Stairs and Stares: The Little Differences Between Paris and Los Angeles

The main reason I moved to Paris from LA was for change. We wanted France’s specific brand of difference, but after working and living the same way for over a decade, I was down just to feel anything different, no matter what it was. This is a pretty clutch perspective to have going into a new city, country, culture, as it helps you to be okay with the millions of differences that throw you off as you try to complete even the most mundane of daily tasks.

Some differences are good, like affordable-to-free healthcare, amazing bread, and seven weeks paid vacation. Some suck, like dog shit everywhere, not a lot of elevators, and no Mexican food. But overall, I think we’re net positive as far as the transition goes, and we’re enjoying the way all those little differences are still discernable, adding texture to our daily lives.

That said, there are some odd differences that never ocurred to me to be ready for when we moved, which I’ve assembled into a tidy list for those of us “list people.” I’m big on caveats because I was a fact-checker at one time, so I should caveat by saying that I am comparing only to Los Angeles, not the US as a whole. LA and California are their own unique little beasts or snowflakes compared to the rest of the US, and honestly, I think I don’t know a thing about my country, but I do know LA. With that said…

Speaking of Change… Change

In LA, I had a cheeseburger piggy bank that someone gave me for my 28th birthday, and I put all loose change into it for years. Quarters went into my car for metered parking or the pinball machines at Walt’s Bar on Eagle Rock Blvd. Those are the only viable uses for change in Los Angeles. Maybe also leveling a table at a cafe.

But in Paris? You use every last cent in Paris. Five 20 cent pieces will buy you a baguette. A few more, and you have a coffee. People ask you if you have exact change to make life easier for them. Meanwhile in LA (and I’ve also heard, NY), there are stores that only take cards. I had to switch from a full-sized wallet to a tiny coinpurse just because of the change entering my life. Also because when I was pickpocketed I realized I needed a less-grabable wallet.

Dirty Hands

Because we no longer drive, we are always outside, interacting with the world without the protective barrier of a car window. I never realized how many things I would touch in the course of a day, and how many of those things are kind of gross. You touch doors and Metro handles and poles and scuzzy bathroom doors. I’ve never been a germophobe or one to carry hand sanitizer, but I had to break down eventually and buy some. This realization became even more real after the corona virus outbreak, but we’ll get to that later.

The lovely metro. So simple. So useful. So full of germs.

Slow Grocery Lines

America is big on not waiting for anything, no matter what. If there are more than two people in line to checkout at the grocery store, it signals abysmal operations at that store, an inept management, a lazy checker. For this reason, once the lines get more than 2-deep, another checker is called to open up a lane. In France, literally no one cares if lines are long. There are only three cash registers at grocery stores anyway, and I’ve never seen more than one open, even on the busines days. At first I was shocked and like an American, reflected on the poor management of the store. Then I just got used to it. Then I began to love that I’m no longer in a rush.

Stairs

Want a better butt? Move to Paris. Even if I abandoned my car in LA, I could go weeks without climbing a single stair, let alone the five flights to my own front door.

Jokes aside, the lack of elevators here, even in stores and Metros, is actually almost criminal–how is a person with limited mobility supposed to get around? I tried to research what the government does to help these people, but can only find info for how tourists with limited mobility can get around.

Stairs in Montmartre.

Stares

People here stare at you and don’t even feel bad about it. Maybe it’s healthier than the LA I-am-staring-at-you-but-I-don’t-want-you-to-know-unless-maybe-you’re-interested type of staring. At least it’s not hidden, but it was very awkward for me for the first few months.

At first I thought it was just me–I have black hair and olive skin but can look like I hail anywhere from Southeast Asia to South America to Italy (I’m a weird mix of Mexican, Spanish, Irish, Northern European, various other anglo origins, more Irish than I realized until my parents did 23 And Me). People get confused in LA, so obviously they’d be even more confused in Paris where most people look… French. My husband let me know it’s just a thing people do here and it didn’t necessarily reflect on me at all. I read up on it and found others had also noticed it, and had heard that it doesn’t even have to signal romantic interest, they just might be curious about you. I’ve grown to like it because now if someone has a coat I like or an interesting face, I can just stare at them and not feel badly about it.

Carry Everything

In LA, your car is your office, backpack, locker, mobile carrier of life stuff. It has shoes, hand cream, gym attire, emergency food, an emergency novel, water, a blanket, a flashlight if you’re smart, chargers–anything you might need throughout your day. In Paris, everyone walks around with at least two or three bags. Most women have their purse, plus a canvas tote that serves as their locker. They may also need it in case they buy something during the day and they need a “sac” for it. If I was going to be away for several hours either working or at French classes, I had to bring a backpack for all of that life stuff and carry it on my back. I guess it’s better for my health than hauling it around in my car, but it took some time to even realize how much stuff one needs in a day, now that it’s not all at ones disposal in the parking lot.

Sleeping In

I never realized LA was such an early city. We’d wake up at 9am on a weekend and lament that it was already too late to get a table at Sqirl and that Civil Coffee would already be full of tourists by the time we got there. I’d wake up at 6:30am on weekdays and be out the door by 7:30am to get to work, home by 7pm, bed by 10pm to do it all again the next day. Now I sleep until 9am and maybe don’t even finish dinner until 10pm–I don’t even recognize myself.

Lack of Productions

In LA it’s very normal to experience traffic down a main thoroughfare due to a show or movie filming nearby, blocking part of the street. Certain neighborhoods get used consistently for certain eras or stand-ins for other parts of the country consistently. UCLA is any IVY league school. WeHo is always for metatheatrical shows about the industry. Highland Park is a small town, or it’s just Highland Park if they’re filming Maron. South Pas is the East Coast or anything from the ’50s or ’60s. You hardly bat an eye if you see a local store covered in blackout tarps with white trucks surrounding it, you just know.

I didn’t expect it to feel odd that there’s never any filming in Paris. If anything, that should be more normal. But I realized that anytime there is a lot of equipment somewhere blocking the way, a lot of lights, or a loud explosion, I just assume it’s part of a production. My brain literally guesses the interference is part of a false reality before it even contemplates that it’s a real thing–that’s weird.

The charcoal latte from Wild and the Moon. Yes, it’s ridiculous, but it’s one of the only coffees that can make me feel like I’m in LA.

I’m gonna say it: there’s no good coffee

There I said it. Okay, okay, saying there is absolutely no good coffee is a bit extreme. There are places that are roasting or coffee-focused and make decent coffee. But LA, and many other major US cities boast exquisite coffee opportunities on every corner. They offer nuanced beans prepared a variety of ways. You can get a lavender latte that tastes so good it justifies its silly existence. You can buy cold brew that would breathe life back into a corpse. The Starbucks in Paris doesn’t even do cold brew and the iced coffee is barely worth the small price tag. I got a charcoal latte at Wild and the Moon once just to feel like I was in Los Angeles for a few minutes. It was close, but no cigar.

Waiting Four Months For My Boxes To Arrive to Paris From Los Angeles: I Lived It

When we began planning our move to Paris, my husband and I were all about that minimalist life. We were going to unburden ourselves of so much random stuff we had accumulated having lived in the same city–in my case–since birth. We were going to keep things simple, be less materialistic, spend less, pick up and go where we want, when we want. We felt smugly weightless, relative to the LA versions of ourselves anyway.

1/3 of our earthly shit went to friends and Goodwill. 1/3 of it, mostly my antiques and random old stuff I couldn’t let go of (if you’ve ever sent me a holiday card, it might be included in this category), we sent to Make Space, a service I highly recommend. The final 1/3 was going to come with us to Paris, first into a truck, then onto a boat, then onto another truck, then to an apartment we didn’t yet have. This was mostly my clothes, cooking stuff, books and records we deemed essential, and decorative pieces I liked enough to bring. Oh, and a couch, coffee table, and two chairs, because we were going to have to buy those anyway so if we’re shipping stuff, why not go for it.

I am not known for being an optimistic person. I had a friend in 8th grade who deemed me a pessimistic optimist at best, which I suppose is a more nuanced way to say I am a realist and reality kind of sucks, doesn’t it? That said, I had some kind of psychic hunch, maybe a naive hope that our boxes would arrive NO LATER than two months from the time we saw the moving truck drive away. It was September 16, and I was even a little bit nervous that the movers might arrive in Paris while I was back in LA for Thanksgiving. This is an actual thing that I worried about.

We packed only clothes, a few toiletries, four plastic plates, two tin mugs, and a camping knife to hold us over until our boxes arrived. It was 100 degrees in LA in September, but we packed some winter options because Paris is cold. I packed LA winter clothes because I only know LA winters. I packed the backless black mules I lived in back in LA, as well as some rattan mules that went with every outfit. I packed high heeled boots that were a mainstay for me the previous winter. I took a few sweaters out of my suitcase because it was getting heavy, and I could live without them for two months. I was a fool.

Fall hit Paris two days after we arrived. I realized all the trends the girls my age were wearing were composed of articles of clothing I owned that were now on a boat, so I pledged not to buy anything. By the end of October, I had to break my resolution because it was already low-forties and none of my jackets had seen 50F before. I held out on buying more than one coat though, because of my feeling that the container would arrive by mid-November.

The plastic plates that we brought to our partially furnished apartment got us through several months.

Then on November 1 I received an email from a clerk in Holland that said our stuff had left New York ten days earlier. I’d assumed it was already being offloaded in Rotterdam, but no, it had been sitting back in the US as the seasons changed in Paris. Quick mental math of ocean travel + customs + truck to Paris + bureaucracy meant we would not have our things until the end of winter. I just wanted a jacket. Maybe some books. A proper spatula. Some more scarf options.

I went back to LA for Thanksgiving, and the irony of traveling from LA to Paris, back to LA before any of my things arrived was not lost. It was such a joy to have extra blankets, more than one coffee mug, scented candles at my disposal. To be honest, it was a joy to find joy in such simple things. There’s probably a lesson in here about appreciation, family being all we need in life, but I’ll tell you there is also a lesson about how much a good a ladle is worth.

Two months crawled by with very few updates, so it was only natural to assume the container would arrive while we were out of town for Christmas, because that’s just how the universe works; it messes with us. The next mental milestone was the four month mark, so I just assumed for the sake of comedy that anniversary would come and go without a word from the shippers. A friend told us his stuff was gone for four months and he had to hassle the moving company for an update on his shipment, which had been lost. Clearly we were in for the same lot.

As soon as I reconciled myself to this sad reality, we of course received an email that our things could be delivered in three days if we were available. Hell yes, we were available. One mover carried up all of our boxes, one by one, and in just three hours, it was done. We had salad bowls and full-sized towels and sheets.

I’m whining, because I whine, but honestly at worst it was just a bit uncomfortable and cold. I had two sweaters that were adequate for the weather, and now I’m wearing a black mock-neck sweater in all photos of me from the first four months we were in Paris. We dried off with hand towels because I wasn’t going to spend full price on bath towels when we had four in the container. We used one camping knife for everything. We ate salad from a pan. People are dying of that Coronavirus in China, so I won’t complain at length for the amusing inconvenience that is moving internationally, just provide some level-setting of expectations and tips. The situation was a pebble in our shoe, inconvenient but livable.

Having lived through this mild quarter-year annoyance, I’ve compiled a list of EXACTLY what you should bring with you should you be moving long distance and waiting for your belongings to arrive. Some are self explanatory, others not so much, so I will elucidate:

  • Clothes/Jackets: you do you, but bring less than you think you need and be realistic about weather. You won’t regret only bringing neutral colors, and you’ll be the smartest person in the room if you only bring black
  • Shoes: Again, be realistic about weather and bring less than you think you need
  • Bags: Again, you do you but don’t forget shopping bags since plastic bags are illegal everywhere and you’re going to hate buying a new reusables when you have 28 of them packed in your moving boxes
  • Skincare and meds: You’re also going to hate spending money on this stuff which is likely packed in a box that says “bathroom” on the side. And your skin will freak out as soon as you move
  • Plastic or tin plate, cup, mug, and one set of utensils per person to hold you over until your stuff arrives
  • Pillow cases: will you be shuffling between Airbnbs for weeks when you arrive? Is that pillow you’re using actually clean?
  • Corkscrew, scissors, screwdriver: or just bring a single Swiss Army Knife or a multi-tool. You won’t regret it
  • Hot sauce: if you’re moving to Europe or to a place that does not typically use a lot of hot sauce, bring hot sauce
  • ¬†Patience, lol

Pre-Move Bias: French Meals

Americans romanticize the idea of French food and French leisure, and I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m not guilty of doing the same. There is a thrill to sitting and savoring an aesthetically pleasing meal at an aesthetically pleasing cafe in an aesthetically pleasing outfit that somehow feels even more thrilling as it flies in the face of American efficiency and utility. Plus, the fact that the French aren’t even trying to be so chill makes it all the more cool. As an American and diagnosed anxious, I have no such chill.

The first few times I had lunch or dinner with my husband’s friends or family, the novelty of the slow pace, many courses, and bottomless stomachs were simultaneously adorable and enviable. Because my husband is legit French, he never told me about how it would be when I arrived at a friend’s house for lunch–this was all normal to him. This made it all the more fun to discover, hour by hour, just how much savoring these people are capable of. Let me walk you through it.

I arrived at my first French meal at about 1pm in a cute Venice neighborhood in LA. (Unrelated, and don’t ask me to explain why, but many French expats in LA live in Venice.) I define this as a French lunch not because of the cuisine, but because the hosts and most guests were French, therefore the style of the lunch was the same. To be honest, I don’t remember what we ate–that’s not the point anyway.

Upon arrival, nothing is in process, but no one is rushing to begin. Everyone is fully focused on converations and sipping on G&Ts. This continued for quite some time, until one person reminded the group of our reason for the assembly–eating–and that we should get started. Instead of the hosts now falling over themselves to set table, grill protein, make a salad all on their own while guests sat around guesting, everyone in attendance just began executing tasks. Because there are very singular ways to do things in France (more to come on this in a future post), no one has to ask “how do you want the dressing made?” or “should the bread be grilled?” or “do you want this on the table?” They all just know the proper way to make vinegarette and which utencils are used for which course.

A dinner I made when we were in Annecy.

Not being in the know, I kind of put around where possible, make mistakes like putting the cheese out too soon, fail to give everyone a butter knife, etc. I’ve learned to fake it better since then, and find I am good at clearing the table after the meal as this is a universal task. After about 25 minutes of frenzied effort from everyone in the house, boom, the meal is totally done being prepared and we all sit down. Very slowly. Once everyone has taken a seat, no one began to eat for a few minutes more, until all conversations wound down. They all sat and acted like there wasn’t food in front of their faces. Maybe they didn’t notice and that’s why they’re all skinny. I usually drink a full glass of water waiting for everyone to sit down because my stomach is gnawing at itself but I can’t start until someone says “bon app.”

The passing begins the same way it does in the US, everyone takes food and kind of waits for everyone to be done serving before they begin eating. Something I love is how much food the French take–they really go for it, the women too. They make enough food to really get down, they have seconds, they keep making you have seconds because wasting food is a sin and leftover culture is not really a thing. Also, you can’t signal too loudly that you’re off carbs or watching your waistline with the French–it’s gauche to show too much effort in any task. If you’re dieting or working out or staying late at work, it doesn’t mean you’re a martyr we’re all in awe of, it means you must NEED to put in that extra effort and wow what a schmuck you are. I love this rule. Eat the damn ravioli.

I remember distinctly that this meal was the first time that I ate too much of the main because I had no idea of how many courses would follow. They kept urging me to eat so I ate to capacity, assuming I’d be in my car driving back across town in twenty minutes. Nope. Next comes an approximately fifteen minute talking hiatus where the host kind of picks at their plate and finishes their story and I as an American have to stare at the bookshelf because I have no idea what anyone was saying. Then someone grabs the cheese: there will always be three cheeses, and don’t you dare slice them first because you will do it wrong and everyone will judge you. All guests eat a ton more bread and I have to find room in my stomach to sample this cheese which was naturally the best cheese I’ve ever had while in LA. I recall one Frenchman saying “this will be so good in two weeks” and I’m shocked at that dairy timeline.

If you think you’re done because it’s now 2:30 and you’re stuffed, you’re wrong. Next, everyone poured another drink, and all adults went out and had a cigarette. This was freaking amazing to me, it was just so damn novel. Certainly cigarettes must mean the meal has come to a close and we’re all moving on from food to smoke? No, just another break. Next comes the dessert, which in this case was Cuban pastries because that’s what my boyfriend and I brought. I thought we brought enough, but the five French in attendance demolished them so quickly, I felt a bit embarassed. There was less of a break after the dessert, but the next stage of course was coffee, usually made painstakingly with a French press, poured into thick ceramic cups, no cream or sugar offered because they all knew how one another drank it. Note to the reader: sometimes before coffee there will also be a fruit course, and during coffee there might be chocolate passed around. The main takeaway should be not to eat too much of the main course.

Our typical Monday night dinner.

Once everything is eaten and all plates are put into the dishwasher, everyone has to sit and talk for another half an hour to be polite. I always begin complaining that I’m tired during the coffee to hopefully signal to my now husband that I’m going to explode if I don’t get some introvert time on my own soon, not that this ever speeds up our exit.

I’m sure you can tell from my snark that this style was novel at first, glorious even, but can be maddening if you just want a quick bite so you can get to bed after a long day or you didn’t know what you were getting yourself into. At my wedding, the Americans who did not read the FAQ were dumbfounded when we sat for four hours at the table as three huge courses crept past us by very slow staff. If you have all the time in the world and know what’s coming, it’s a refreshing way to have a meal that makes you rethink the speed with which we do everything in the US. If you’re jetlagged and want to go home, maybe feign illness and stop by McDo.