’t understand what pride the French take in their culture, nation, and language.  But this is because France (for now) is both a nation and a people.  America is barely a nation and was never really a people.  From the beginning America has been a mix of Natives, French, Spanish, English, and later, Africans.  If you can understand that deep LOVE for a language (which English speakers, who rarely take pride in their language nor study its beautiful prose and poetry – which can go head-to-head with any other language in quality, in my opinion) then you can and should understand that the BEST way to encounter the French is always to ask, in French, if they speak English.  “S’il vous, plait, parlez-vous Anglais?”  Phonetically this renders as “see voo play, pahr-lay voo ahn-glay?.”  If they say no, try someone else.  If you just go up to them, speaking your language, assuming they too speak it, it’s not just rude, it’s disrespectful.  This is part of cultural exchange.  Americans are so used to everything being done in, around, and for them.  Going to other countries implicitly asks you to realize that they don’t necessarily go in for that (and why should they?).

But here I’ve been going on about answering objections to why people don’t want to go to Paris, and I’m missing the chance to tell you why I want to live there.  I’ll let some pictures tell that story.

Paris 2009 Day 1 045

The food, of course.  The French take eating, mealtimes, and food very seriously.  It’s impossible to fathom the idea of eating at your desk, in your car, or from a drive-thru.  I look forward to breaking myself of those habits.

Paris 2009 Day 1 075 (1)

Seeing things that are hundreds, sometimes thousands of years old, staring back at you, with the detail and symmetry of a human hand unguided by computers.  And seeing stuff like this almost everywhere you turn.

Paris and Versailles 165

And seeing it at night.

Paris 2009 Day 2 022 (1)

The Musee d’Orsay – a treat for any lover of Impressionism.  Set within an old railway station, it’s always there for you to stroll through.

Paris 2009 Day 2 027 (1)

Or if you want to watch people do copies of Van Goghs.  Awesome.

Paris Day 4 061 (1)Did I mention the food here? 🙂

Paris 2009 Day 2 003 (1)Nights like this on cobblestone streets, chatting with new friends and thinking about your day.

Paris Day 3 017Days like this, when you have the joy of digging into a crepe with Nutella on the side.