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Monday, March 21, 2011

Where Are You From?

When I have given tours over the last three plus years, one of the first questions that I ask my clients is "where are you from?" Once I find out, I try and think of something I know about that place, or someone I know from there, or maybe even some tidbit that has been in the news lately pertaining to their locale. Occasionally, we are able to make some connection, which can make things a lot more interesting when some common bond is established. Over the last few years, some truly bizarre connections have been made on my tours. For example, I met one lady who grew up in the same small town in rural West Virginia as my mother, and went to the same school, though she was a year older than her and I don't think they knew each other. I've met people that went to the same small college as I did in Colorado. I've met people who grew up in the same town as me, and on one occasion, as soon as I mentioned that I was from St. Louis, somebody in a large group suddenly recognized me from high school. These are just a few examples, as this seems to happen fairly often over here in Paris.

Establishing connections is a field in which Americans seem to excel. As soon as we meet somebody, if a good feeling between them exists, they might even tell some intimate details of their life to someone they just met an hour before. In finding out where someone is from and a little about them, one might find out that they possess similar interests, or perhaps they might work in the same field, or vacation in the same places. It seems to me that a majority of the jobs found in the U.S. today are found by having some sort of connection with someone who is working or has worked for a company, or has a family member or good friend that is in the certain field of interest. It was how I moved to Paris in the first place.

When I took a tour with my former company in 2005, after the guide had explained the first stop, he happened to ask me that question: "Where are you from?". I told him, and it turned out that he happened to be from Missouri as well. We talked off and on about Missouri throughout the tour, and by then end, I mentioned (half-jokingly), "Maybe I'll see you over here as a guide." He immediately told me about how to get a job here, and a little more than two years later, I was back in Paris, working as a tour guide for the same company.

In the U.S., connections seem to mean everything. Connections certainly get you places in other parts of the world as well. However, in France, connections are much harder to establish.

Last year, I returned to the U.S. for a job interview, and was stuck for a few extra days because of the volcanic ash floating over parts of Europe. I flew to Saint Louis while I was waiting, since I had no idea when I would be so close to home again. On my first day back, I returned to the airport to try and work on my plane ticket to return to Paris. As I was standing in line at the American Airlines ticket counter, I noticed that the lady standing in front of me was speaking in French on her cell phone, and it sounded like she was trying to go back to Paris herself. I was thrilled since outside of French class in high school, I had only heard French being spoken maybe once or twice in Saint Louis, and now I could speak it well enough to actually have a conversation with her in line! I was almost shaking with excitement to get the chance to speak with her.

Finally we were standing close enough where I could be heard, and I asked in French if she was trying to head back to Paris. Turns out she indeed was trying to get back after being stuck for close to a week already. I told her that I was trying to go back as well, and being American and wanting to get more familiar and talk about Paris, I told her that I lived in the 15ème. She became noticeably uncomfortable by my telling her in which arrondissement I live. Fortunately, the two people standing behind her also happened to be French, and cut into the conversation and saved the uncomfortable silence I had created by crossing into forbidden territory.

Example two: Julie and I were in Boston, watching my brother play a hockey game at Boston University. I went to order a bottle of water at the concession stand, and judging by the name tag and the vendor's accent, I asked her in French if she happened to be French. It turns out she was French. I was so excited about this, I called to Julie to come over and meet her, so they could maybe talk together. Julie seemed very timid about it, and when I turned to look, the vendor seemed uncomfortable as well. Neither one would ask details about the other, so I decided to tell the girl about where we have lived there. It turned out that the girl had lived a block or two away from Julie's old apartment. Afterwards, I thought the coincidence was crazy that this could happen in Boston. Julie and the vendor, however, seemed happy that the encounter was over.

Example three: When I first went to Auvergne in central France, I was taken to a bar owned by Julie's cousin. In the bar, there were maybe 15-20 people, who most likely were all cousins of Julie as well (this seems to happen a lot in small towns in France, and a lot of times, the people aren't even sure if they are related or not). We did our rounds and said hello to everyone in the bar. As I shook everyone's hand or kissed them on the cheek, I told them my name. Not one of them told me their name in return. Finally by the 10th person, somebody told me "You don't have to tell us your name." Slightly embarrassed, I continued greeting the rest of the patrons of the bar in silence.

Example four: I have been getting my hair cut in Paris by the same guy for the past two years. Every time I come in, he seems really excited to see me as he is trying to teach himself English, and in a part of Paris where few English speakers venture, he doesn't get much of an opportunity. He always shakes my hand, greets me warmly, and then, as he cuts my hair, we talk about things since the last time we saw each other, and give each other pointers in French and English. I like him so much, I sent an email to my old colleagues and told them about him, and that he would love to practice English with whoever wanted an inexpensive but good haircut.

A couple of people did ask me about him, and asked me his name and how to find him.

I had no idea. In the two years I have known him, neither of us has thought to introduce ourselves.

This doesn't mean that we don't get along or aren't friendly. However, in France there seems to be more protection about intruding into someone's private life. For example, almost all apartments have shutters that close over the windows, which can make apartments pitch black even in the middle of the day. Houses in the countryside have fences and stone walls that surround their gardens or property. In France, younger people are more likely to introduce themselves by name when greeting someone than the older population might be, but it is not necessary awkward if you don't show much interest in getting to know someone. As a result, it appears connections are less likely to occur when meeting someone for the first time in France compared to many English speaking countries. Whereas in the United States, when introduced to someone we almost feel obliged to ask for more details regarding someone's hometown or occupation, occasionally to the point of superficiality. Contrastingly, the French don't feel the pressure to ask certain questions that almost seem obligatory to ask in other parts of the world.

In speaking with a few French people about how we get jobs and find friends like this in the U.S., many times I've been told that things like that just don't happen here. With this knowledge, it is a little easier to see why.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at

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