Saturday, January 23, 2010

Déjà Vu

You heard it here first. The key cultural difference between France and the United States, the element that separates them at their very cores without hope that ever the twain shall meet, is: yogurt. Now I don’t know about you, but I’m relieved. It so happens that, before I came here, I spent a lot of time reading a great wad of academic material on the cultural disparities between Us and Them, so that I came here prepared to be staggered by the difference on levels behavioral, sociological, political, religious, etc. Instead it turns out my Cultural Epiphany might well have been summed up in the following words: “Hey! These people do yogurt WAY better than Americans do!” 

Not that I mean to sell France short. Because I hear what you are saying, you know. You are saying, “Surely, little miss cultural-pants, you don’t mean to tell us you figured out the country in two weeks.” To which I say, in all seriousness: of course not. It only took ten days. And obviously France offers plenty of other cultural diversity, too, chiefly in the form of:

- Comical-looking cars the size of the standard American dental filling
- Guys named “Yannick”
- Opera **

And that’s not even getting into the matter of literature. You can’t spit here without hitting a thriving independent bookstore, perhaps featuring books dating back to the Cro-Magnon era.*** Also, you know how everywhere in the United States, you see magazines like “Us Weekly,” which aim to keep the American public “up-to-the-minute” with the latest Breaking News, such as that someone called Jessica Simpson fat? Well, the equivalent here is: the literary magazine. I am dead serious. These are sold openly everywhere, as though they were peanut M&Ms or something. You would NEVER see this in the United States, unless some basketball player had written a book.

Heh-heh, I am only joking, of course! Obviously that basketball player would be deported. But quite apart from all cultural differences, what I find most interesting is the distinct feeling that I’ve been here, in Paris, before. This happened once, years ago, when I took a trip to London and somehow knew (without a map) how to get everywhere, despite the fact that I had never been there. My grandfather, who experienced the same phenomenon, attributed it to events in a past life. Me, I have trouble with this idea; on the other hand, if it is true, I’d like to know, inasmuch as it raises the following questions:

1. So, if I’m on my second life here, do I really still have to pay taxes?
2. Also, if I’ve really been around that long, can I take a senior discount onto my student one at the movies?
3. Whaddayou MEAN respectively yes and no?!!

Whatever the reasons, when you feel you’ve been in a place before, it's all the easier to explore, because you never feel lost. Of course you ARE lost; you could be in Reykjavik for all you know, stupid. But the point is, you’re confident! When you’re traveling in an unfamiliar country, confidence counts for everything, except of course food, transportation, language skills, money and safety!

And yet – you can never really be certain, can you? Naturally, the gods in charge of reincarnation don’t want you to know about your past lives, because that could lead to ruinous results, such as your knowing where to find a bathroom.**** So the gods (Julian, Alexis, Snippy, and Dr. Throbnubbin, on leave this semester) guard against any such calamity by repeatedly throwing you off just when you think you’ve figured everything out. Here’s how it works. Say one day you are standing on a corner of the Rue de la Confiture, where there’s a newsstand, a “Monoprix” grocery store, and a VW dealer. Then, the very next day – I swear this is what happens – you go back to the very same corner of the very same street and: NONE OF THOSE THINGS ARE THERE. Now there’s only one explanation for this, and it’s very simple. That’s right: Paris gets moved. Periodically. Just to keep you on your toes, the gods take the city (presumably while you’re distracted by a vending machine), heave ho, and deposit it elsewhere. You could wake up tomorrow morning and find that Paris had been moved all the way over to, say, Grenoble, leaving nothing in its wake but a few free-floating cigarette butts, Monoprix receipts, and a lone “Smart” car. Meanwhile the unfortunate people of Grenoble – little knowing what was going on – would be busy being crushed under displaced Metro trains.

Yet I’m not ready to rule out the idea that I have had past lives. Maybe you have had one too. How can you know? Well, for starters, you can consult this handy chart:

1. You are dead.
2. Okay, maybe you’re not actually dead, but maybe you show tendencies toward it, such as you watch “American Idol” without questioning it.
3. Even now.
4. Now doesn’t count.
5. You find yourself inexplicably able to speak a foreign language.
6. Granted, this language doesn’t actually exist.
7. But your accent is excellent.

At any rate, I’m becoming very interested in the idea that we go through multiple incarnations, and I look forward to the day when we have a scientific method of testing for it. For my part, I’ve already figured out my previous existence – I was a writer for the TV show Night Court, until my premature death from choking on an errant bubble-tea bubble – so tell you what: I’ll help you figure out your past life, for a special discount fee of only 50 “euros.” Tell you what – I’ll make it 45, just for you. Besides, I feel it only fair to tell you: you owed it to me in a past life.

* Also: “Gimme more yogurt!”
** Opening this week: Bizet’s little-known gem, “Yannick and the Comical-Looking Car the Size of the Standard American Dental Filling.”
*** “Your Windows 95 Owner’s Manual”
**** HINT: France doesn’t have them.

©2010 Nicola McEldowney


The Old Wolf said...

Je suis ravi que tu peux achever ton re^ve et faire ce voyage. Bonne continuation!

Nicola said...

Merci beaucoup, j'ai hâte de découvrir plus!

Nini said...

I spent a few months in Paris last year, and I have to say: didn't think much of the yoghurt. Half the time it was bland, the other half the blueberries had gone fizzy (I don't think it's a good sign). Maybe I would like the American stuff better.