Monday, 21 November 2016

Urban life, nostalgia, and a “third place”: Perth VS Paris

“Separation heightens your sentimentality” wrote Sarah Turnbull referencing her feelings about being an Australian living in France. When I was in France, I enjoyed reading how Turnbull felt because I too felt sentimental at times in grey rainy Paris, drinking my coffee on a friend's balcony, reminiscing on warmer days back home in Perth. Warmer days where I would so effortlessly walk down to my local beach, feel the sun kiss my skin, dive into the ocean's sparkling water; and weightlessly float on my back in all of it’s deep blue glory. Remembering memories like these would always trigger my yearning for an element of space that you always have in Perth. Space; far and wide, abundant and plenty. Space not just in relation to being the only person on the bus or the beach, but space in the ability to be alone with your thoughts without the white noise backdrop of a big city. When you leave Perth as someone who has lived there your whole life, things that you barely ever noticed get remembered as sharply as a burnt tongue. Remembering the clean streets and clean public spaces, the burning orange sunsets, or the clear blue skies for a better half of 9 months of the year. Returning from Europe, and now back in Perth, I have all of these things again that I was once so sentimental about mere months ago. Now because I have all of these things at my fingertips, of course I am sentimental of the way I lived in France. When things are so accessible, they lose their novelty. Humans are irrevocably dissatisfied and ungrateful creatures, therefore the more unreachable something is, the more we are programmed to desire it. Just as our mind tries to forget moments of trauma when dealing with shock, our mind also likes to remember good memories through rose-tinted glasses, and with nothing less than a few kilos of sugar. 

Now that I am back in Perth the element of space that now surrounds me feels so painfully empty, the heat so painfully hot, and the wine so painfully overpriced. Typical. Now I stare at all this space in front of me with a sigh, drowning in the sound of my own footsteps as I walk baron suburbia. Now I sit on empty buses and daydream of how it felt to wander down cobblestone streets being guided by nothing but the sweet smell of freshly baked bread and macaroons from the boulangerie. I miss discovering new places all the time, and getting lost down streets I never knew existed on lazy Sunday afternoons. I miss the charm of the historical buildings, and I miss savouring the flakey croissant crumbs that stuck to my buttery fingers every morning. I miss the cliché joie de vivre that the French take very seriously, and living in a society that doesn't have so many rules and regulations. I miss living in a place where it's socially acceptable to have a siesta without being called 'lazy', or to kiss your boyfriend on the park bench all afternoon without being called ‘promiscuous’. The way I was living in Europe now feels further away then every hour that I sat on the aeroplane for. I know the grass is only greener where you water it, but sometimes there are uncontrollable factors in helping your own patch of grass grow; like the soil, the climate, and the water. I have great respect for both cities, Perth, and Paris, because like babies that i’ve both held close within me before, I can feel their pulse, i've listened to them closely, and I can feel the way they move.

Paris is alive, alluring, and mysterious. Among all of her charming glory, you never know who you’re going to meet around one of her street corners. Paris has a constant Amelie soundtrack that is sung from all of her terraces, and is projected from her tower. Paris has parks to stroll, and lounge chairs to think. Paris has lots of little parties, in very small apartments. But most of all, Paris has cafes. Around 7000. The cafe for the Parisian is their quintessential “third place”. The concept of the "third place" very much helps in understanding the difference in urban life around the world. Everyone living in modern society has three metaphorical places. After the “first place” of home, and the “second place” of work, a third place is an easy, inexpensive, and accessible place for all, where people build sense of community and relationships. Sociologist Ray Oldenburg who coined the term says that these third place’s are critical in ensuring a healthy balance in one's life. Parisians treat cafes as their third place because everyone lives close to one, the drinks are cheap, and when your apartment is 17m2; the cafe downstairs with the large cafe terrace unofficially becomes your living room. During the German occupation in the 40's, many Parisians including the famous literary community would install themselves in Parisian cafes to keep warm around the popular wood-firefire stoves,  escaping their cold apartment or cold hotel rooms. Paris’s institutionalised third place of cafes today are just as popular as they were 50 years ago.

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Perth is fresh, sunny, and safe. Due to Australia’s abundance of land, wealth, and small population of only 27 million, we have had the luxury in being extremely greedy with our space in all of our cities. ‘The Australian Dream’ includes owning your own land with a 4 bedroom and 2 bathroom big house and back garden with a pool. This is why a Perthians third place is their home. Perth is very spread out city where it’s metropolitan spans 120 km north to south along the Indian Ocean, and 40km from east to west. Perth city is an expensive place to be entertained, so instead people often prefer to meet at friend's homes. Because a majority of people who live in Perth share the same first and third place, this creates a point of segregation between individuals, and hinders the creation of the sense of community that every third place should create. This is why many people will tell you that a good time in Perth is only relative to the company you keep. The spread out Perth lifestyle is not only unsustainable regarding urban sprawl and environmental issues, but for cultural, health, and safety issues. Vibrant neighbourhoods are not created by shutter blinds or white picketed fences. Big shopping centres that monopolise the market and run out locally owned artisanal shops deprive potential culture of suburbia; because nothing says ‘soul-less hub’ like 4 fast-food chains side by side each other.

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When a city like Perth is so webbed out with suburbs and has a public transport system that is both unpunctual and infrequent, having a car becomes a suburban priority. Because people are commuting longer distances to their first and second place, driving becomes a more accepted form of transport, therefore people are no longer walking to school or work, they’re taking the car instead. Besides the vicious cycle that is then created between cars and roads, and then the multiple health problems of people doing less exercise; less social contact on the streets does not help in creating safe and walkable neighbourhoods. Parents stop letting their children play on the streets because there is no on in sight except for the occasional ice-cream truck or male predator in a white van. Parisian children play in streets with a bigger sense of ease from their parents because they know wherever their children are, there will always be at least 100 pairs of eyes in apartment terraces watching from above.

All Perth homes have a 2 car garage space, which further encourages minimal social interaction within their community. When a Perthian drives home from work and straight into their garage, they close their garage instantly, just like their connection to the rest of society for the day. Being in an apartment-living dominated city like Paris, you are almost forced to make some form of communication when you pass the same people every day either in the hallway or the lift. I’ve lived on the same street in Perth for nearly all my life, and like most of the people in Perth, I can't tell you anything more about my neighbours except for the cars they drive.

Many people also argue that Australia's third place is now becoming the virtual presence on social media and multi player gaming. Due to Australia's access to the worlds latest technology, our technological connectivity is at an unprecedented level. Australians on the whole are socialising more  in the virtual world than in the real world, and working from home is now even a feasible option for many due to advances in technology. This is a questionable social advance that technology poses for modern society; because if people are living at their home, working from home, and socialising from home (virtual and real world); what does that do for an individuals psychological wellbeing that has shown to be highly influenced by community interaction? 

Starbucks' CEO, Howard Schultz came up with the idea of Starbucks after going to Italy and being amazed at the balance of Italian's lives between home work and play, particularly by the act of their morning coffee culture routine. Schultz wanted to bring that same element of a third place that he experienced in Europe to the USA because he felt that there was was a real lack of place between home and work in the United States at the time. Now with the worlds increasingly accessible internet connection, Starbucks has free wifi in all of it's cafe's, and in turn has evolved into the worlds best known 'internet cafe'. What was once supposed to be a place for creating community and discussion, is now a place for people to wear earphones and to be glued into their screens.

Humans are curious animals, we like to watch how other people live their lives. A Perth’ians love for personal space and security within suburbia evidently comes at a the price of the lack of civility and empathy. Paris is a lot older than Perth, therefore establishing culture in Perth will come with nurture and time. There is no such thing as a perfect city, but the grass will be greener in Perth when our urban planners and government recognise the importance of a third place in creating a more liveable city, rather than repeatedly genuflecting to the developers.

The bags under my eyes are Chanel: My interpretation of French style.

The French have style. I’m not just talking about a ‘my shoes go with my bag’ kind of style, i’m talking about a whole lifestyle dedicated to being #chic. I was in Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris last week, and it was the most beautiful public space I have ever seen in my life. Every rose petal, every perfectly cut lawn of grass, and every pebblestone that lay on the pathway, was not a single degree off perfection. When you visit parks in Paris, you feel like you could be part of an impressionist painting. Strolling along the pathways you feel like Renoir could be sitting on the bench right across from you, dabbling away on his easel with half a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Jardin du Luxembourg does not feel like the kind of ‘park’ i’m used to back in Australia. Jardin to Luxembourg is living, breathing, permanent 5D art installation. Smartly dressed children quietly play with their sailing boats on the pond, while their parents recline on the individual green art deco chairs provided. Everyone that I passed throughout the park was also somehow so polished and refined, clearly taking pride in their appearance. I saw a elderly woman in her 70’s wearing the most classic shift dress with a beige shawl, and holding her hand beside her was a young girl about 9 wearing a red beret, looking like she had just stepped out of Madeline. Walking around the park it was apparent that no one was shouting, no one was being loud, and the only form of racquet that I heard was a boy that shouted, ‘pas encore!’ (Not again!) when he realised that he’d just lost his chess game. Lovers playfully kissed on the bench to the right of me, and school students nibbled away at their baguettes on the bench to the left of me. It’s also worth noting that the grass throughout the park is absolutely not for walking on. ‘Oh sacré bleu my hat just flew off onto the grass, what should i do?’’ You find yourself wondering? Leave it. Forget about it. It’s gone. Keep walking. If someone is not aware of this rule and steps onto the grass, they will be quietly told to “step off immediately” by a fellow watching ranger, and/or an angry Parisian. Parks in France are a perfect example of the French beauty, over practicality, approach to life. If an Englishman was to ask a Frenchman, ‘ha-whey man ye kana innit canny weird that the graz is def there for like walkin’ oan n playin’ football oan summick, lyk’ a Frenchman would probably respond: “Yes my sweet little english mcmuffin, but isn’t it so much more pleasurable to admire this beautiful grass rather than stamping aggressively all over it?” After I thought I was finished playing around in my 50% reality 50% daydream of Jardin du Luxembourg, I heard a faint sound of music coming from the north wing of the park. It was official, Paris had officially outdone itself. Before me stood 50 piece jazz band with a conductor all dressed in black, completely free for the people of the Paris. This for me, was France.

I wanted to share my experience that I had at Jardin du Luxembourg because it’s the best analogy that I think of that illustrates French style. To the French it would be crude to talk about their ‘style’ because it’s something they were born into, it’s practically engrained into their DNA. The way colour coordinated macaroons are so perfectly placed in the shop windows, the way a perfectly groomed Pomeranian sits by its owner at a restaurant, the way an adolescent drinks their wine and water at the dinner table; it’s all done in such a uniquely French manner. At the beginning it all felt very rigid and strict to me, I mean I come from a country where half the population doesn’t even wear shoes. After the first couple of weeks I reminded myself that in order to crack to the language I needed to assimilate into French culture as much as possible. Once I started getting into a routine and seeing how people lived on a day to day basis, it was suddenly apparent that there was a very clear ‘French way’ to do things. 

Everything is very relaxed back in Australia, including the fashion, where you can wear whatever you want, whenever you want. The style of fashion between your middle class Frenchmen and your middle class Australian is certainly worlds apart. As a generalisation in Australia, girls have a lot of clothes, because we wear different things for different occasions. We have home clothes, beach clothes, casual clothes, smart clothes, and the infamous clubbing clothes. In France, girls have clothes they wear inside the house, and then clothes they wear outside the house. The quality over quantity rule is a reoccurring theme in French lifestyle. French women invest in stable wardrobe pieces, and stick to them everyday. Australian girls go op-shopping and buy 20 pieces for 10 dollars, but only keep the clothes for 4 months. There are hundreds of books attempting to un-crack the code to how to ‘dress like a French woman’, but it’s really not that difficult. If you want attempt to look French, stick to neutral colours, buy 5 pairs of jeans, buy a fitted blazer, throw out all your figure hugging clothes, throw out all your shorts, throw out all your clothes with labels on them, buy 5 scarves; et voilà. 

The French wear the same things during the week as they do on the weekends. In Australia every student who goes to school must wear a school uniform. Whether it’s a school shirt, or a school blazer, you must wear something with a school emblem on it. Uniform brings a sense equality and suppresses potential competition, but in turn, suppresses individuality. At my school in Australia we were stripped of any chance of being different. Girls were not allowed to wear jewellery, makeup, nail polish, or change our hair to a non-natural looking hair colour. Socks had to be a certain colour, and even wearing a bra that wasn’t clearly white or beige was a quick way to get sent home. On the weekends in Australia, girls feel like they are set free of their shackles and have the opportunity to remind boys that they are in fact, girls. Tight body con dresses and un-walkable high heels was always a famous ‘go to’ party outfit. This is a very clear difference between France and anglo-sexton countries. Not even prostitutes on the side of the road in France are caught wearing super tight body con dresses. Girls in the clubs in France are wearing the same jeans, jacket and ballet flats that they were wearing previously at dinner. 

No one wants to look like they’re trying too much in France, and it’s seen as vulgar if you look like you’re too dressed up. It’s like the time I was getting ready to go out on a date and my French friend said to be in the bathroom, “maybe don’t worry about makeup Taylor”. The next day she told me if a girl wears makeup on a first date it can often be misleading, kind of like if she was to wear high heels.  Makeup is a much loved product in Australia just like other anglo countries, and i’ve been with friends in Australia who have taken a whole 40 minutes to apply all their desired makeup. I'm not a fan of makeup because I'm inherently lazy and it takes (what feels like) years to scrape all off. French girls are hardly ever caught wearing makeup. It’s hard to be a French girl you see, because in Australia if you’re ugly you can at least convince everyone that you’re someone else by contouring your face and wearing misleading clothes. In France, you’re kind of stuck. French style is about looking sophisticated, but at the same time looking #effortless. Nothing is more un-effortless to the French than seeing a woman wearing an uncomfortably bright pink dress and wearing makeup like industrial house paint. French woman may appear cool and collected on the exterior, but it’s sure that they are each individually fighting their own battles to make maintain their desirable ‘French woman’ image. Expectations that they maintain a feminine petite figure, that they have a perfectly tailored wardrobe, great skin, perfectly shaped nails, naturally shinny hair, and all while that they #literally #wokeuplikethis. 

My first english speaking friend that I made in Nantes was called Simon. Simon owns a clothing store called California Concept Store which sells clothes inspired by the surf and skating lifestyle culture. I got told by my French friends that he is a nice contact to have because the store is very well known for being a ‘cool place’ to go. Last night I went to a party that California Concept Store was hosting along side the label Tealer (weed aesthetic independent French music label), and it was called ‘Tealer Kush Party’. Aside from the cringeworthy name of the event it was really good, and was not one bit of the #smokeweedeveryday vibe I thought it was going to be. California Concept Store would not be as successful if it was in Australia, because it’s what most of our clothes shops are already like, and have been like for a while. Because the French style is often so strict, any clothing shop that gives people the freedom to wear something a bit different and get away with it, is celebrated. California Concept Store is seen to be selling ‘alternative’ clothes in Nantes, and if someone is wearing a snapback they seen as a #fashionrebel. The youth in Australia stopped wearing the American jock/snapback hats in around 2013. The only trend that I can see in France that has really taken off is the ‘hipster’ look, and it will continue to stay around because anything that makes you look intellectual here is #chic. The French stick to what they know best, and are not ones to follow trends. In Australia we are completely influenced by ‘trends of the season’, like vintage grandma, 70s boho hippy child/Jim Morrisons girlfriend, sport lux, sea punk, turnt up, bindis/circa 90s, and all the rest. The French are not interested because they know it’s their classic style that will stand the test of time. Of course they’re right, but at the same time I think it’s important to go through different fashion subcultures when you’re an younger because you’re #emotional, and trying to figure yourself out. One of my French friends always talks to me about her dream of moving to London, because she knows she could wear whatever she wanted in London, and wouldn’t stand out like she would in France. 

Have you ever had the pleasure of witnessing a French person write? If so, you will know how beautiful it was. In French primary schools, cursive handwriting classes are compulsory that start from a very young age. In high school, calligraphy is a popular class option from the art classes provided. When I was studying French at university, I remember my professor telling me that once her teacher in primary school refused to mark her work because she said it wasn’t written neat enough. The French appreciate maintaining refined beauty in every detail of their life. I was having lunch at a French friends family home one time, and I put my water bottle on the table because I was drinking from it before, and it was still half full. My friends mum was clearly not impressed as she swooped my water bottle away to the kitchen and instead replaced it with a glass. ‘Nous ne buvons pas d'une bouteille d'eau à la table (we don't drink from a water bottle at the table)” she told me. Awkward. 

As ecologically sustainable as banning single-use plastic bags sounds, I think it’s clear that France also banned them because they weren’t #chic enough. Just like paying taxes, and voting in elections, being stylish is a duty of being a French citizen. When you’re born in a country that has given birth to some of the worlds biggest fashion houses, it’s expected that you’ve taken a few notes. When a nation’s favourite pastime is sitting at a cafe and people watching, nothing goes by unnoticed. Living in France you are a part of a society that will notice the slightest things when you walk by, like the way your scarf is tied, how your sunglasses rest on your face, or even how you light your cigarette. But don’t be fooled, style and money is not the same thing in France. Talking about money in the slightest, like dropping how much your shoes cost in conversation, is seen as extremely distasteful. The French can afford to wear their beautiful stable pieces everyday because their favourite hobbies are done sitting stationary; reading, writing, eating, drinking, judging. In Australia you can’t afford to wear your favourite Kym Ellery dress to a BBQ because someone will spill tomato sauce or VB all down the front of it. Our favourite hobbies in Australia include getting dirty, so we can’t always wear stylish clothes; but for the French the only dirty activities they enjoy don’t involve wearing any clothing at all. 

Monday, 1 August 2016

Why the French aren’t as rude as you like to think they are

You probably like to think that you have the French all worked out. Every time you hear or read, ‘The French’, you have your own idea about what that represents. Unless you’ve spent a considerable amount of time in France, studied French, or in fact are, French; there’s a big chance that your idea comfortably rests on a skewed cultural stereotype. You may enjoy France’s fashion, cheese and wine, but you still think they’re rude, arrogant, and pretentious. Different things may have influenced this; maybe it was a friend’s holiday story about their time with an unfriendly Parisian waiter, or maybe it has something to do with how the thieves and mistresses in films always manage to be French. As a society we enjoy stereotypes because they’re cognitively efficient. We find comfort in repetition, and just like we enjoy watching our favourite films again and again, the ‘experiential control’ makes us feel at ease when we know how stories will end. We also find comfort in numbers, creating easy bandwagons. When we travel abroad and discover how other cultures work, our own culture is always our first point of reference. Cultural stereotypes are like accents, they’re always only relative to your own. Since being in France, I’ve encountered some of the funniest and friendliest people I’ve met in my life; and this is why I roll my eyes each time I overhear someone talking about their “cold nature”. When travelling to a foreign country, it’s indispensable in having a basic understanding for that country’s existing norms and values in order to be respectful to its people, and in turn, to be respected; by its people. The catalyst for this rude French stereotype has unquestionably stemmed from unawareness about their rules of social conduct. I am not French, and I will never be French, but I have a good idea about how they work, and this is why I can see both sides to the story. I am merely the observer, the messenger, the ‘cultural translator’ if you like, and this is why I can tell you why the French aren’t as rude as you like to think they are.

The French language is poetic, articulate, and descriptive. Literature is a big part of French culture, and the French feel satisfied by poetic sentiments and beautifully arranged words. The way the French declare their ideas through their language is like everything they do, it’s an artistic expression of who they are. When the French are left to translate how they feel in English, there is a big chance it may be delivered in a what may seem, pretentious manner. If you were to directly translate an everyday informal conversation by the French into English, it would have a certain formality that wouldn’t be required in English. All you have to do is walk past French children who would be using expressions such as “however”, “nevertheless”, and “one would say” in their sentences when they’re trying to explain to their friend why it’s their turn for the swing. When speaking different languages it’s easy to forget that direct translations of words do not always translate with the same cultural connotations. If a French person is using formal expressions with you in a relatively informal environment, there’s a big chance they don’t mean to come across as condescending as you may interpret; it’s merely how they’ve been raised to talk. So before you call the French rude after a conversation with someone in France, remember that their language selection may not have gone through a cultural filter.

Australians have an international reputation of being easy going people, and extremely friendly to even complete strangers. When one of my Parisian friends was in Australia last year, she said that as soon as she arrived to Australia she had never been surrounded by so many ‘happy looking’ people in her life. The French find our friendly and carefree attitude charming, but it can also come off as fake. Anyone that looks happy all the time in France is often questioned on their authenticity and/or ulterior motives. I thought people had a problem with me on my first introductions in France because even though we would faire la bise and talk throughout the night, getting a smile out of them seemed like a near impossible task. On first introductions with the French, just like the Japanese, they respect a certain element of formality rather than a forced empty friendliness. When you first meet a French person, try and avoid personal subjects such as what they do for a living, political views, or where they bought their shoes from; the French prefer broader subjects that don’t instantly pinpoint an individual’s demographic. It’s also important to note that the French don’t see a positive correlation between how many friends they have, and their personal happiness; often unlike in the West. The French do not also see their life as a popularity contest. Friends for the French are made when they’re young, and it’s the ones they keep for life. So before you call the French rude, remember that politeness and friendliness are not the same things in France; and that friendship takes time.

France does not hold the same service culture as it does in many English-speaking countries. I’ve worked at many cafes in Australia, and I know exactly why you may feel hostile towards your French waiter in France. In the Anglo-sphere there is often a very informal and unwarranted familiarity between the server and the customer. When I was waitressing in Australia, I was told to greet the customers with a toothy smile and check on them every 5 minutes like a helpless newborn baby in a cot. In France, if you walk into any preoccupied business space, it is paramount to make some form of polite eye contact and a simple “bonjour”. This is an unwritten yet extremely important convention in France. A degree of formality is required when speaking to anyone you don’t know in France, and this very much extends to your waiter/waitress. If you were to talk to your French waiter/waitress in the same tone and manner as to your best friend, they would feel insulted at your lack of respect.  The French enjoy an element of intimacy when eating with people, therefore the most discreet the service is, the better it is. A Frenchman would not be hesitant in letting their waiter know if there is a problem, unlike an Englishman (who would rather grow a tumour than make a fuss), therefore if you have a problem with your meal in France, don’t wait to be asked. Other things that will hinder a nice dining experience for you in France is if you; try to alter a dish, tell them you’re in a rush, or if you ask for the vegetarian menu. Before you get your phone out to write your aggressive Facebook status and trip advisor comment about “how rude the French are”, try to be aware of these cultural differences, because you’ve already made your bed as soon as you addressed the waiter with a ‘G’day Pierre’.

A Parisian’s sense of entitlement will reach anyone who lives beyond the 20 arrondissements borders of Paris. Just like other big cities in the world, Parisians have a tough city slicker attitude that ensures that their compassion towards others stays at a subpar level. Do not get a Frenchman and a Parisian mixed up. There is even a psychological disorder called ‘Paris Syndrome’ which was started by Japanese tourists who suffered traumatic stress when they visited Paris, when they realised that the amazing city they’d dreamed of for so many years ended up being quite a tough city with unfriendly natives. If you’re visiting Paris, try and rely on your own resources and maps to get around, because although you think asking a Parisian where the Eiffel Tower is isn’t a big deal, remember that they’ve probably been asked the same thing 3 times throughout the day already. Paris can also be a much nicer experience for you if, as I keep mentioning, remember French etiquette. If you’re asking a Parisian for directions and immediately start speaking in English, they will not only find this extremely offensive because of your assumption that “everyone in the world speaks English”, but because your dramatic sense of entitlement is almost challenging their own. If you need to ask for directions in the street anywhere in France and need to speak in English, you must ask them if you can speak English with them first. All you need to say is: “Excusez-moi Monsieur/Madame, vous parlez anglais?”  (Excuse me Sir/Maam, do you speak English?) I will guarantee you that if you firstly formally acknowledge them, and then politely ask if they speak English, it will 100% dictate on how long you stay lost for. So before you call the French rude, don’t ask yourself whether it was because you mistook a Parisian for a tourist guide, but ask yourself if you think it had something to do with your offensive cultural imperialism.

France is a funny country with many conventions and with just as many contradictions. Their fiery Latin blood means they will love and hate with the same passion, and they will infamously tell you their opinion whether it was asked for or not. The French also love to complain about absolutely everything. They’ll tell you when they think it’s too hot, it’s too cold,  it’s too sunny or it’s too windy. My favourite complaints are the ones with the long melodramatic sighs and huffs before them, like *long sigh* “non c’est pas possible” (no it’s just not possible), or, *long sigh* ‘j’ai trop fatigue’ (I’m so tired).  The rude French stereotype created by the rest of the world has been fuelled by tourists disregarding French social etiquette, making both the French and their tourists grow increasingly impatient with each other. In France you very much decide on how you will be treated by others based on your mannerisms, tourist or not. There are rude and kind people everywhere in the world; and remember that what you say about another culture can say more about you, than it does about them.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Why I love the French bise

To faire la bise; it’s as French as the Eiffel Tower, Bridget Bardott, and picking up some croissants from your local bakery on a Sunday morning. With not one ounce of my anglo-sexton shame, I can solemnly declare that I love it. Air kissing people twice, 3 times, or even 4 times, depending on the French region i’m in, always feels so satisfying to me. It has nothing to do with sexual satisfaction; but rather a human to human, we have both said hello simply, and sweetly, satisfaction. It feels very civilised to be part of a society where certain social etiquette conventions are so practised and accepted. This is coming from growing up in Australia; where when meeting or when being introduced to someone, you are often left standing there with no idea what to do with your hands. For informal situations in Australia at my age (20), i see it being more or less an exchange of a handshake between men, and a hug between women. I like a good hug, but a potentially great hug can quickly turn awkward if someone’s technique is off. Hugs also a provoke many internal questions like: “am i the neck-hugger, and you’re the waist-hugger? Or the other way around? Or we hugging on an angle here? And how long are we doing this for?”
Staying with my french friends in France at the moment, I feel very lucky to experience this country in such an authentic light. Often being the only non-french person at events people forget that i’m Australian, and with that small detail, that i’m not used to how everything operates. One night in the taxi home, my friend Marion asked me if i didn’t like one of her specific friends that was at the party we were preciously at. I was shocked, and I replied, “Of course I like him, why wouldn’t i?” And she said, “well he just texted me, and he said you didn’t give him a bise before you left- he was wondering if he had said something to upset you?”

With my family, and especially with my Turkish-side, we are always hugging, kissing, squeezing each other. As I got older I learnt to yield back on my inherently touchy mannerism, because unfortunately even a single accidental touch between the sexes in Australia can be interpreted as a promiscuous act. If you’re a girl being introduced to someone by a friend in Australia, it’s often that you just stand there, say “hey”, chuck in a friendly smile, and that seems to suffice. When you walk into a room full of people at a party in Australia, it’s very rare that you would go around and acknowledge each person. If I was to go around giving a faire la bise at a party in Australia, the response would probably say something like, “who does this bitch think she is?”.

A couple of weeks ago, a french friend that I was staying with took me to her friends apartment-warming celebration. We were running about 45 minutes late. Let me tell you, arriving to occasions late is not a good idea. When we arrived there was about 15 people sitting in the lounge room, they collectively saw us walk in, smiled, and said “Salut (hey)” at the same time. The same thing would happen in Australia, but the different is, is that all of these Frenchies were all still eagerly awaiting their own personal hello and kisses. This lounge room was not big, and there was not much room to move around at all. I spoke to a couple people and gave them each a bise but then stopped. With too many limbs being crossed and elongated, and after painfully getting my hair caught in a girls jacket button, it was all getting a bit much. My french friend instantly turned around to me with piercing eyes that said, "what are you doing? You must say hi to everyone; you know how this works Taylor".

I took a couple deep breaths, tied my hair up, wished my immune system good luck, and then continued on to the remaining un-kissed cheeks. But it’s not finished there, during/after a faire la bise with someone comes an obligatory, “Salut, ça va?” Ça va is a question of how you are, and also a positive reaffirmation that you’re doing well. The expected small talk usually goes something like: “Salut! ça va? (Hey, how are you), and they reply with a “Ça va, ça va? (I’m good, how are you?”), and then you reply with one more, “ça va (I’m good)”.
There is definitely an art to how the French do it, because most people exchange their 500 “ça va’s” while consecutively taking part in a faire la bise. I need to work on my air way controls because I am yet to master making the air kissing noises while asking how someone how they are at the same time. I also think I need to look less turtle and more Grace Kelly. Having pointless small talk at parties is an international way of saying “hello”; but in french the lack of sincerity becomes extremely apparent when you ask someone how they are and they reply with exactly what you’ve just said. It’s the same in english, it’s the situation when you’re not really ready to hear anything less than that someone is doing: “good, thank you”. So it’s for this reason that you don’t arrive late to parties in France. This is why you arrive on time or even early, and let everyone who arrives later lean over 2 people to greet you hello intend. This is also why you don’t leave earlier than in an hour, because you have to kiss and say goodbye to everyone individually, all. Over. Again.

In the car ride home I asked my friend if that was what her look at me meant at the party when I stopped saying hello to everyone, and she said that is exactly what it meant. I tried to ask her rules about faire la bise, but all I got was a drunken murmer and that she would tell me tomorrow. Since i’ve been in France I’ve tried to ask each of my frenchie friends about faire la bise, and each time they always look as clueless as the last one. When you’ve grown up with something that is so accepted it’s often hard to explain ‘why’; it’s like vegemite for Australians (#teamvegemite). With children younger then 12 in France you are expected to reach down and give them a single cheek kiss; but at any age older, a proper faire la bise is expected. It’s practised in pretty much every informal setting between men and women, but if either party for some reason feels uncomfortable, they will extend their hand for a handshake. An informal setting also expands to virtual communication where kissing still very much has it’s place. In France it’s very common to end a text with ‘bisous’, or ‘je t’embrasse’, literally meaning, ‘i kiss you’. I’ve also learnt that if you want to scare a French person, you hug them. The French don’t hug. If you hug a Frenchie they will either i) stare at you blankly, ii) ask you what you’re doing, iii) play dead standing there waiting till it’s over; or all of the above. There isn’t even a word for it, and the closest is probably ‘un calin’, which has a heavy sexual connotation. To hug someone is seen as far more sexual then a couple of air kisses, because its seen as a complete body-to-body contact.

In Australia it’s normal to stroll in and out of a shop without any exchange of a greeting between the shop keeper and the customer. In France, shopkeepers see it as you’re walking into their home when you enter their shop, so a “Bonjour (hello)” and an “Au revoir (goodbye) is paramount. If you were to address someone who was older than you in the street in Australia as “Sir”, or “Ma’ame”, you would be second looked at in shock (and probably asked how your holiday is going in Australia). If you were to address anyone older then you in the street in France with anything less than a “Monsieur” or “Madame”, you would be looked down up. 

Social etiquette rules in France are vast and plenty, but for the French it is not a chore, it’s the norm. Australia is also a very multicultural place, making it difficult to establish our social customs as a country. The laid-back relaxed lifestyle of Australia and the dislike to anything remotely ‘pretentious’, is also another reason that I think etiquette is not a priority. I don’t enjoy a faire la bise because it makes me feel a oh-look-at-me-i’m-so- easy-breezy-chic-with-my-french-baguette-i'm-so-cultured, I enjoy it because it feels warmer and friendlier. I also enjoy a faire la bise over a hug because i know exactly where i’m supposed to put my hands. 

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Sex in France

On my first week at in Nantes, a small city in north west France, I went food shopping with a friend to the markets. As beautiful and non ­ironically French as my friend was, she told me that we must pay a visit her favourite cheese ­man. I don’t necessarily associate a picture of Johnny Depp when someone says ‘cheese ­man’, so as you can imagine I was very pleasantly surprised to be introduced to a handsome, ‘Gabriel’. Gabriel was a very charming Frenchman with a great smile and noticeably big hands. My friend introduced us and then promptly left saying that she had to fetch some other things. As our time together unraveled, Gabriel was undoubtedly one of the smoothest men I have ever met. In French he talked me through each one his beloved cheeses, and closely watched my mouth as I tried each one. After I decided which one I was going to have, my French friend returned. Gabriel then gave me mheese ­man was flirting with me” I said to my friend as we walked away. “Probably,” she laughed, “remember you are in France Taylor, and in regards to Gabriel, I’m pretty sure that man could flirt before he could talk”.

In a land far more permissive than Australia when it comes to sexuality, the French act like they were genetically programmed to seduce. When you speak the arguably sexiest language in the world, you can’t blame them for having a good foundation to work off. Anyone who speaks French as a second language will know how it can transform your once dull, and blazé expressions in English, into a passionate declaration of raw human emotion. Sex does not swim in a pool of taboos in France as it does in Australia, and the French have a much higher tolerance as to what shocks them. You’ve just told someone that you’re having an affair? That you’re gay? That you slept with your university professor? The French would give you one of their famous nonchalant shrugs, light a cigarette, and call you out as a cliché. 

If someone in Australia holds a gaze with you for that 10 seconds too long, you would definitely feel a sexual tension with that person. In France, a flirtatious lingering gaze wouldn’t even make a middle aged lollipop lady blush. Flirting is France’s favourite national pastime. If flirting was an international sport, the French would win walking backwards, wearing 2 blindfolds, and drunk off their little wobbly froggy legs. The French are flirting with everyone from their baker, to their bus driver, to their boss. When two people flirt in Australia there is usually a very mutually expected outcome. In France, being sexually suggestive is in no way a direct approach to sexual intercourse. Exchanging empty sexual innuendoes by both sexes in France is seen as being playful, light hearted, and harmless. If everyone in France was having sex with everyone that they flirt with, I can promise you that nothing would ever get done in this country.

Although there are many other men like Gabriel in this fine land, the women are just as persistent. You see the French woman is full of endless contradictions, and this is only one of them. She’ll proudly mention in your conversation (out of nowhere) that she’s reading Simone de Beavoiur’s, Le Deuxieme Sexe for the second time this year, that her mum was one of the 343 feminists in 1971 who marched for ‘ Le Manifeste des 343 Salopes’ (Manifesto of the 343 sluts); and if you ask her if she’s a feminist, she’d reply, “of course I am, I believe in equality­ don’t you?”. But on her other soft, lotioned hand, she finds the word feminist very aggressive to her sexuality. The French woman seizes her sexuality as a woman and without apology, uses it to her advantage to get what she wants. Flirting is vital in maintaining the French woman’s feeling of empowerment and self esteem. The French woman naturally demands equal rights and her ideas to be heard, but at the same time she respects her male counterparts as males, as she knows they are, by nature, different. She believes in gender roles because she enjoys how men take out her seat before her at restaurants, the way they let her walk through the door first, and how she gets addressed as ‘Madame’. France is a competitive dog eat dog land for la femme of France. I count my lucky stars, because i’ve been very lucky to be surrounded by extremely nice French women in my time here; but even so, I can still feel up and down stares when they think I’m not looking. It’s every woman for themselves in France, and the essence of ‘sisterhood’ is not exactly present. People say that French women only stick to a couple of girlfriends because they take longer to trust people, but that’s a lie. Everyone knows that French women only have a few girlfriends because they can’t handle facing constant competition.

‘French women don’t just tolerate their husbands affairs – they expect them’ was the title of Lucy Wadham’s, famous article for the Daily Mail a few years ago. Infidelity in France does not carry the social burden as it does in the anglo world. Literally every single married couple I have met in France has had their own story tell about the twists of turns of their past marriages and relationships. One of my friends in France told me she cheated on her boyfriend with one his best friends to spice up their relationship. In such an individualist society as France, people are more often inclined to act out of personal gain. Look at France’s national motto of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’. Their first and foremost declaration is ‘liberty’, the right to be ‘free’ in their society. The idea of being ‘free’ in France is deeply engrained into the national psyche, and this applies to their sex life where the individual is are free to commit adultery if need be.
When Bill Clinton decided to tell the whole world about his affair, France was hysterically laughing from the sidelines. Infidelity and extramarital affairs is nothing new in French Politics. The French couldn’t give two croissants if their President declared their sex life to the whole country. They believe that just because politicians are living in the public eye, that does not mean their private lives are up for national conversation. The French are extremely quiet and discretional people when it comes to their personal lives. They even prefer it if their President has an affair or two on the side, because it normalises them; they become more relatable. Chirac had many affairs, and he was one of the most celebrated French Presidents of the decade. Our ex-­ex Prime Minister in Australia, Julia Gillard (it’s still recent, we’ve have 5 Prime Ministers in the last 5 years), was constantly questioned by our media as to how ‘original’ her decisions as a middle aged women to a) not have children, and b) not be married. The French respect clear divides between work, home, and play. Bill Maher has a great quote about the French where he says, “they have weird ideas about privacy: they think it should be private”.

The French are notoriously emotional characters, and they all have their individual philosophical ideas about why we’re on this earth. They understand that by nature we are complex and curious animals, and that we don’t always know what we want. They were raised to be open and comfortable with their body, and don’t have the same negative stigmas in their sexual decisions as we do in Australia. I’m not saying I prefer France’s ‘liberté’ mentality per se, because hearts are very much still getting broken; but I just think they’re generally more h onest . We are not as sexually free in Australia because our society has an undeniable power over us when it comes to sex. The big anglo beast has completely capitalised on sexuality and has turned it into something it was never meant to be. Even as a Scorpio myself, I have felt like a prude in France, and this is a direct reflection of my social conditioning in Australia. If you think the French are sex­ crazed hooligans, you need to remind yourself of our questionable anglo expressions such as ‘one night stand’, a ‘booty call’, a ‘hookup’, ‘dating’, a ‘DUFF’, a ‘MILF’, ‘a 10’, ‘marriage material’, etc. You’ll be disappointed to know that there is absolutely no translation for these expressions in French. And tell me, which countries in the world lost their housewives to that ‘erotic’ fiction novel, 50 shades of Grey? You can understand that when the book was made into a film in France, it didn’t break the box office. 50 Shades of Grey does not fit France’s genre of ‘erotica’, and that’s why anyone over 12 years old could watch it at the cinemas. The CNC’s president Jean-­Francois Mary called the film, “more of a romance, we could rather call it a ‘bleuette’, rather a sentimental tale” he said. Vive la France. 

Monday, 9 May 2016

"Berlin is so not what it used to be. Now it's all about Leipzig. You probably haven't heard of it. You probably wouldn't like it."

On my third day in Berlin, I couldn't help but think that i’d come to the city too late. Not because I was expecting it to be the anarchist anti-authoritarian city run by the punks that it’d seen it be in documentaries from the 90s, but because Berlin already didn't like me. “Berlin doesn't love you” wrote stickers on the walls. Other signs in marker pen around Kreuzberg wrote “NO tourists”, or, “NO hipsters”, or even “NO hipsters- especially not the US kind”. Savage. Ever since things like David Bowie’s stamp of approval on the city in the 70s, and VICE’s weekly article on Berlin’s “edgy underground club scene”, the city has accumulated an undeniable international hype. The buzz of Berlin has given hungry hipsters around the world a head spin as they drool at the online Berlin apartment listings with key point selling words like: ‘the new Kreuzberg’, promising walkable distance to upcoming art galleries and vegan restaurants. After all the holiday recounts by friends, films, and articles I've read on Berlin, the common denominator has always been how ‘unpretentiously cool’ the city is, and it always sounded so intriguing to me how those two adjectives could co-exist side by side.

I did Berlin with one of my closest friends from Perth, Luke. Standing at a U-bahn stop (Berlin’s very efficient inner-city railway system) on our first day, I realised that something wasn't right. Coming straight to Berlin from previously visiting family in Turkey and Greece, I looked down to see that I was still wearing my tan coloured sandals and white linen pants. It seemed like I was the only person not dressed in all black at the U-bahn stop.
“We should go opshopping,” I turned to Luke as we waited for our tram, “I’ve packed for the Mediterranean, not the Baltic”. Waiting at the same U-bahn stop the next day after a successful session of opshopping, I was finally dressed in head to toe black, just like everyone else at the U-bahn, right in the middle of summer. The style of fashion in East Berlin has a very celebrated, yet unspoken about aesthetic. When a collective of people are trying so hard to look like their not trying, there is an underlying pressure that you feel is being disguised. It’s like the paradox of Kreuzberg’s Hipster folk going to tremendous lengths to look original, but all end up looking the same. I was told by friends that in Berlin "you can get away with anything", but it seemed as if my white linen pants and sandals were an exception. Now without sounding like Carrie Bradshaw; I couldn't of helped but wondered at the time if Berlin’s hype of being ‘unpretentiously cool’ was destined to fail based on intent?

My sleeping in Berlin was done on a friends couch that I knew from university in Perth, who was studying in Berlin for a year. One afternoon he took me to his favourite coffee shop in Neukölln where we couldn't stop hearing Australian accents. We drank our coffee on the outdoor patio and said hello to the Australians sitting next us. Before we could ask them what they were doing in Berlin, they told us they were DJ’s from Sydney, and that this was their 3rd year in Berlin. Their monochrome XXXL large t-shirts were distracting on their skinny hard-partied looking bodies and hollow cheeks. Little did I know that this was the case for most expats that i'd speak to in the city. Every time I got into conversation with expats in Berlin, dressed in their soft-grudge sport-lux attire of course, they would inform me that they were either DJ’s, photographers, graphic designers, or some other freelancing artistic title that was the trendiest of that week. It’s the same group of people who lead the conflicting, yet increasingly fashionable lifestyle, of eating kale salads and drinking soy lattes during the day, but smoke a whole packet of cigarettes in the evening. The same ones who will rant for hours about making a difference to the planet if they see you sporting a plastic bag, but they’ll happily snort the white stuff fuelling the bloodbath that is Mexico’s drug cartel war. The ones who would never have a smartphone because they detest the increasingly luxury driven consumerist world, but they'll firmly remind you of their middle class status when you see a Macbook sitting on their desk in their apartment. It’s the ones who'll tell you that it's the expats who are ruining Berlin, but they’re an exception because they’re just, “here to like, help niche my art, and like, discover to who I am, man”.