Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Notes on Paris

I return!

I’d like to blame Paris for my long absence, but that would be totally untrue. Or, rather, only partially true. Yes, I was gone for more than a week, and yes, there was a lot to catch up on when I came back, but that’s not entirely it. What Paris really did was fill my head up with images of gorgeous young Parisians and gorgeous old architecture, and I’ve spent every second when I haven’t been at either job...well, thinking.

Yes, thinking. I don’t do it so often. (Practically not at all, according to some people.) But there’s nothing like going to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and spending hours upon hours each day in museums to make your brain go haywire, and I mean that in the best way possible, but it’s still unsettling.

I’ve had a lot to think about.

People Watching: On Ethnicity

American truly is the world’s melting pot. Blending of cultures and ethnicities is happening more and more the world over, but not half to the degree that it happens here in the States. It was a shock to be in France and clearly be able to see one’s country of origin stamped on one’s forehead. I was in a club in Eastern Paris down by the river, the Pont Ephemre, and was talking to a nice boy, and he said, very early in the conversation,

“So where do you think I am from?”

“Paris?” I guessed.

He shook his head sadly. “Tunisia,” he said, almost apologetically.

Like, “I just want you to know NOW that I’m not very respected here.” Like, “American girl, you may be the only girl in the club who is talking to me right now because the rest of these girls are from Paris and they won’t give me the time of day. I just wanted you to know so you could leave if you wanted.” Up until then it had never occurred to me that other countries in the world—even Western European countries that the U.S. gets along with, such as France—still have a class system. Yes, we certainly have racial and economic strife here in the States, but it is entirely different from the rigid structure in Europe.

Several days later, my hotel manager was telling me a story about going out with a lady friend of his and leaving her outside McDonald’s to finish her cigarette, only to come out and find her surrounded by Parisian roughs giving her a hard time. The minute he showed up on the scene, though, they showed hesitation. “Look at him, he’s North African,” said one. “What are you? Tunisian or Algerian?” said another. “I’m Algerian,” he said. “Get lost.”

They left. The North Africans have a reputation. To me, Maissy—the hotel manager—was just a dark-haired cutie who spoke three languages. He could have been Spanish, French, possibly Italian. Parisians clearly saw that he was Algerian.

It blew me away. Once I realized that Parisians could read faces the way I can read a book, I started to make the effort to read features and decipher accents. Maissy’s French was clearly more mumbled and less nasal than Parisian French, once I started to listen for it, and there was also a difference in class structure between Parisians—some deliveries were more subdued, some were more forward, some were more mumbled, some had sharper accents. All Parisian French was incredibly nasal, just like the stereotype. Amsterdam Dutch, on the other hand, sounds a great deal like American English except you can’t understand a word. German sounds more like British English—the speech pattern and lack of R pronunciation makes German and Queen’s English sound more like a caricature than real life, to these American ears. (Possibly due entirely to watching Beerfest.)

I had a difficult time distinguishing between Italians and Spaniards, in spite of all of my unabashed people-watching (read: staring). The two languages even sound so similar that many times I’d be eavesdropping and wondering why I couldn’t understand a single word, and it would take me fifteen minutes at least to realize they were speaking Italian.

Tomorrow: Paris Fashion!


L-T said...

Assorted Thoughts, in No Particular Order:

Accents are just like languages; some people can hear them and some just don't pick up on them. For an example, listen for the "PNW" accent.

Spanish is never just Spanish; it's more dialectic than than many languages. Listen to a South American compared to a Cuban or a someone from Madrid compared to someone from Barcelona (when they're speaking Spanish, not Catalan)--it's easier to hear the difference than it is to hear the difference between English spoken in the north and in the south of...well..England.

As for the ability to read a "class" of a nationality, there are Indians at the B, right? Ever seen them interact? You can definitely tell the difference between the old caste system levels even when they're interacting with a Westerner. You may not pick up on it until its pointed out to you, but I see it everyday (now). We do a lot of outsourcing to Indian companies, and have several full time employees, and a good friend pointed it out once. Fascinating, truly.

And Italians: they only speak in rorty V-12s and boisterous V-twins, right?

T-town Girl said...

I was actually going to leave you a comment chiding you for not posting but here you are with a fresh post! And a very interesting one at that.

Aarwenn said...

Hi T-Town: Thank you!

Hi LT: Excellent point about Indians at B. I will watch for it.