As we all climbed off the Eurostar on to the platform at the Gare du Nord the other evening, an electric luggage truck rattled straight at us, hooting angrily. Welcome to Paris!
It’s the eternal paradox of Paris: Why is the world’s most charming metropolis also the most unfriendly? As the universal phrase goes, “I love Paris. I just hate Parisians”.
When I moved here in 2002, I rejected that view. I was determined to learn Parisian codes. I knew that this city had a complex etiquette. I thought that once I’d learnt the importance of saying “bonjour” at every encounter, or of not walking into a restaurant demanding dinner at 6pm while wearing shorts, I would gradually break through Parisian rudeness. It was my mission.
More than a decade later, I can say: Beneath the snooty unfriendly facade, Paris is a snooty, unfriendly city. I can even explain why.
A good chunk of Parisian service worker rudeness — exemplified by the luggage truck driver — comes from the French Revolution. The storming of the Bastille culminated in a motto of liberté, égalité, fraternité, which is understood by many French service staff to mean that they should never be friendly to a customer lest that be fatally misinterpreted as submission.
Overcrowding must take some blame too. More than two million people live in Paris proper, the bit inside the périphérique ringroad. The abyss beyond the périphis vaguely imagined by haughty Parisians as either hell or the void or both, and dismissed as “the suburbs”. Every day, hordes of suburbanites and tourists (Paris is on some measures the most visited city on earth) feed the throng inside the city proper. That was probably what the Parisian Jean-Paul Sartre meant by, “Hell is other people”. In Paris, the only response is to fight them. Neighbours here seldom regard you as potential members of their circle. You are just people who happen to live in their building and therefore potential sources of noise and hassle.
However, the strongest explanatory variable for Parisian rudeness (and I’m aghast that it’s taken me a decade to work this out) is Paris’s very perfection. If you overlay an intellectual capital on an artistic and fashion capital in a former royal capital, all of it in the country that invented how to eat, there are so many codes governing so many behaviours that the demands of sophistication become all-encompassing.
No other city makes so many requirements. Every moment of their lives, even at family breakfast or in bed, Parisians must observe the rules that govern eating, talking, thinking, dressing, etc. There is even a generally approved life-long pose: Never seem surprised; bored is much better.
In Paris, Big Brother (often in the form of oneself or one’s spouse) is always watching to see if you commit a faux pas. Whenever you do, he or she’ll let you know — perhaps with a silence, or a pained glance away.
There is no intimate Paris where you can slob out in old underpants. (Admittedly, Parisian dress codes are less strict than in Italy. Most of the time it’s OK to look dowdy — though never weird.) In all, Paris is a nightmare of sophistication. Only in one field of local endeavour do no rules apply: Driving.
Nor are Parisians allowed to laugh off their codes. My native informant Sophie-Caroline de Margerie — top civil servant, writer, fashionable Parisienne etc — says: “I’ve never met a bona fide French eccentric.”
There is a right way to do everything in Paris — and it was probably decided before you were born. All the French provincials, Africans and romantics from everywhere who land here battle to adapt, sometimes forever.
You try to be Parisian, to meet all the standards of perfection that mark this city and so you sneer at anyone who falls short. For instance, by sitting down at the next restaurant table wearing the wrong jacket. Paris is a sneer.
This attitude was summed up by the definitive Parisian film Le Dîner de Cons (“Dinner of Fools”, 1998): A bunch of stylish Parisians hold a weekly dinner to which they each invite an unknowing con, “a fool”, in order to crow over their cons’ appearance, tastes, conversation etc.
Especially in this most miserable month, when everyone has flu and you walk the children to school in the dark, you think: Well, where else to go? Every city I’ve spent longer periods in has drawbacks. In New York it’s the battle for status that ceases only while you (briefly) sleep.
In Miami it’s the near-absence of sentient conversation. Boston’s climate is uninhabitable. London is so big, grimy and unwieldy you often end the day feeling you have just paid a fortune to run a marathon in a coal mine. And so on. So I stay here (Paris has certain redeeming features), and every day I become older, ruder and more cantankerous.