Monday, April 28, 2014

Cultural acclimatization

Apartment searching in Paris is demoralizing. I thought I had reached a low when I discovered an "apartment" of 10 square meters for 750 Euros/month, but then I compared it with an "apartment" of 2 square meters (two!), seventh floor (no elevator), slanted roof ceiling, plus a shared toilet on the landing, for 550 Euros/month. This former servant's quarters started looking good, though, after long enough perusing rental listings, agency websites, sabbatical vacancies, and craigslist.

I am coming to understand why all Parisian residents recoil slightly and emit pitying moans when I ask them for advice finding an apartment. I have been encouraged, with an appropriate cringe of social awkwardness, to ask everyone I know: are you moving soon? do you know anyone who has moved? or died?


I have spent several days now, in sequence, where every face-to-face interaction was entirely in French. I visited an apartment showing, I walked across maybe 80% of Paris without a map (tl&dr, geography version), I read legal and immigration paperwork, I was asked for directions to somewhere I didn't recognize, I interacted with shopkeepers, I verified my temporary housing situation, I was asked for directions which I was able to give competently.  This last one feels like a milestone in cultural acclimatization. It indicates many things. I am in a demographic sweet spot to ask for directions: woman, white, healthy, not obviously homeless. I am walking purposefully. Until I open my mouth, I can pass as local. Perhaps I have improved my passive scowl. Huzzah!

I am suffering a bad case of l'esprit d'escalier, basically continuously, because my ability to cohere my thoughts into sentences in French suffers a lag.  I know enough words to say the thing I want to say, but my thoughts in English are verbal and sophisticated, while my expressibility in French is simplified and riddled with pauses. If this post seems verbose but oddly curt, blame my attempts to improve my French. Also blame my isolation from English-language conversation. I need to find an expat chatting club.

There is a fascinating mental adjustment necessary. (Il faut que je change... see? sentence structures bleed across my brain barriers between languages. I'm lucky I didn't give directions in Japanese, I aced that chapter and practiced speed directions.)  Every time a child or homeless person speaks French in earshot, my brain does this: wow! that kid/beggar is so erudite! s/he speaks French! ---oh, wait, everyone speaks French here, it's not the marker of some cultural or educational achievment. I obviously understand that there are native French speakers at an intellectual level. But somewhere deep in my brain sits the belief that humans fundamentally speak English, and all other languages are awkward additions, the result of work and study.  So a handful of times a day, I mentally kick myself for my English-centric worldview.

Of course, kids and homeless people probably do speak English, too, and likely German and Italian and a handful of other languages. Because this is Europe and such things are useful, and no one here buys into the kind of cultural/linguistic/national isolationism to which I have become accustomed.

One final thought on cultural acclimatization: I have not yet seen a single Irish pub. Amazing. I thought they were a worldwide phenomenon, a sort of screen saver adopted by any underutilized commercial food site. Apparently here they default to cafes with little black wire tables and smoking waiters.

This post's theme word is ambage (AM-bij, not ahm-bahZH), "ambiguity, circumlocution." I am not fluent enough to commit ambage.

1 comment:

Christian Muise said...

And are there any Starbucks / 2nd Cup? The indie coffee chains here in Melbourne have mostly pushed them out of existence.