Even though Paris wakes up late, and even though my standard of what constitutes “early” has thus changed a bit, I still like it when I am awake before everyone else. When the streets are still sleepy, wet from the overnight cleaners; when the silence of slumber still permeates the air; when the sidewalks are not so crowded that I have to jump and dodge my fellow pedestrians: for me, the early mornings are when Paris is at its most peaceful.
This is particularly true for the street upon which I temporarily reside. Rue du Faubourg du Temple, stretching from the sculpture of Marianne at the Place de la République and transforming eventually into Rue de Belleville, is a hawkish, busy place, full of boucheries, Asian restaurants, and stores selling cheap goods. It was after arriving here that I learned this is considered “Little Chinatown” (as opposed to the actual Chinatown across the river).
Overall, I like it. There is a lovely park nearby that is always filled with families and lovers. The canal winds its way through the streets, providing both direction for times when I am lost and a gathering spot for picnics and wine. The menus are printed only in French, and tourists – from what I can tell – don’t really venture this direction.
People have different impressions of Belleville itself, though, which ventures into four different arrondissements. When I have asked around to different acquaintances about how safe this area is, I get a range of responses, everything from, “You’re fine,” to “Avoid the Métro when it’s late,” to “Don’t go out at night until your brother gets there.” (My mom’s sweet advice.)
And then there’s my favorite. “Well, I mean, be smart,” a friend said. “But it’s not like the States. It’s not like everyone has guns.”
The first time I heard this, I had to clarify. “Wait, you think we all carry guns?”
“Well, not all of you,” she responded. “But enough.”
Since that conversation, I’ve heard this from several Europeans. I find myself trying to explain that the gun situation is a complicated one, and that I don’t feel constantly unsafe in my country, and that – yes, I am sad too, and no, I don’t get it either. Beyond that, I’m not sure what to tell them, when they bring up the shootings in Newtown, or Columbine, or Aurora. I read today that we have another one, in Kansas at a Jewish Community Center, making the news. Some things leave me at a loss for words.
It’s an interesting thing to realize how I am seen, as an American – what myths (and truths) are written upon me before I even open my mouth. Mostly, the reaction is positive, as people immediately start talking, almost always fondly, of times when they’ve visited the States. They talk about how friendly the people are, how they enjoyed memorable meals, how hard it is to get around without a car. They tell me how much they’re looking forward to returning.
Inevitably, they tell me about the TV shows they watch. Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Real Housewives of ________ County, Veep, and – by far the most popular, at least judging by my conversations – House of Cards. What’s funny is that I’ve never seen a single episode of any of these, and I’m so far removed from current TV that I actually had to Google the names of a couple of these shows while writing this paragraph.
“Did you see the one where…?” a new friend will enthusiastically exclaim, and I listen to the rest of the sentence with dread, knowing I’ll have to sooner or later admit that I don’t even own a TV. In the business of making friends in a foreign country, after all, I’m trying to stack my own house of cards in my favor; alienating anyone because I don’t watch a favorite show is not my idea of a good time. But I do it, and they look at me with confusion, and I try to make amends by telling them that not only do I follow Mad Men on the internet, I also very much enjoy a reality show or two when visiting friends. Disbelief follows: eyes widened, head shaking, momentarily silenced. I should probably mention that I watched a mini-marathon of Friends episodes on the flight over here.
Of course all of this brings up the question about what it means to perceive someone else as a representative of his or her country. I say this as someone who is proud to be an American, and as someone who knows that my nation is both troubled and wonderful. I think it’s better to welcome an honest conversation about that, and to learn from others about their perceptions of me, than to turn away or become frustrated. It makes me recognize that I have some of my own ideas about people, too, and this is all a good reminder to stop and listen. (Perhaps I will even collaborate in between.)
So if being an American means that I live up to these two stereotypes – owning a gun, watching a lot of TV – I guess I’m not a very good countrywoman. I haven’t mentioned that I also don’t really eat fast food, either. I can’t imagine what that will do to their ideas of Americans.
At least, though, I can tell them that I do get up early, put on my running shoes, and enjoy the dark and empty streets of the City of Light before most Parisians have even hit the snooze button. Surely, in the world of how we categorize and recognize each other, that has to count for something.