La France -- the first month
(continued from here)
When we landed at the Charles de Gaul airport it was too dark to see anything, and Shooshan (my sister) and I were too tired to notice much. I only remember my father's hug at the airport, his announcement that unremitting peer pressure from his French colleagues has caused him to quit smoking (!!), and the shiny and surrealistically (you are gonna hear this word a lot) clean buses and commuter rail trains that took us home. I also remember our first impressions of stepping into our rental apartment -- a delicious concoction of comfort and bright colors, as if straight from an Alen Delon movie.
When we woke up in the morning, we started studying our surroundings. Our appartment was on the 4th floor of a building, located in the cute burgeois suburb of Palaiseau. See the google street view below -- it's that white building. You can also look around to see the beautiful rural houses built from colorful volcanic rock.
A street view of our neighborhood.
One of Palaiseau's streets, where we went shopping.
Our building was on the edge of a little forested park, which had a 19th century chateaux at its center. On our first outing to Paris we quickly realized that our Soviet made gray-shaded clothing made us stand out dramatically in the background of colorful and stylish appearance of the locals. To the Parisians we probably looked like some convicts who just escaped from a Soviet gulag.
The first few weeks after our arrival were spent in a party atmosphere. My father took two weeks from his generous French 8 week vacation plan. We first visited the University where he was working, and got introduced to his co-workers, including to Mdme Aline Grouille. We then got invited to dinner parties to his coworkers' what at the time seemed like royal residences*. We got to met Mdme Aline Grouille and her family at their home. Most spoke a bit of English, so we weren't entirely lost. There were two things that were always difficult to get used to. The first one was everyone's habit to kiss four times on the cheek as part of a hello. The second -- everyone's tendency to be so smiley, polite and accommodating that it felt borderline embarrassing, and the only thing you could do was keep repeating, like an idiot, "Merci monsieur! Merci madame! Merci monsieur! Aaaah, 'demoiselle, merci, merci mademoiselle!!"
During those few weeks we also kept on making frequent outings to Paris. Now dressed in some decent clothes we didn't feel so out of place. But we were still constricted when it came to finding directions and communicating. At some point my father decided that the party is over, and that we all neede to start learning the language for real. Full immersion style. So, he gave us money, and some basic instructions on how to get to Paris and back. As part of these instructions we were supposed to go to the train station, to the ticket office, and my mother was going to state
Of course it didn't work that way. As we got to the ticket office, my mother passed the money to the lady behind the counter, and uttered, in a frail voice:
Mom: Je voudrais...trois billets...a Paris? S'il vous plait?
Ticket master: some twittering in French
Ticket master: some more surprised twittering in French
Mom, all confused: Да...да...билеты нужны, три билета надо!
Ticketter: utterly confused look, more of that rapid fire French
Mom: Հա էլի, ասում եմ, չորս տոմս տվեք գնաք, յա՜․․․։
A moment of silence, when the French ticket-master and mom stare at each other, in what seems to be a never-ending Armenian-French blinking contest. Finally, my mother composes herself, and thunders out:
Mom: JE VOUDRAIS! TROIS BILLETS! A! PARIS! S'il vous plait?
Ticket master: Ah oui, trois billets! Voila madame!
The poor woman was probably asking whether we wanted one way or round trip...and at the end used the tendered sum to figure out that it was in fact a round trip.
My first impressions of Parisian life could only be described as surreal. As an adult you perceive and analyze the new environment, and get over it rather quickly. But for a child things work very differently. Here I am, in Paris, which I had previously seen only in the malfunctioning b/w screen of our 1965 TV set. I have a 19th century chateaux right outside of my home, and I live on a street named Rue Maximilien Robespierre! There's the actual Effel Tower, the actual Louvre, that seem to have floated up from the pages of my history books. We grew up thinking that we will probably never see this. Is this all real, or a figment of my imagination? And why is everyone around me -- including my own Armenian father -- speaking in...fluent French?! I grew up in a city where most everyone spoke one language, dressed, behaved and made sure to sound similar. And now here I am in a city where everyone dresses, looks, and talks so differently...here you can see central African women, pitch-black as a moon-less night, with shaved heads and dressed in brightly colorful, baggy clothes...there you see the Algerians, with multiple wives, all of them covered head-to-toe, gesticulating wildly and talking loudly in Arabic...Scandinavians, with their unbelievably blonde, transparent, hair...Asians, of various skin colors. For someone who has grown up in a cultural tundra, it was like landing overnight into a rich, colorful tropical jungle. All of this was so unusual, so magical, that if a unicorn were to show up and start telling me randy jokes I would probably not be surprised. And if François Mitterrand himself were to show up in a pink tutu on my balcony I would have probably just told the old guy to get back to his work at the presidential palace. For a kid, all this amounts to some hallucinatory, magic-realistic experience. Some mix of reality and fantasy, where it's hard to keep track of the real, and where the fantasy is
Another very important piece of my impressions from my French experience was that of the opposite gender. And what an opposite gender! All blonde (rarely found in Armenia), and dressed in what at the time I considered as provocative clothes. Interestingly, my 14 year old female peers were different: dressed in baggy, torn jeans, they all smoked and went about cursing heavily and behaving in an intentionally masculine manner. An enormous difference from their Armenian female counterparts -- who all dressed in long, equally ugly black skirts, spoke timidly, and at that age were all into imitating their mothers' behaviors and mannerisms. Curiously, by the time the French girls matured up and became about eighteen, they all quit smoking and cursing, and started to dress in a dramatically feminine manner.
Coming from a society where sexuality, and any expression thereof is of used to be of highest taboo***, in the beginning I didn't know whether to blush and look away or to stare wildly (I ended up doing more of the later). Things would get particularly embarrassing when, in some public place, a couple would suddenly start to make out heavily. And most passerbies didn't seem to even notice or care!** Bah oui monsieur, ici c'est la France.
(to be continued)
*this is one of the significant distinctions between European and American workplaces. In Europe the social aspect plays a great role at the workplace. Coworkers get together for dinner parties and other events all the time, they know each others' families and kids etc. In the US (especially in North East) you can spend 3 years working in a company, and never know anything about your coworkers, let alone their families.
**This, again, is a very significant difference between the European and American lifestyles. While Americans fret over the appropriateness of "public expression of affection," the Europeans and French in particular have no problem engaging in public expression of
***It's important to note that things have changed significantly in Armenia in this regards. However back in 1991 it would have been for example unimaginable for a girl to admit that she had had sex before marriage.